SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea's military strategy is superior to the defensive posture of its affluent neighbor to the South, an independent think-tank said on Wednesday, giving Pyongyang the edge in the early days of any war on the divided peninsula.
The Seoul-based Korea Economic Research Institute said in a report that in 2011 North Korea operated a 1.02-million-strong army and a record number of tanks, warships and air defense artillery. Total military personnel strength is 1.2 million.
"The depressing reality is it would not be entirely wrong to say North Korea's military strength is stronger," the institute said.
"We need to remember that the North is far superior in terms of the number of troops, and especially the North's military is structured in its formation and deployment with the purpose of an offensive war."
South Korea's armed forces number nearly 700,000, and they are backed by about 28,000 U.S. troops.
But analysts say that even though the North's army far outnumbers the combined South Korean and U.S. troop levels, the North's forces would stand no chance of winning a war because their equipment was vastly inferior.
Experts say that while the North might have the early edge in any war, U.S. and South Korean air power alone would quickly turn the advantage their way.
The two Koreas are still technically at war having signed only an armistice to end the 1950-53 Korean War.
Less than a month after the reclusive state's leader Kim Jong-il died, North Korea has made it clear its top priority is maintaining a songun, or military-first, policy whereby the army takes precedence over everything else.
The institute's report called for Seoul to hit back hard against any strike by the North.
"The only way to deter a pre-emptive attack by the North is to make it clear that the South Korean forces will assume it is a precursor to a full-out war and strike back regardless of the nature of the aggression, even if it is a small-scale regional guerilla war."
While the North has fewer combat aircraft than in 1986, its air power has been boosted by top-class MiG-29 fighter jets since the 1990s, the institute said. It also said there have notable increase in the number of submarines.
But experts say most of the North's naval and air force equipment are aged, and that its low fuel supplies mean it would be unable to sustain a long military operation.
Most of the impoverished North's finances are used to develop its programs to build weapons of mass destruction.
The North has come under international sanctions since 2006 for testing nuclear devices and long-range missiles. In late 2010, it unveiled a uranium enrichment facility, which has opened a second route to make an atomic bomb along with its plutonium program.
Analysts say that the young and inexperienced new leader, Kim Jong-un, who is heading a third generation of dynastic rule in the North, will stick to his father's militaristic approach.
They say he could take action, such as a military attack or more nuclear or missile tests, to burnish his credentials as an iron-fisted leader in the same mould as his father and grandfather.
The North has threatened to turn the South's capital, Seoul, into a "sea of fire" on numerous occasions and repeated that rhetoric again last week.
North Korea has a long history of using bellicose language against the South, especially since the conservative government of Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008 and ended a policy of engagement with the North.
The South's Defence Ministry said on Wednesday it would sign a joint operational plan with Washington this month to counter potential aggression, and increase the number of joint exercises with U.S. forces.
The ministry said this move was part of efforts to stay alert and guard against North Korean threats.
"The threat of provocation by North Korea remains a constant possibility as Kim Jong-un moves ahead with building his regime," it said in a report to the president.
"Our military will annihilate the enemy's will to mount repeat aggression by striking back sufficiently against the source of the threat and any supporting element until the enemy threat is completely removed."
The North has in the past lashed out against joint U.S-South Korean drills, saying they themselves are a provocation and are a tantamount to practice for an invasion.
Seoul has revamped its defenses since 50 South Korean soldiers were killed in two separate attacks in 2010.
It has boosted artillery defenses on west coast islands where the attacks took place, and changed its combat rules permitting tougher retaliatory responses.
South Korea increased military spending by 5 percent to 33 trillion won in the 2012 budget.
Additional reporting by Jack Kim and Iktae Park; Editing by Robert Birsel and Ed Lane