Despite its small size and relative weakness, the ‘hermit kingdom’ still poses a formidable threat to any would-be adversaries.
As tensions escalate between the United States and North Korea, journalists, talking heads, and members of the chattering class seem to wonder how a potential military conflict with Pyongyang would play out.
Most seem to agree, with a few exceptions, that following an outbreak of hostilities, North Korea would pummel the South Korean capital of Seoul with the 8,000 artillery pieces they have stationed along the DMZ.
There also seems to be consensus that a pre-emptive strike to take out Pyongyang’s nuclear, missile, and artillery forces would not successfully eradicate their long-range capabilities.
Commentators also seem to assume that war with North Korea would end in a quick, but bloody, U.S. victory.
“Nasty, brutish, and short,” Quartz predicts, invoking the Hobbesian cliché:
As long as China didn’t get involved to help the North, says Robert E. Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, the Kim-controlled Korean People’s Army (KPA) would lose in a conventional ground war to the US and its allies within “six weeks, a month, two months max.”
Newsweek imagined a particularly undesirable scenario, based on the accounts of North Korean defectors, in which Pyongyang would use its chemical weapons stockpile on critical South Korean infrastructure. But still, military leaders remain confident that the United States would crush North Korea:
Even if that artillery barrage and push into the South gave the North the initiative, there is no question, military planners all say, who would ultimately prevail in a second Korean War. The U.S. and South Korea have far too much firepower, and if Kim Jong Un decided to go to war, that would be end of his regime, whether he knows it or not.
But the plain truth is that no one actually knows what will happen once war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. As British, French, and German soldiers marched off to the front in 1914, they thought that they would return “home by Christmas.” In reality, they spent four long years in trenches, tearing each other apart with new and terrible weapons.
If local history is any guide, North Korea has been incredibly resilient in the face of invasion, embargo, poverty, and famine. The Kim dynasty has maintained a stranglehold on the country, indoctrinating 25 million people to worship their line as deities.
Unceasing propaganda has turned the country into a single-minded population of fanatics. How many North Koreans would the United States have to slaughter before pacifying the country?
Then there’s the North Korean military itself, which protects those 8,000 artillery pieces with capable surface-to-air missile batteries. These would require a “Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) attack” before U.S. air power could attempt to knock out the artillery raining death and destruction on Seoul, according to George Friedman in The Huffington Post:
A SEAD attack could last for days or weeks, during which time North Korean artillery would be raining down on Seoul. The U.S. either accepts the possibility of extreme aircraft losses or the destruction of large parts of Seoul.
While U.S. and allied forces appear on paper to enjoy a high level of superiority to North Korea, other factors complicate the already fragile situation.
Then there’s the nuclear dimension. If North Korea has indeed perfected nuclear miniaturization for long-range delivery to the continental United States, the situation has changed entirely. No one knows what a conflict between two nuclear-armed nations would look like. It’s never happened.
Since the USSR developed its own nuclear arsenal in the late 1940s, academic theorists and military planners have “wargamed” a nuclear exchange, while scientists try to predict the ecological effects of the resulting explosions. But as soon as the missiles are actually flying, all of the academic papers, scientific studies, and military contingencies will fly right out the window with them.
Misinformation, miscalculation, and miscommunication would derail any attempts to de-escalate a nuclear exchange. And if North Korea’s benefactor, China, entered the conflict, a large-scale nuclear exchange might not cease until hundreds of millions are dead.
It’s not clear that U.S. nuclear forces are even prepared for exchanges with other nuclear powers, despite President Trump’s promise that he had renovated the arsenal.
For example, the Trident II submarine-based missile system, which the United States still uses, failed two of three water test launches in 1989, according to The New York Times. The report also indicated that the Trident system had succeeded in 16 out of 18 land-based tests, but that is still less than a 90 percent success rate.
These problems have persisted. The United Kingdom, testing the Trident missile system in 2016, meant to test-fire a Trident II toward the coast of Africa, but the missile flew off in the opposite direction of Florida before exploding mid-air.
A 66 percent failure rate on submarine nuclear launches in a high stakes scenario could have disastrous effects for American nuclear prestige, even if we “won” a nuclear exchange with North Korea. The revelation that American strategic forces were not prepared for an exchange could tip the strategic balance with other large nuclear powers and endanger world nuclear security.
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