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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.

Another bit you should know. Seoul is in range of thousands of DPRK artillery tubes and missiles — many of which are in hard-to-bomb mountain hideaways. It would take hundreds of aircraft sorties, and an untold amount of counter-battery fire, before Seoul would be safe again — and the damage could take years to repair. An unprovoked attack at pre-dawn could serve up death and destruction unseen in any major city since World War II.

And I’m not even factoring in the possibility of the North kicking off the festivities with a nuke, because I like to sleep at night.

The Worse News

Yes, there’s worse news. Now, I’ve written about a North Korean collapse pretty extensively, and going back seven years. If you don’t want to go through the archives, just know this: it would be the biggest humanitarian crisis since The Flood, only with loose nuclear materials.

The Downright Scary News

So, yes, North Korea could seriously mess up the South, after which the North would cease to exist as an independent nation. And I believe that China would move to intervene in the DPRK long before ROK or U.S. troops (technically, UN troops) could get through the DMZ. Then what’s so downright scary?

It’s almost certain that the South could handle the North without much in the way of American help — and a Chinese coup de grace would certainly bring hostilities to a quick end. (Let’s assume that China would find it much more beneficial this time around to stop a Korean War than to enlist in one.) But: if President Obama did anything less than to order a full and immediate reinforcement of South Korea — on land, sea, and air — our other enemies and rivals would read much into such inaction. They might read too much into it, but they would read it just the same.

More importantly — most especially — is the message our allies would receive: that America is no longer a reliable ally.

Turkey has already de facto left NATO, in favor of rising Persian power. Obama has personally handed Israel its hat and coat, and shoved it towards the door. Britain has been insulted, India snubbed, and the French ignored. It wouldn’t take much more to see what remains of our alliances blown apart. In fact, it wouldn’t take anything more than the slightest wobble in dealing with a Second Korean War.

And as this administration continues to do little or nothing as “the risk of all-out war” reaches historical highs, the signal being sent is most un-American.

“Tread on Me.”