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Associated Press/Photo by Vincent Yu

Seoul searching

A nuclear North Korea would be a nightmare, but the regime's huge conventional force could wreak havoc on the South

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

While some 10 million residents of Seoul, South Korea, bustle through the streets of one of the world's most modern and densely populated cities, a different kind of bustling unfolds less than 30 miles away: Nearly 1 million troops converge on the world's most militarized border.

Though the neighboring North Korean regime boasts of growing nuclear capacities independent observers have been unable to confirm, a clear and present danger lurks for Seoul: the sweeping conventional capacities of a massive North Korean military that's heavily armed and intentionally entrenched within striking distance of Seoul.

Most residents of Seoul and surrounding areas don't live like human targets, but a recent litany of North Korean aggression-and a looming change in the reclusive regime's leadership-raises questions about the South's vulnerability to conventional attacks that could cause heavy damage with little warning.

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The Korean People's Army (KPA)-consisting of all the military branches in North Korea-is a "massive armed force," according to the Strategic Studies Institute. A 2007 study by the group based at the U.S. Army War College reported the KPA maintains 1.2 million active troops. (South Korea maintains around 700,000.)

The study continues: "The KPA is the world's fourth largest military in terms of manpower, with the world's largest Special Operation Forces and submarine fleet. Some 40 percent of the populace serves in some military, paramilitary, or defense-related industry and can be mobilized easily for war."

The regime has stationed an estimated 70 percent of its military units and 80 percent of its firepower within 60 miles of the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the North and South. A study by the London-based Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS) reported that the KPA has dug an estimated 4,000 underground bunkers near the DMZ and maintains an arsenal of tens of thousands of conventional weapons like battle tanks and heavy-caliber artillery.

For a mega-city like Seoul, that means North Korea could bombard the heavily populated region within hours.

Experts say such an attack would be foolish: At least half of the regime's equipment is more than 50 years old, with some of it likely non-operational. And though South Korea has fewer troops, it has superior equipment and a formidable ally: The United States maintains 28,000 troops in the region and could quickly deploy more to respond to an attack.

Still, North Korean troops could inflict heavy damage on Seoul before defeat, according to ISS: "Allied counter-battery fire and air strikes would eventually reduce North Korea's artillery capability, but not before significant damage and high casualties had been inflicted on Seoul."

That possibility-though perhaps a distant one-grew after North Korea attacked a South Korean island in November, killing two marines and two civilians. And as dictator Kim Jong-il prepares to transfer power to his son, North Korean instability escalates, with some experts predicting the regime could collapse. Kim Jong-il could pursue military action to display the regime's strength in a precarious moment.

Back in Seoul, the government said it would bolster its ability to respond to future attacks. Most citizens continued their normal routines, with at least one exception: After the November attacks, applications to South Korea's Marine Corps surged. The next month, nearly 3,500 men competed for 997 spots.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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