North vs. South Korea: How Bad Could a War Get?

"As we enter the summer of 2010," writes Austin Bay, "the risk of all-out war on the Korean peninsula is quite high, and possibly the highest it has been since the armistice was signed in 1953."

The good news: It's unlikely that North Korea has enough gasoline to fight for more than a few days.

The bad news: they could really mess up the South in less time than that.

The worse news: nobody knows what would happen after the inevitable North Korean collapse, but everybody knows that nobody could afford it.

The downright scary news: even a wildly unspectacular North Korean invasion would serve as a test of our CINC's mettle -- a test we can't be certain he'd pass.

Let's go through these points one at a time.

The Good News

An army, Napoleon said, travels on its stomach. But a modern army travels on POL: petroleum, oil, lubricants. It's doubtful Pyongyang has enough POL to grease their tanks much further south than midtown Seoul. Also, an army needs lots of ammo and tons of spares. How many new tank tracks do you think the North has been able to beg, borrow, buy, or steal in the last 20 years? Answer: not many. And ammo needs to be replaced every couple of decades -- even bullets have a shelf life. The situation for aircraft is even more critical, so it's a good guess that the North's air force is in even worse shape than the army. The DPRK navy can still pack some punch, as we learned last month, but sneak attacks don't guarantee victory -- just ask Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.

Another bit of good news is that China is giving North Korea some small diplomatic cover over the sinking of the Cheonan. That might not seem like a good thing at first blush, but as long as China maintains influence over the DPRK, the odds of war are reduced.

The Bad News

North Korea has special forces up the Pyongyang. This tiny, starving, impoverished nation has tens of thousands of special forces -- and they have a reputation for being tough, skilled, and deadly. They're also expected to swarm the South's airports and seaports and do a pretty savage job of knocking them out of service. They also might have a pretty easy time of blending into the civilian population (or even disguise themselves as ROK soldiers) and continuing to wreak havoc until found and killed, one by one.