According to a US official, South Korea's military is 'among the best in the world'

The South Korean military is among the best in the world, and it is the largest part of the force that will “fight, tonight” if North Korea attacks, said a US Forces Korea official speaking on background.

The official spoke to reporters traveling with Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford is here to participate in the Military Committee Meeting with his South Korean counterpart Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with South Korea Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the 42nd Military Committee Meeting at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 27, 2017. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with South Korea Air Force Gen. Jeong Kyeong-doo, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the 42nd Military Committee Meeting at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Oct. 27, 2017. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro.

‘Fight, Tonight’

Much of the discussion in the Military Committee Meeting is on the military capabilities and capacities that the United States and South Korea bring to the ability to “fight, tonight.”

By itself, the South Korean military is an excellent force. When it is combined with US forces it is world class, the official said.

North Korea is a dangerous state, the official said, noting the North Korean military gets the lion’s share of resources in the country. And, while North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is working to develop nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, North Korea’s conventional forces are a worry, as well, he said.

F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 35th and 80th Fighter Squadrons of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. USAF photo by Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld.

F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 35th and 80th Fighter Squadrons of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. USAF photo by Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld.

The North has much of Seoul — South Korea’s capital city with 25 million people — within range of artillery over the demilitarized zone, the official said. The North has 950,000 service members on active duty and another 600,000 reserve personnel.

South Korean Military

The South Korean military is extremely capable, the official said. The United States and South Korea are strongly tied to one another with US assets aiding the South Koreans and vice versa. The two nations train to the same standards, the official said, and use the same battlefield tactics, techniques, and procedures.

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“From a person who has worked with a lot of different countries, I put them at the high-end of capability,” the official said of South Korea’s military. “I wouldn’t stretch it to say it is an absolute replacement for a US capability, but combined it is very strong.”

Cadet Huh Choong-bum (left), a third-year cadet at the Korea Military Academy, pulls a guard around his fellow soldiers as they examine the map during the land navigation training at Camp Casey, South Korea, March 27. Photo from DOD.

Cadet Huh Choong-bum (left), a third-year cadet at the Korea Military Academy, pulls a guard around his fellow soldiers as they examine the map during the land navigation training at Camp Casey, South Korea, March 27. Photo from DOD.

South Korea has a formidable force of its own with about 625,000 service members on active duty and about 3 million in reserve, he said. South Korea has military conscription.

The South Koreans also have an economy to buy and maintain modern military equipment, the official said.

North Korean Military Capabilities

North Korea’s conventional military capabilities “are in the decline,” the official said, “because of the economy, because of their austerity.”

South Korea’s Gen. Sun Jin Lee, Republic of Korea Army chairman and joint chiefs of staff visits Guam's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, site Nov. 1, 2016, along with Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the combined US forces in South Korea. USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel.

South Korea’s Gen. Sun Jin Lee, Republic of Korea Army chairman and joint chiefs of staff visits Guam’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, site Nov. 1, 2016, along with Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of the combined US forces in South Korea. USAF photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel.

North Korea’s aircraft are old, as are its tanks and armored personnel carriers, the official said. North Korea’s navy has a number of submarines, but it is uncertain how capable they are, he added.

Just comparing capabilities, the official said he’d South Korea’s military capability “way above that of the North.”

But the North has the numbers and “quantity has a quality all its own,” the official said.

“I do not dismiss the conventional threat from the North,” he said. “But the [North’s] unconventional threat — the nukes, the missiles, cyber capabilities, special operations forces — are growing.”