by J. Robert Smith
Rising tensions and possible war with North Korea have been in the news for weeks. Less reported on would be a war’s toll. War on the Korean peninsula would feature technology-juiced conventional and asymmetric fighting. Destruction and casualties would tally quickly. That’s military and civilian -- U.S., Korean, and possibly Japanese. Modern warfare’s lethality needs to be understood. If a nation goes to war, it needs to go with its eyes wide open.
Is conventional war now, even with its high price, better than war tomorrow, with nukes in the mix?
Let’s establish this first. President Trump has every right to worry about Kim Jong-un’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles capability. Outgoing president Barack Obama warned Trump about the threat. Trump has clearly learned a lot more since.
Reported BBC News:
North Korea's latest efforts appear focused on building reliable long-range missiles, which may have the potential to reach the mainland United States.War scenarios have the U.S. launching a preventive strike against the North. The principal aim would be to “decapitate” the Hermit Kingdom’s leadership. Simultaneously, the U.S. would go after Kim’s nuclear sites. Attacks would target the North’s military chain of command and seek to disrupt -- if not shut down -- communications and stymie the Korean People’s Army’s (KPA) movement. U.S. and South Korean (ROK) forces would act to neutralize KPA’s forces massed along the DMZ.
Two types of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) known as the KN-08 and KN-14, have been observed at various military parades since 2012.
Carried and launched from the back of a modified truck, the three-stage KN-08 is believed to have a range of about 11,500km.
The KN-14 appears to be a two-stage missile, with a possible range of around 10,000km.
A first strike against the North would be a coordinated mix of conventional warfare (primarily cruise missiles and fighter aircraft), special forces and covert operations, and cyberattacks. It’s “shock and awe,” with more hoped-for finality. If it worked as planned, the war would practically end before it started.
It’s high stakes. A first strike is unambiguous. Short of killing Kim and the North Korean elites outright, they’d get that it was death match. War with the U.S. and the South would mean inevitable defeat for the North’s elite. That’s the makings of desperation.
What we know about wars is that they rarely go as planned. The KPA isn’t Saddam’s army. It isn’t the Taliban. They’re generally well equipped, rigorously trained, and appear motivated – via fear and special status -- to fight. (North Korea’s military is ranked 23 out of 126 by globalfirepower.com.) The North has concentrated forces and thousands of artillery pieces in the hills just north of the DMZ to strike Seoul. Seoul’s a mere 30 miles from the DMZ.
Metro Seoul’s population is 25 million. In the opening phase of a war, the North would unleash thousands of rounds of artillery fire. Or intend to. It’s speculated that much of that artillery is outdated, and munitions may be poor, too. But that’s based on documents “leaked” from the North. They may be disinformation. But it’s a numbers game, anyway.
With thousands of artillery pieces, what portion would have to be operational to wreak havoc on Seoul? From the Washington Post:
The Second Corps of the Korean People’s Army stationed at Kaesong on the northern side of the DMZ has about 500 artillery pieces, [analyst] Bermudez said. And this is just one army corps; similar corps are on either side of it.How quickly could the U.S. and ROK make headway in destroying functioning artillery? Not overnight. How much time would KPA firepower have to attack Seoul? Add to the mix the North’s chemical and biological munitions stockpile.
All the artillery pieces in the Second Corps can reach the northern outskirts of Seoul, just 30 miles from the DMZ, but the largest projectiles could fly to the south of the capital.
The North has agents deployed throughout Seoul Metro. They would act as saboteurs, yes, but they’d target leaders to kill. Soft civilian targets would be in their crosshairs too.
The North has 180,000 commandos. Per the Washington Post:
“Strategic SOF [Special Operations Force] units dispersed across North Korea appear designed for rapid offensive operations, internal defense against foreign attacks, or limited attacks against vulnerable targets in the ROK [Republic of Korea] as part of a coercive diplomacy effort,” the report said. “They operate in specialized units, including reconnaissance, airborne and seaborne insertion, commandos, and other specialties. All emphasize speed of movement and surprise attack to accomplish their missions.”The U.S. has 23,500 stationed in the South. Thousands of U.S. troops are deployed along the DMZ, serving as a tripwire. In the opening days, U.S. causalities would be significant. Rolling up the KPA would mean advancing up the Peninsula toward the Chinese and Russian borders. Fighting would be fierce. Much of the Korean peninsula features hills, mountains, and valleys. It’s suitable terrain for resistance warfare.
As for the Chinese and Russians, military intervention is unlikely, for obvious and complicated reasons. The Russians don’t have a history of direct military confrontation with the U.S. Berlin and Cuba saw tensions resolved without conflict. The Russians were glad to equip and arm the North Vietnamese communists, but not to do the fighting.
For the PRC, the early 1950s are long gone. Mao certainly tipped the balance for the North Korean communists in the Korean War. U.S. and allied forces had all but won the fight when Chinese intervention led to a stalemate.
Modern China’s economic health is tied to manufacturing and global trade, much of it with the U.S. The PRC seeks broad hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. Xi Jingping and Trump may have come to an accord over what to do about the North in hopes of avoiding war. Certainly, Pyongyang is unhappy with the Chinese, lashing out at Beijing for its “lame excuses for the base acts of dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
War and the North’s defeat would push refugee hordes into China. Managing a refugee crisis isn’t something China wants. Nor does the PRC want U.S. and ROK troops perched on the Yalu and Tumen Rivers. For that matter, Putin wouldn’t care for the U.S. to be nearer Vladivostok. Avoiding conflict better serves China’s interests.
There’s no question that Kim Jong-un is ruthless, but is he suicidal? Like a poker player, Kim could keep his nuke card in hand, threatening to play it to wring concessions. Kim’s father and grandfather were masters at bellicosity and exacerbating tensions to leverage aid and economic help.
A White House official is worried about nuclear blackmail, as Fox News reported:
North Korea’s nuclear weapons development could be used as “blackmail” to influence the U.S. to abandon its ally in South Korea in order to make it easier for Pyongyang to overtake its archrival, a White House official [Mark Pottinger] said Tuesday.Would a future U.S. president abandon South Korea in the face of nuclear blackmail? Who knows if Kim’s successor would be ruthless and rational? Even rational men miscalculate. Is conventional war now, even with its high price, better than war tomorrow, with nukes in the mix?
Trump is weighing a lot. War, and its consequences, carries the greatest weight.
J. Robert Smith
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