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New defense paper no longer describes NK military has ‘overwhelming superiority’

Experts voice concern that as long as North Korea’s nuclear threat persists, qualitative assessment provides misleading information 

South Korea’s new defense white paper will no longer describe North Korea’s military as having overwhelming superiority over that of South Korea by incorporating the South’s advanced weapon systems and technologies, Seoul’s military said Thursday

According to the documents submitted by the Ministry of National Defense for parliamentary audit, the 2018 defense white paper will include “qualitative assessment” of the two Koreas’ military capabilities.

The move is designed to paint an accurate picture of South Korea’s ability to respond to North Korea’s military threat, which has often been exaggerated as its capabilities were mostly judged by quantitative standards such as the number of troops and artillery guns, the military said. 

“By using a quantitative assessment, North Korea has been described as if it has overwhelming superiority (over the South Korean military),” the document said. “The assessment does not reflect our military’s actual capabilities.”


North Korea`s military parade. Yonhap
North Korea`s military parade. Yonhap

Scheduled to be published by year-end, the biennial defense paper will also include intelligence about its war-related factories and emergency goods, critical to judge North Korea’s war-sustaining capability, an area where North Korea face more challenge than Seoul.

There has been mounting criticism that the previous defense white papers placed more focus on North Korea’s conventional military forces than South Korea’s advancement in modern warfare capabilities.

While the affluent South Korean military is considered to have gained superiority over North Korea by acquiring advanced naval and air assets, the white papers have not fully incorporated such information out of the concern that it might hamper the military’s acquisition efforts.

The previous 2016 defense white paper, for example, was centered on quantitative comparison of the two Koreas’ conventional military capabilities. It states that North Korea’s troops outnumber those in South Korea by a ratio of 2-to-1, submarines 7-to-1 and fighter jets 2-to-1.

“Simply comparing the number of weapons creates an impression that North Korea’s military is far superior to South Korea, and therefore, (the South) needs to buy more weapons and increase its budget,” said a defense official, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Military experts, however, have voiced concern that as long as North Korea’s nuclear threat persists and its accurate nuclear capabilities remain unaccounted for, the “qualitative assessment” could provide misleading information about North Korea’s military threat.

It is not certain how the 2018 defense paper would describe North Korea’s nuclear capability. The 2016 defense paper said that North Korea was estimated to possess 50 kilograms of plutonium and its nuclear miniaturization technology had made “significant progress.”

While the Defense Ministry is planning to include updated data about North Korea’s nuclear capability following its sixth nuclear test last year, speculation has arisen that such information would be included as an appendix to the white paper, not as a key component of the North’s military might.

“Qualitative assessment should only be used for reference. ... It is a subjective concept with the risk of arbitrary interpretation,” said retired Army Gen. Shin Won-shik, former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“In order to conduct qualitative assessment accurately, we need to take into account various factors such as the commanders’ ability, the subordinates’ morale and the synergy effect created by each units. ... I don’t think there is verified, scientific way to accurately assess such capability.”

Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Security and Defense Forum, also warned of the possibility that the qualitative assessment could mislead the public about North Korea’s military capabilities amid an inter-Korean detente.

“There is no an agreed-upon international standard for qualitative assessment of military capabilities... Given North Korea’s nuclear superiority over South Korea, I’m worried that the qualitative assessment could offer misleading information.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (