A reader wrote by email to ask “what would happen if N. Korea launches a war?”. The known answers to that question are laid out in a summary of known contingency plans. The basic answer is that the Republic of Korea gets seriously damaged, but North Korea does not survive. “Pyongyang has the ability to start a new Korean War, but not to survive one.” The essential points to remember are that the bulk of forces on both sides are facing each other across the border.
North Korean ground forces, totaling some 1 million soldiers, are composed of some 170 divisions and brigades including infantry, artillery, tank, mechanized and special operation forces. Of the total, about 60 divisions and brigades are deployed south of the Pyongyang-Wonsan line. North Korea has deployed more than half of its key forces in forward bases near the border. Seventy percent of their active force, to include 700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery systems, and 2,000 tanks, is garrisoned within 100 miles of the Demilitarized Zone.
The ROK is deployed to keep them from rushing down the only corridors that will support logistical movement. “Most probably, the DPRK attack would aim at seizing nearby Seoul by advancing down the Kaesong-Munsan, Kumwa, and Chorwon corridors. … Initially, the primary battlefield would be only about 125 kilometers wide and 100 kilometers deep.” If a new Korean War broke out it would be an clash of mind-boggling intensity across a very concentrated front.
It is said that “Pyongyang can credibly threaten the prompt destruction of Seoul with conventional arms alone” largely by employing artillery emplaced north of Seoul. But the devil in the details is that of its vaunted thousands of artillery pieces only “500 long-range artillery tubes [are] within range of Seoul”. Many of the older pieces can only reach limited parts of it.
The mobility of these pieces under almost certain South Korean and US air superiority is questionable. And their ability to continue firing will be determined by the effectiveness of counterbattery.
Thus, in the early 2000s, the US planned to augment ROK’s counterbattery radar in the event of an attack. After experience in the Middle East, the use of UAVs was emphasized. But their object is the same. With these assets in play North Korea’s artillery fist will gradually wither under counterfire.
The big American contribution will be in supporting systems. While earlier operations plans emphasized American reinforcements in terms of troop numbers, actual boots and tanks, the more recent plans are centered around the provision of force multipliers. This probably includes laser guided artillery shells, and missiles, radar, UAVs, in addition of course to the ubiquitous JDAMs and laser guided bombs.
In isolation Seoul will almost certainly defeat Pyongyang in a new Korean War. War will mean the death of the Kim dynasty though at the cost of very heavy damage to Seoul and the border area. The sheer scale of the engaged forces guarantee it. But the outcome is clear.
One on one, Seoul always wins. So the object of North Korean strategy is to ensure that whatever happens it is never one on one.
Since the involvement of the Chinese and the United States into the equation creates such an unacceptable risk such that both Washington and Tokyo will endure almost any provocation to avoid it, North Korea’s primary strategic aim is to make sure America is always caught up in the toils. Once America and China are in the picture, Pyongyang can hope for a stalemate. Once it is internationalized Seoul will be less likely to finish North Korea than in an isolated conflict.
What has protected Pyongyang against Seoul is the knowledge that any American incursion deep into North Korea may bring on a Chinese intervention. But with the growing power of the South and the forward deployment of North Korean forces most of Pyongyang’s army is vulnerable to encirclement and destruction close to Seoul. South Korea does not need to march with the US forces on Pyongyang to destroy Kim. If Seoul can destroy’s Kim’s army near the DMZ, they can almost literally send cops north to arrest him. The remnant North Koreans will probably deliver him in a coffin to Seoul.
One on one, Seoul always wins.
So the North Korean problem might be stated as ‘how to threaten Seoul without giving South Korea the freedom to finish it on its own’; to make threats severe enough to extract blackmail payments yet always keep Washington at the end of the hook. Pyongyang’s answer to this dilemma is to make implicit threats that have an unavoidable regional dimension.
North Korea has begun moving its mid-range missile launchers, possibly indicating a looming test as tensions are already boiling on the peninsula, U.S. officials told Fox News.
Earlier Thursday, South Korea said North Korea moved a missile with “considerable range” to its east coast after an unnamed spokesman for the North Korean army warned the U.S. Wednesday that its military has been cleared to wage an attack using “smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear” weapons.
The idea is probably to involve US assets in the theater again. Keep it international. The stakes are such that an attack on a US installation by a North Korean conventional warhead would probably not compel the Obama administration into full scale hostilities. It would raise the heat without the pot necessarily boiling over.
That’s where missile defense comes in.
The nonobvious purpose of missile defense is to isolate the international scene from Kim’s threats. In general it allows the capability to manage the escalation process. If it can keep America out of the line of fire while allowing America to provide limited support for Seoul, it is advantage America.
For, as we have seen, in an isolated scenario Seoul always wins, albeit at great cost to itself. Earlier this year Yonhap reported that “South Korea and U.S. forces jointly carried out a one-day drill in early February to rehearse key tasks in planning and execution of combined ballistic missile defense”. Whether or not the state of preparation is enough, the existence of theater ballistic missile capability is a vital factor. It puts Kim’s strategic goals out of reach.
It presents Kim with unattractive strategic choices: if he continues a policy of belligerence he must either start a fight with ROK that he can’t win or he must desist. The world wants him to desist.
If North Korea can be deprived of effective threat moves long enough then it may implode on itself or come to Jesus. Or so the thinking goes. The basic problem with this calculus is Murphy. Murphy can throw a wrench into the calculus. With North Korea going from provocation to provocation there is always risk of something going wrong. Always the chance that someone doesn’t get the word. The nightmare scenario is the same as in all tightrope walking. One false move and someone falls off the wire.
The following paragraphs are purely a work of fiction and have no analytic value. They are presented purely for visualization purposes. One day in summer, 2013 a flash report on TV:
Initial reports from Seoul reports that hundreds of artillery shells landed on the South Korean capital at rush hour today. Thousands of persons are feared dead or injured. A DNN correspondent reports seeing explosions and columns of smoke from his hotel room. Uploaded YouTube video shows the chaotic, bloody scenes in emergency hospitals that were described as “hell”. Some YouTube video shows the sky above Seoul crisscrossed by streaks or contrails.
“I can see streaks the the sky. I am not sure if they are jets. Yes, there go F-16s. Whether South Korean or American I cannot tell. But over there! What seems like ripple fire from a rocket launcher. The missiles are going over the border into North Korea. Oh God!
The streets are clogged with vehicles of panicked civilians trying to get somewhere. The cell phone net is down from millions of calls all trying to connect simultaneously. It’s like a nightmare.
Meanwhile in a bunker in North Korea.
President Kim: Who gave the order to fire?
Chief of the General Staff: I don’t know Mr. President. Our best guess is an error in communications. We were supposed to conduct a drill with no live ammunition on pre-registered targets in Seoul. The schools and shopping malls were zeroed in. We’ve drilled this a hundred times before. Somehow the orders were sent to fire live.
President Kim: Aren’t there checks to make sure the order is valid?
Chief of the General Staff: Yes, but ever since we have moved to a hair-trigger footing we disabled some of the validation procedures to realistically simulate combat.
President Kim: So you are saying we goofed?
Chief of the General Staff: It may have happened. May I suggest that we accuse the Americans and their running dogs of purposely hacking into our communications networks and sending a fake order to fire on Seoul?
President Kim: That would make us look like idiots.
Chief of the General Staff: I am sure most of the Western Left would believe it. They would believe anything. But we have to stop the South Koreans somehow! In the last 4 hours they have destroyed 200 of our artillery tubes and launchers. The are locating the firing positions to an accuracy of 5 meters and bury each with delayed detonation penetrating projectiles.
President Kim: How long till they are all silenced?
Chief of the General Staff: No more than 24 hours. And what is worse our agents report that a operations plan we don’t know about is being put into effect by the ROK. Operation Shit Through a Goose. It’s something we have never heard of before. I am afraid …
President Kim: There is no turning back now, we must get the Americans to stop Park! Give the order for our special forces in the South to attack according to Case Golden. Car bombs on the Western embassies. Commando teams into all the major hotels.
Sometime later the evening of the first day the major media stations report from Seoul.
We have lost contact with our correspondent as he was broadcasting from his hotel. He reported hearing a commotion and gunfire downstairs. I have asked US officials in Seoul if they can locate or make contact with anyone from that hotel, but we have so far failed to get through even to the Embassy. Stand by. Stand by. The Secretary of State is announcing a press conference beginning in 15 minutes.
Mr. Secretary, Mr. Secretary. Where is the President? Where is the President?
“The President is on the line with the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of South Korea. He will be calling for restraint.”
Mr. Secretary, Mr. Secretary, can you comment on news that the ROK 9th “White Horse division” has crossed the border into the North?
“I cannot comment on that at this time.”
Mr. Secretary, can you comment on reports that the Embassy has been attacked and the Marines are in a room to room fight with North Koreans who approached disguised as ROK servicemen?
“We are asking for an emergency meeting of the Security Council.”
Glad none of that can happen.