IMHO I think you hit on a truth that's been slowly percolating among the US Army Korea specialists for the last five years. Now I'd be the last person to underestimate the capabilities of KPA (It's not that we'd expect so much regarding their sophistication or competence in terms of rapid adjustments during combined arms operations, but the sheer fighting will of an individual soldier seemed pretty impressive to me at least in my experience. Every time there was a cordon operation due to infiltration it would usually end with the team getting away or committing group suicide.). However, two decades of famine no doubt must have impacted the underlying social infrastructure very deeply. As I had posted earlier, I was shocked by the sight of very short KPA personnel at the Joint Security Area. Now the detachments selected for posting here were usually 6 feet for South Koreans (which was rare in the 70s but they managed then. Nowadays it's not that di fficult) and 6'2" for the US personnel. I don't think there was one KPA guy over 5'5" among the ones I could closely observe. Obviously the children of the Rodong-dang nomenklatura probably had normal nutrition while growing up. However, they also wouldn't be the ones standing guard at the JSA either. As far as I could tell, they seemed well disciplined enough, but according to a friend who'd finished his last rotation in 2007 with UNC/CFC CJ3, the KPA's winter exercises were cut short. He'd guessed that their readiness is probably at its lowest level in twenty years of observing the peninsula.
Even back in the 1970s, the KPA generally understood that air interdiction would make daylight movement impossible for them in a general invasion. Now it was possible for them to adapt the People's Liberation Army's techniques in 1950 and move at night with mere items that they could carry on their backs. Of course with modern NVGs, that option isn't available anymore. It's very difficult to ascertain and update the KPA's doctrine and its operational and tactical implications. Simply we haven't seen them in a real fight (they did send advisors to other parts of the world but that means very little obviously) and while we have made enormous efforts to ascertain their training exercises, like most intel out of the North, there just hasn't been enough according to most I've talked to over the years. Obviously parts of the KPA officer corps have studied at Frunze/Malinovskii and the PLA NDU and we could infer some closeness to Soviet/Russ ian and PLA influence. However, it's still a matter of educated guess on what to expect at the tactical and operational level. IMHO I just don't think they've gotten that far away from what we had assumed to be their affinity for the usual run of the Soviet operational doctrine during the Cold War. (e.g., operational maneuver groups, heavy reliance on massed arty, special forces infiltration to disrupt our rearm and refuel capabilities as well as our general sustainment of forces, etc) They know that the CFC forces would achieve air dominance almost instantaneously barring a catastrophic strategic intelligence failure. In the next 10 years, the ROKA will complete the bulk of its modernization program (and it's no secret that the ROK MOD is betting heavily on advanced robotics yielding fruitful results in their own little "revolution in military affairs" over the long horizon. So at some point in the near future, the conventional invasion will no longer be an option for them.
Now I've read a lot of nonsense in the current MSM regarding the KPA's quantitative superiority in arty, tanks, MRBMs etc etc. I just don't think that matters much as long as the forward deployed ROKA units can buy enough time (assuming we have reasonable strategic warning) for reserves (I mean ROK V, VI, VII Corps and US 2ID) to be committed. If Kim decides to roll the dice at his deathbed and somehow the KPA were to come down, I seriously doubt they'd be able to achieve a breakthrough unless there is a major SNAFU (e.g., Shortly after Park Chunghee was assassinated, Chun Doo Hwan staged a military coup by asking Roh Tae Woo to bring down his 9th ROK Division which had literally left a gap in the ROK I Corps AO. And we didn't know what was going on until it after Chung Sung Hwa was arrested.). Even though some uninformed observers focus on the supposed "operational control" of ROK forces by the UNC/CFC/USFK commanding general, the reali ty is that we never had it in almost 50 years except in limited circumstances. Even during Paul Bunyan, Gen. Stilwell had to consult with Park personally on every decision including the selection of ROKA special forces people who were part of the TF Vierra. We would've had opcon IF the North came down, but during peacetime it's only accorded during field exercises like Team Spirit. And those were scripted by CFC and half of them were ROKA personnel. The South Korean left as usual blamed Gen. Wickham for the deployment of ROKA units during the Kwangju rebellion, but that's just a typical anti-American nonsense we've seen for almost sixty years. He wasn't even informed of the movement orders of the ROK special forces brigades (and predictably the Daegu generals selected units who were mostly from Kyongsang province. That would be akin to sending an Alabama National Guard unit to quell an uprising in Detroit). As I had posted earlier, the ROKA high co mmand will have a greater input on operational planning as now it's going to be almost all their people who will be forward deployed. Our concern for decades was the question of defense in depth in order for the 2ID and the ROKA to buy time for the reinforcements to arrive from Okinawa, Hawaii and CONUS.
I can't assess much beyond my own experience but let me just say that back in the 1970s when the North was much closer to us in qualitiatve terms (both in terms of hardware and trained personnel) I thought we could buy at least a week with very hard fights along phased defensive lines along the MSR 1. When the PLA had come down in 1950, the ROKA (esp. the 1st Division under Paik) held them for 3 days despite the North achieving complete strategic surprise as well as overwhelming superiority in firepower and mostly crucially in armor. Those young South Korean men tried to stop T-34s with Molotov cocktails and satchel charges as human Panzerfausts. If there's one thing we know from 1991 (73 Easting) and in 2003 (The 3ID's Thunder Run into Baghdad), it's that old Soviet hardware in the hands of hardened combat veterans (Tawalkana in 1991) isn't a match for a better trained US heavy force no matter the numerical imbalance at tactical level. The final qu estion though is how will a ROKA kid perform under fire. Among my Korean friends who have boys who are nearing military service age, some have openly questioned whether they are tough enough. I suspect that's just part of growing old as to old farts like us, the young people always seem inadequate. Provided the ROKA junior officers and field grades develop and maintain enough unit cohesion (it's a bit more tricky with conscription obviously), I think they'll do fine if fighting erupts. As George C. Scott put it so eloquently in _Patton_, "When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do." The flip side question remains unanswered, but I suspect overwhelming casualty rates might break the will of the North Korean soldier a lot sooner now than I would have expected back in the 1970s. (IMHO if the PLA masses its armored units, they will die "by the bushel." If there 's one thing the Army and the USAF know how to do is to fight AirLand style battle.)