Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Korea vs Japan, the Military Showdown

Dear Korean,

I was arguing with my friend about who had more military strength, Korea or Japan. My friend argued that Japan had a large navy and strong air force and volunteers for their ground forces. I know that Korea must have a larger land force than Japan since it drafts people, but are they trained well? How are they equipped? Also, what are some notable ships or airplanes that are in Korea's navy and air force?


This is an interesting question, but the Korean also knows that this post is bound to attract a certain breed of idiots commonly found on the Internet. So here is a warning before we get started:

This post is a disinterested analysis of the comparative military strengths of Korea and Japan.
It has nothing to do with the current or past relations between Korea and Japan.
Any comment on that topic is irrelevant to this post, and accordingly will be summarily deleted.

So, back to our interesting question. How do the military of Korea and Japan compare with each other? And what would happen in case of a war?

Although actual events would be difficult to predict, the Internet appears to be particularly good at generating meaningless war games that people take far too seriously. From what the Korean gathered, it seems like a war between Korea and Japan will be the proverbial battle between a whale and a wolf--an engagement in which each military's respective strengths do not match up.

Questioner John gets it basically correct: Korea has the stronger ground forces, while Japan has the edge in the navy and the air force. This is a natural result of the defense challenges that each country faces. South Korea's biggest military threat is North Korea, which may (theoretically) simply cross the Armistice Line with ground forces. Therefore, South Korea must beef up its ground forces to meet that challenge. Meanwhile, all of Japan's potential military threats are across the water, because Japan is made up of islands. Japan's defense game plan is to repel the enemy before it ever reaches the main islands, with her air force and navy. 

On the ground, Korea's advantage of overwhelming. Korea has more than double the number of ground troops compared to Japan (540,000 to 240,000), largely because Korea has military draft. Korea has more than three times as many tanks and armored vehicles as Japan does.

In contrast, Japan's naval strength--which was enough to start a world war at one point--far surpasses Korea's. Japan's navy has more three times the tonnage of Korea's, and has nearly double the number of naval aircraft. In addition, Japan has ten Aegis cruisers to Korea's three. The story is similar as to air force: Japan has 50% more jets than Korea. Although Korea's main fighter jet, the F-15K, is slightly newer and better equipped than Japan's F-15J, the difference is not large enough to erase the significant difference in the numbers. (Japan has four times the number of F-15 than Korea.) Japan's air force also has air-to-air refueling capabilities, which significantly extends the range of its jets--an advantage that Korea's air force lacks. Finally, Japan's air force has 13 AWACs and its own GPS satellite; Korea has one of the former, and none of the latter.

One game-changing possibility is that Korea has cruise missiles with a range of 1500 kilometers, while Japan does not. (The reason for this discrepancy? That is how much the United States allowed for each country.) This means that Korea can theoretically strike Tokyo with cruise missiles. But as of now, Korea does not have enough cruise missiles to make a significant dent on Japan's military or economy. Further, Japan can always convert one of its rockets, designed to launch a satellite, into an ICBM.

Given the nature of modern warfare, and given Korea's geographical situation, Japan will probably win in a head-to-head war if it attacked Korea. Although Korea does have the advantage on the ground, Japan's superior air force and navy can successfully embargo Korea's sea route, cutting off Korea from key resources. (Recall that Korea imports 100% of its petroleum.) Yet Korea's superior number of ground troops probably means that Japan will have a heck of time actually conquering Korea. The reverse scenario, in which Korea attacks Japan, is hard to fathom from military perspective--because Korea lacks the naval and aerial capability to take its ground advantage to Japan.

More likely, if Korea and Japan were approaching a war, the United States will tell both Korea and Japan to calm the fuck down. Or China will side with either Japan or Korea and project enough strength to stop any armed conflict from happening. Any way you slice it, an actual war between Japan and Korea is highly unlikely, which makes all of the above just fun and games.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. There's another reason that Japan does not have 1500 km range cruise missiles. Japan's constitution currently forbids aggression and maintenance of a standing army. The legal work-around for this is that Japan's military forces are, at least in name, strictly for self-defense. To some degree, this affects the military equipment and weapons Japan buys and develops as everything is supposed to be just for repelling a potential attack. 1500-km missiles are hard to justify as "defensive"; their only use is to directly attack another country.

  2. This sort of question is probably moot because both Japan and South Korea's militaries lack key capabilities for which they are reliant upon the United States. These are things like C4ISR (Command & Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) which runs everything from large scale C2 to intel to electronic warfare. If the United States does not want to support either side, it can easily pull the plug on both nation's ability to wage a large campaign.

    There was also an interesting little paper from around 2009 that was written by a Japanese military journal which speculated on a possible conflict between Japan and the ROK over Dokdo (surprise, surprise). Their war game had Japan easily taking Dokdo but likely losing Tsushima to a ROKMC counteroffensive. The thinking was that the Koreans would only need about 600 marines and 70 armor (easily within Korean amphibious assault capabilities) supported by short range F-16's from the Korean mainland that would be able to close the air gap. The Koreans could then use Tsushima to negotiate peace.

    1. Japan could have taken Dokdo a long time ago. Its navy is, to put it lightly, much stronger than the ROK Navy. You are right though when you say that Daemado/Tsushima would be a weak point for Japan - that island can easily be targeted by ground, naval, and air forces of the ROK. Not to mention that South Korea can strike the southernmost islands of Japan; if not outright invade them, despite the proximity to Pusan, at least to cause damage and make the Japanese suffer for a hypothetical takeover of Dokdo.

  3. In short, the American, Japanese, and South Korean forces make one awesome military juggernaut. Now, if only the politicians in South Korea would put aside the grandstanding.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. umiru bolno.

    2. Since I don't know what it means, I will assume it means, "I enjoyed reading your post very much, keep on writing". Or something along those lines.

    3. It means "they're dying painfully".

    4. Thanks. In what language? I really hope not in Japanese - I went a little overboard.

    5. It is either Croatian or Serbian or another of the south Slavic (ex-Yugoslavian) languages.

  5. What is the point of post? S.Korea can't attack Japan. Japan's navy is vastly superior. S.Korea cannot mobilize it's superior sized army across the East Sea. Japan's land forces are vastly smaller that S.Korea's so they really can't launch an offensive from across the East Sea. Times like this you just have to say "no" to these flights of fancy type questions from teenagers.

  6. Your analysis ignores the DPRK in this whole scenario.

    Either South Korea has to maintain some sort of force which must include naval forces and air forces to keep the north in check or it must have some kind of alliance.

    But if both were to team up:
    1) There would be an increase in missiles to the Korean forces.
    2) There would be nukes on demand and Japan would have none (until they made their own)
    3) Pro DPRK groups in Japan could form a 5th column and perform acts of terrorism tying up Japanese forces.
    4) Naval and air forces of the DPRK would be of little use in a full shooting war.
    5) Logistics. - With the DPRK joining the south you would have supply links by land to Russia and China. (But there would be a major need for repairs to get the Northern infrastructure ready to support that amount of freight).
    6) Extra cannon fodder to die in the south.

    But without the North joining the fight you would have to maintain massive forces in the North of south Korea to make sure that the North did not join the Japanese side or just attack anyway. This makes the defense of the south harder for Korea.

    Additionally Japan could attack Jeju or Geoje while leaving the peninsula alone. There are plenty of shipyards on Geoje.

    There is also the issue that if Japan did attack the south that the North might use nuclear weapons if the South were about to lose or be military concoured.

    1. 1. If the DPRK launched missiles against Japan, the USAF would in all likelihood strike North Korean bases. Its nearly nonexistent air force would provide zero opposition to US bombing.
      2. Japan can go nuclear very quickly. And until then, Japan lies under the US nuclear umbrella.
      3. That may be true, but they would only go so far, and the JDF isn't a police force trained to quell domestic disturbances. The local Japanese authorities would handle fifth column activities.
      4. Agreed.
      5. Well, you raise an interesting point - would the PRC materially support the DPRK in a war against Japan with the ROK fighting by the DPRK's side? What would be Beijing's geostratic interests in assisting a theatrical rival - South Korea - against Japan? A once-in-a-lifetime to take the Senkaku/Diaoyutai? To follow up on its anti-Japanese propaganda and stick it to Tokyo through its Pyongyang proxy? Or simply to lay low and let the DPRK, ROK, and Japan emerge all bruised and bloodied so that its position as the region's rising power is enhanced even further?
      6. That's if and only if the DPRK and ROK manage to actually agree on a non-aggression pact and not shoot at each other while they combine forces to fight Japan.

  7. If, God forbid, a war were to break out in East Asia, Korea and Japan would most likely find themselves on the same side. I don't suppose you could do a comparison of Korea, Japan, USFK/J and Taiwan versus China and North Korea?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. Of course the notion of South Korea and Japan going to war against each other is simply ludicrous. The two countries are major trading partners, democratic states, and are in a de-facto trilateral alliance along with the United States. But I guess old animosities die hard. All this squabbling between South Korea and Japan is simply dumb and counter productive. The REAL threats are a rogue state (North Korea) with nuclear capabilities, and a non-democratically elected government of China that threatens to make South Korea/Japan a footnote in East Asia. We have to eventually admit that South Korea and Japan share much more (culture, genetics, values) than what divides us (an oppressive colonial past).

  10. This sort of reminds me when I got into huge arguments with my trekkie friends about whether the Enterprise could defeat a Star Destroyer in one-to-one combat.

    I guess the only difference is that the space battle is the more likely event to happen.

  11. What a thoughtful and intelligent post. Thank you so much for this perspective.

  12. if JAPan keep saying east sea and dokdo is theirs, well we may take a war. they wanna do, too.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...