The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) remains one of the tensest and heavily fortified border areas in the world. The DMZ runs along the vicinity of the 38th parallel, which served as the de facto border between the two Korea’s following the division of the Korean Peninsula in the aftermath of the Second World War. The official border between the North and the South – the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) – was established as part of the armistice that ended the fighting during the Korean War, and the DMZ serves as a buffer zone along both sides of the MDL. The DMZ is 4 km (2.5 miles) wide – two kilometers on either side of the MDL – and is approximately 250 km (160 miles) long. The DMZ is roughly 160 km southeast of Pyongyang, and is about 48 km north of Seoul.
The opposing sides of the DMZ are some of the most heavily fortified areas in the world, exemplifying the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean side of the DMZ in particular is very heavily militarized, with a high percentage of North Korea’s armed forces forward deployed to within tens of miles of the DMZ. This forward deployment helps support a likely North Korean military strategy that favors quick action and rapid offensives in the event of a major armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korean Military Strategy
The DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) remains one of the world’s largest standing militaries, with roughly 1.3 million active-duty personnel in its ranks. Despite its size, the KPA’s combat potential is significantly undermined by a lack of modern equipment, and much of its inventory is made up of Cold War-era weapons systems. This has resulted in a major qualitative disadvantage for the KPA when compared to the armed forces of both South Korea and the United States.
This qualitative deficiency has shaped North Korean military strategy in such a way as to make preemptive military action an attractive option. Should a conflict break out, North Korea will likely seek to bring about an early termination of hostilities on terms favorable to it through rapid escalation of the conflict. Early in a conflict, North Korea is likely to attempt to seize the initiative and launch rapid, blitzkrieg-style attacks in order to present a fait accompli to U.S.-ROK Alliance forces. In addition, North Korea may implement something akin to an “escalate to deescalate” strategy with which it will look to end any conflict before its military gains can be undone or before its military is overwhelmed by its superior adversaries. In any conflict, North Korea will look to achieve its objectives before follow-on U.S. forces can be introduced, and will also prioritize the destruction of facilities that allow for the introduction of those forces such as ports and airbases.
North Korean Forward Deployment
Given the North Korean military strategy’s emphasis on quick action and rapid offensives following the outbreak of a major military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the KPA has chosen to forward deploy a high percentage of its military assets to within tens of miles of the DMZ. An estimated 70 percent of North Korea’s ground forces and roughly 50 percent of its air and naval forces have been deployed within 60 miles of the DMZ.
The 70 percent of the KPA ground forces deployed in close proximity to the DMZ represents a significant combat force. The KPA maintains four infantry corps along the DMZ in its first strategic echelon. The second strategic echelon – established slightly further from the DMZ – includes the KPA Ground Force’s mechanized corps along with armored brigades and additional infantry units.
In addition, the KPA maintains a large number of artillery assets arrayed along the DMZ. North Korea’s forward-deployed ground forces likely include most if not all of the KPAGF’s more than 14,000 artillery systems, including an estimated 8,600 artillery pieces and 5,500 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). The proximity of these weapons to the border with South Korea places them in range of a number of important military targets and population centers including the Seoul metropolitan area and its over 25 million inhabitants. These weapons would be capable of inflicting a tremendous number of casualties, particularly if they were used as delivery mechanisms for North Korea’s large stockpile of chemical weapons that is estimated at somewhere between 2,500 and 5,500 metric tons. Much of North Korea’s artillery pieces are housed in Hardened Artillery Sites (HARTS), providing them some protection from adversarial artillery, air, and missile strikes.
North Korea’s artillery would factor in heavily to an invasion of the South, supporting North Korea’s overall military strategy that calls for a quick victory by helping to support the rapid offensive and breakthrough that such a strategy relies on. Beyond its utility in an open conflict, its artillery provides North Korea with some amount of flexibility; depending on the weapons used and the intensity of a bombardment, artillery can be used as a means to retaliate against South Korea or as a tool for conflict termination, as well as an effective means for coercion and deterrence of the U.S.-ROK Alliance.
North Korea’s large forward-deployed military presence, driven in large part by its adoption of a military strategy that favors rapid action during the early stages of a military conflict, has helped to ensure that the Korean Demilitarized Zone remains one of the most heavily fortified border areas in the world.