North Korea. It’s Banally Simple.

I once wrote a long article about a Korean War II.

But this one chart tells essentually the same tale.


I suspect it will be a harder nut to crack than Iraq in 2003, or even 1991. It is an ultranationalist (not a Communist) regime with a formidable secret police, so you’re not going to be buying any generals off. North Koreans have higher IQs than Iraqis (so more competent), do not practice inbreeding (so more cohesive), and a have a lot more hills, mountains, and tunnels (which partially negate South Korean/American technological predominance).

Still, the gap is too vast for the ultimate result to be in doubt. (Unless China gets involved. Then things get complicated.)

And this is why it’s isn’t going to happen.

I do think that Kim Jong Un enjoys the good life, as do the elites he’s fostered in Pyongyang the past decade – according to Andrey Lankov, one of the foremost experts on North Korea, living standards are now far higher than during the grim 1980s or the dismal 1990s – and would prefer to keep things that way. If there is a limited strike on Nork nuclear facilities in the coming days, I doubt we will see anything more substantial than outraged rhetoric.

China will probably be just fine with that. There is very little love lost between Kim Jong Un and the current Chinese leadership. Xi Jinping recently noted that whereas his father had visited China four times, the son had yet to do so, which is a rather open criticism by demure Chinese standards. This was understandable, since Kim Jong Un has spent the last few years suppressing pro-Chinese factions in his country, including members of his own family (executed uncle, assassinated half brother). I suspect the Chinese are fine with Kim Jong Un receiving a demonstrative slapdown, and wouldn’t mind seeing his nuclear program set back a few years. After all, Beijing is considerably closer to Pyongyang than is Tokyo, to say nothing of Honolulu, and there is no telling what North Korea would do in a truly serious future crisis.

Why not get Donald “I Make the Best Deals” Trump to give Kim Jong Un a good beating, especially when he’s also offering to throw in some excellent trade deals for free. It’s a bargain!

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. Lankov is an excellent NK watcher. Another good one is Joshua Stanton, writer at the blog He’s co-authored some of the sanction-related legislation in Congress against NK and has an excellent grasp of the situation.

  2. Nukes are fake.

  3. There are all sorts of ways to approach this problem, but through the prism of a “fire burn and cauldron bubble” index concocted from incompatible ingredients is not a good one.

  4. Felix Keverich says

    Yeah, a country’s “military power” is more than just the size of its GDP or the cost of its military hardware. When thinking about how a war between two Koreas could go, we need to consider intangibles, such as the fact that the Norks are brainwashed fanatics, while the Southerners are pussies, addicted to computer games and plastic surgery.

    I suspect that in the event of a real war the Southern army will quickly…disperse. Americans will end up fighting the North alone, just like the last time.

  5. I doubt Trump will bet the ranch on the solid-fueled ICBMs DPRK showed in their parade not being real.

  6. Diversity Heretic says

    If South Korea is that much more militarily powerful than North Korea, why does the United States need to be involved at all?

  7. Because they want to. Not being involved would mean less American influence in East Asia.

  8. Yes, that’s a reasonable assessment of the situation, assuming:

    1 The NKs believe Trump is not bluffing;

    2 The NKs believe they have other options and can, say, wait for another President or a better moment to build their deterrent (in other words, they don’t think that the US will attack them anyway so they really have nothing to lose);

    3 The NKs share your overall assessment of the military situation and how a confrontation or war would end, and don’t, say, believe the US’s standoff weaponry and air power will be relatively ineffective and SK forces will not fight effectively enough, and in the end China will be forced to back them as it did previously rather than let the US take over NK – the fact that we might think those beliefs to be not credible doesn’t mean the NKs might not hold them. First, regimes don’t always get such assessments right, for all sorts of reasons (see the US and Vietnam, or Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia), and second, the NKs undoubtedly know a lot more about the situation on the ground than we do and they might even be right and we might be wrong;

    4 Trump doesn’t decide to push them further, or to attack them anyway over some manufactured pretext.

    While reason and our available information says your argument should be correct (just as it says there will never be a nuclear war between major nuclear weapons states), there do seem to be residual risks in the situation. In particular, the NKs might well regard the history of Saddam’s final years as evidence that they will be attacked by Trump in the end no matter what they do, and might see appeasement as not a viable policy.

  9. Americans will end up fighting the North alone, just like the last time.

    You mean when the US dragooned the UN into getting the permission to set up an expeditionary force into Asia, not having learned its lesson from the disastrous intervention in Burma?

    The auto-victimization is reaching Middle Eastern proportions.

  10. Presumably because that wasn’t the case through to 1994 or so, i.e. the entire period of the Cold War, during a large portion of which the North was more industrialized than the South (until 1980 or so) and had a more powerful military (1970s-80s).

  11. reiner Tor says

    I suspect that in the event of a real war the Southern army will quickly…disperse. Americans will end up fighting the North alone, just like the last time.

    Well, the majority of casualties were suffered by Korean forces on both sides during the first war, here’s Wikipedia:

    According to the data from the U.S. Department of Defense, the United States suffered 33,686 battle deaths, along with 2,830 non-battle deaths, during the Korean War.[275] U.S. battle deaths were 8,516 up to their first engagement with the Chinese on 1 November 1950.[276] South Korea reported some 373,599 civilian and 137,899 military deaths.[17] Western sources estimate the PVA suffered about 400,000 killed and 486,000 wounded, while the KPA suffered 215,000 killed and 303,000 wounded.[32]

    I also seriously doubt the ROK army would flee, my impression is that Koreans are actually tough badasses, their weird effeminate obsessions notwithstanding.

  12. Seamus Padraig says

    I have no idea what is meant by ‘comprehensive US military power’ in the graph above–Spending? Manpower? Number of nukes? Number of main battle tanks? But I did notice that NK’s ‘power’ seems to dip precipitously after 1992, right around the time they proliferated. How would acquiring nukes suddenly make the Norks less powerful? Without further explanation, it just doesn’t make sense.

    In particular, the NKs might well regard the history of Saddam’s final years as evidence that they will be attacked by Trump in the end no matter what they do, and might see appeasement as not a viable policy.

    Yup. And Khaddaffi, and Assad–both of whom gave up their chemical weapons, only to be attacked anyway. I would not advise Kim Jong Un to do any deals with Uncle Scam.

  13. reiner Tor says

    Sorry, not both sides, the Northerners lost less than the Chinese.

  14. I linked to the methodology behind the CMP within the post, but here it is again just in case:

    It doesn’t take into account nuclear weapons, since the usual assumption is that they won’t be used. (Of course North Korea’s real military power relative to South Korea would leap upwards if they develop nukes with reliable delivery mechanisms, and credibly commit to using them in case of war, but this capability is far more recent than 1992 and is even now not yet fully realized).

  15. Priss Factor says

    South Korean military power outpaced North Korea’s power by a longshot in the 90s, and that was before NK had nukes.

    So, why didn’t SK go it alone like Israel? Why did it choose to continue to hide behind the US?

    What are these? Cowards and wussies? Or did US insist on remaining to use SK as puppet against China?

  16. First, usually offense is more difficult than defense, so having a “twice as strong” or “three times stronger” military (whatever that means) does not mean a cakewalk. In any event, a war would’ve destroyed Seoul, and after that they’d have had to deal with how to reunify the country. This was just the time when it transpired how expensive it proved in the end for the Germans to do that (though in my opinion the Germans could’ve handled it better), even though 1) West Germany was much richer than South Korea 2) East Germany was also much more developed than North Korea 3) relatively speaking, West Germany was bigger compared to East Germany than South Korea compared to North Korea, so it must have been easier for West Germany to just absorb East Germany. As the gap was growing between Northern and Western military power, so did the gap between the Northern and Southern economies, which kept increasing the potential costs of reunification. Reunification was unfortunately the cheapest exactly when the military balance was closest to equality.

    Another factor is that while in Germany there were always some ties between the two halves, and a lot of people still had relatives on both sides of the border, in the case of Korea, the division was much more rigid, so essentially there are vanishingly few people in South Korea who have close relatives to be liberated. The vast majority of people in South Korea have perhaps some second or third cousins in the North, but nothing closer. This removes any personal motivation for basically the whole population. Northerners are their co-ethnics, but they are complete strangers, each one of them.

  17. Trump just dropped the biggest bomb in the arsenal on ISIS in Afghanistan. And he is sending an armada to North Korea, pressuring both Kim and Xi.

    Looks like he is trying to keep his campaign promises to tackle these two main threats.

    After having broken the promise not to get entangled in Syria…

  18. Seamus Padraig says

    Thanks for the link.

  19. I just finished reading your old article. Typo alert: the link to the Korean tank is broken, instead of the Wikipedia page for Chonma-ho, it leads us to a disambiguation page of “CH”.

  20. When thinking about how a war between two Koreas could go, we need to consider intangibles, such as the fact that the Norks are brainwashed fanatics, while the Southerners are pussies, addicted to computer games and plastic surgery.

    Korean Southerners are actually not at all “pussies” despite computer game addiction and plastic surgery. Their soldiers have a reputation for toughness and the people are hardly pushovers. Remember Koreans were the ones shooting back during the LA riots.

  21. yes – this was the 5% option

    except i now think this probably represents a coup in the Trump camp also

    Is US foreign policy a function of US national interest?

    I think the answer to that question must be the primary premise and i’d say the answer is clearly no. US policy is decided by the people who own the media and the people who provide the bulk of campaign contributions. I call them the banking mafia but everyone can pick their own term: oligarchs, capitalists, whatever. So any analysis of US foreign policy must be founded on the interests of the banking mafia – not the US as a nation.

    Why would the banking mafia want NK taken out? Simple – over the last 30+ years they’ve looted and off-shored the productive capacity of the West to China so even a short range nuclear NK is very much against their interests. So I think the banking mafia are planning to use the US military to take out NK for them.

    Impossible to say if the NKoreans are yearning to breathe free and will surrender en masse if attacked or if they’ll fight like a higher IQ version of Serbs. You’d think the first would make more sense but they’re mountain people so who knows. I guess that was what the MOAB was for as i assume NK’s defences is based on lots of mountain tunnels.

    If this is correct then the interesting part is the priority – the banking mafia putting trashing Israel’s enemies behind trashing NK. That doesn’t mean they won’t try doing both before they collapse the US but the priority is interesting. I’ve always thought they’d ditch Israel if they had to choose.

  22. anonymous1 says

    One thing I haven’t noticed in all the media and internet discussions is what do the S Koreans think about all this? Since they’d pay the price for any warfare that breaks out one might think their input would be essential. Instead most Americans just worry about how they themselves might be harmed. Nobody gives a hoot about dead S Koreans, apparently, and think of them as total puppets who’ll open fire if ordered to by the US. Everybody there is just a stick figure in an American war movie. There’s a lot of unpredictability involved with military involvements and the blowback it causes years down the road. S Vietnam had a large army and a huge stockpile of weapons left to it when the Americans exited yet collapsed in total disarray within the blink of an eye.

  23. South Korea is not South Vietnam. Even South Vietnam’s collapse was in part due to bad luck, though the big reason was bad planning by the South Vietnamese. And even so it would never have happened if the US just temporarily renewed its bombing campaign (though it was impossible for political reasons).

  24. Regarding why he executed his uncle, since we can all only guess what the true motive was, I am going with the theory that he killed him to stamp his authority. If he would do that then who in the regime would ever think of oppossing him.

  25. What I want to know if there are any South Koreans that are “red pilled”. What I mean by that is if some there notice that being a puppet, ahem, I meant “ally”, to the US also means you need to start accepting its values, that includes mass immigration and miscegenation of non Koreans, how willing are they to kill fellow Koreans for a US regime that very clearly preaches these things. Or all the “nationalists” the type that talk macho about war, but have zero problem with their land being taken over by foreigners, as long as its not Kim Jon Un.

    This leads me to another thing I have wondered about, if South Korea does become ever more non Korean because its follow the script dictated by Soros and friends, would a future North and South Korea ever occur if South Korea no longer consists of Koreans. And I am aware how homogeneous South Korea is right now, but it is certainly realistic to see how it can rapidly transform.

  26. I’m just reading Frank Dikötter’s trilogy on Maoist China. It’s quite surprising that while the Americans poured tens of billions of dollars into the Korean War, just a few short years before they were totally unwilling to support the Chinese nationalists, who could probably easily have survived with that kind of money. Instead, during the crucial period of the war, they were actually under embargo, because reasons. Truman and his government seem to be really big screwups.

  27. German_reader says

    That might actually be a real issue…here in Germany there is a palpable rift between the former West Germany and the former East Germany regarding matters like immigration, multiculturalism etc. Many Westerners basically regard East Germans as heartless racists and quite openly state they wish re-unification hadn’t happened (and much of West German society had given up on that by the late 1980s, one reason being a desire for being “post-national” and cosmopolitan and for getting away from all that Germanness). The background to this quite obviously is the Americanization of West German society, (as well as the whole obsession with European integration common among both Christian and Social Democrats).
    Germany and Korea may not be exactly comparable, but in any case the cultural gulf between North and South Korea must be even deeper by now, given how long the country has been divided and how little exchange there has been between North and South since the 1950s (apart from the occasional armed clashes…).

  28. There could be no more appropriate punishment for the Studienrat types than the end of the eurozone and the EU itself.

  29. BenKenobi says

    I’m sure NK has every inch of Seoul zeroed with redundant artillery. Millions would die in open war even with a massive preemptive strike on NK.

  30. Eagle Eye says

    North Korea will have raised and trained multiple teams of elite stay-behind cadres ready to infiltrate South Korea’s systems in the event the North collapses, i.e. Nork Merkels.

    Indeed, the German analogy suggests that the Norks already have in place multiple, well-entrenched networks of agents of influence at the highest levels of South Korea’s politics, military and industry.

    On the other hand, Southern penetration of the North’s system is also a factor one should not underestimate.

    Koreans culture both North and South extols loyalty (similar to Japan’s traditional culture, and of common origin). This suggests that deep down, they regard loyalty as their weak point. If so, they are probably right.

  31. The Hermit Kingdom has a very long history of successfully playing great powers off against one another, and when they failed it was very much the worse for the world –the origin of the Russo Japanese war and hence WW1/2. The modern North Korean leadership are a lot subtler than they’re given credit for. Their bombast is nothing to do with the US, it is surely aimed at China above all (just as Israel’s nuclear weapons are aimed at the US).

    Allow me to elucidate. North Korea always has the option to go for broke rather than be humiliated. That is, present the Chinese with the prospect of North Korea seriously starting something and inevitably collapsing under a US counter strike. China cannot tolerate conquest of the the North and a US client on the border. The North Korean weakness is real, and it gives them a edge in bluffing their presumed overlord.

  32. Dan Hayes says


    I am under the impression that a certain portion of the South Korean populace regards the North Koreans as the “true” Koreans, i.e. those not under the dominance of a foreign power which in this case is the U S of A!

  33. jimmyriddle says

    Seoul is within artillery range of North Korea. Shells raining down on Gangnam won’t easy to shrug off.

    Sure, barring PLA intervention, the US and South Korea would win a war. But the cost to Seoul would be immense.

  34. Honorary thief says

    Any plans to write longer articles on your comprehensive military power index? That was one of your best.

  35. @Anatoly Karlin: Can you please elaborate on this part here? :

    “It is an ultranationalist (not a Communist) regime”

    Indeed, what exactly distinguishes North Korea from historical Communist regimes (other than perhaps its level of nationalism)?

  36. Weee there ever any changes made to CMP to account for the critiques it received in the comments section?

  37. 1992 would have been the year of economic collapse when Soviet subsidies went away.

  38. Millions would die in open war even with a massive preemptive strike on NK

    The banking mafia don’t care about that – to them even a single new central bank is worth a world war and they can’t have short range NK nukes within range of all the factories they moved to China.

    Plus they probably think there’s a fair chance NK will collapse when attacked and if not well – none of those shells are gonna be hitting Wall St.


    “In an unusually worded statement that left hanging the question of whether the United States played any role…”

  40. Daniel Chieh says

    Koreans are many things, but not weaklings.

  41. Daniel Chieh says

    Not in my knowledge. But I’m not sure why the semi-obsessive attitude toward, say, video games is seen as a weakness in today’s technologically dominated field of military. That said, S. Korea has an Orwellian Ministry of Gender Equality and the like, so I don’t think they’ll be resisting the POZ much.

  42. A much wiser move would be for the USA to just leave the Korean peninsula altogether.

  43. Jaakko Raipala says

    It’s not even a question of whether America is actively pushing the poz in Korea. An alliance of a small country with a major power is extremely likely to turn corrosive to the national cohesion of the small country even if the large country isn’t actively trying. The elite class of the small one will conclude that their power and security depends more on maintaining their relationship with the elites of the larger ally than on maintaining the relationship with their own middle or lower classes.

    It’s not surprising if North Korea has been turning more nationalistic now that their elites no longer have sponsors that could be impressed by embracing Marxism-Leninism.

    This process must be a huge part of why Western Europe is what it is. I used to be pro-NATO-membership but I’ve dropped that in recent years after watching supposedly right-wing politicians bring in ever more poz from America. Apparently gay marriage and mass immigration are just as important for NATO compatibility as using the same ammo.

  44. LondonBob says

    That bomb was in Afghanistan at the same time Russia was holding a conference on Afghanistan. Message is clear, the US will stay in Afghanistan until their treasury is empty and no more blood is left to be spilt. It’s the McMaster plan.