The intensifying war of words between North Korea on one hand and the United States and ally South Korea on the other risks igniting a major conflict.
North Korea’s young new leader Kim Jong-un appears to be trying to use this crisis to force Washington into recognizing his nation, normalizing relations, and ending 60 years of US-led economic warfare against the North.
But it’s a very dangerous gamble. An accidental clash at sea, in the air, or along the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas could quickly escalate to war.
What would such a war in Korea look like?
First, nuclear conflict is unlikely. North Korea is not believed to have any long-ranged nuclear weapons, certainly none that could hit North America. North Korea might be able to strike South Korea or even Japan with a nuclear device. But then US nuclear weapons would wipe North Korea off the map.
The Pyongyang government of Kim Jong-un is not suicidal.
For a nation of under 25 million, North Korea has a potent sting: its tough army has 1.1 million active troops and 6 million reserves. North Korea’s military strategy would be to launch a surprise attack on the south to occupy Seoul and Inchon.
The vital US Air Force bases at Osan and Kunsan, and eight South Korean air bases, would be primary targets along with the major port installations at Inchon and Busan (formerly Pusan).
North Korea’s elite 88,000 special forces units are tasked to attack and neutralize these air bases and ports as well as headquarters, communication nodes, and munitions depots of the US and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces. What the Pentagon calls “leadership targets” would also be high on Pyongyang’s hit list.
Barrages of North Korean conventional missiles would hit these bases and command hubs, some possibly with chemical warheads.
Special North Korean amphibious units would land and strike these targets from the sea. North Korea has 300 old Soviet-era AN-2 biplanes that carry ten commandos each. Invisible to radar because they are made of fabric and hug the earth, the AN-2’s would air assault suicide squads into US and ROK airbases and command headquarters.
Other North Korean special forces are tasked with attacking US bases in Okinawa, Japan and as far off as Guam, where the US is installing its new THAAD anti-missile system.
North Korea has developed potent electronic warfare capability that would degrade US/South Korean communications and online targets as well as attacking America’s internet.
Meanwhile, 14,000 North Korean heavy guns and rocket batteries dug into caves behind the DMZ could pour storms of shells or rockets onto US/ROK positions south of the DMZ. North Korea’s powerful 170mm guns and 240mm rockets have a range of 50 and 45 km respectively. Large parts of Seoul would be heavily damaged.
North Korea has about 700,000 soldiers within 150km of the DMZ, with another 400,000 in backup echelons further north. These divisions would fight their way south through South Korea’s “Maginot Line,” seven parallel lines of anti-tank ditches, minefields, and high earth walls surmounted by tanks. South Korea denies this defense line exists, but I have seen it.
In spite of intense air attacks by the US and ROK, the North Korean offensive would cross the wide Han River and could likely reach at least as far south as Seoul, only 90 minutes drive from the DMZ. That is, provided that North Korea’s special forces have seriously degraded US airpower and communications in South Korea.
US retaliation would be ferocious. US and ROK warplanes would quickly attain air superiority over the entire peninsula. North Korea’s 70 airbases would be obliterated and its obsolescent 1970’s vintage air force quickly neutralized.
North Korea’s navy, composed of light craft and small submarines would share a similar fate. US warplanes would pound North Korea’s command and control, communications, rail lines, bridges and all factories not buried underground.
During the 1950-53 Korean War, US B-29 heavy bombers literally flattened North Korea. That’s why North Korea reacted so furiously when US B-52 heavy bombers and B-2 Stealth bombers skirted its borders late last month, triggering off this latest crisis. The B-2 can deliver the fearsome ‘MOAB’ 30,000 lb bomb called “the Mother of All Bombs” designed to destroy deep underground command HQ’s (read Kim Jong-un’s bunker) and underground nuclear facilities.
Since the 1950’s, the North Koreans have buried much of their military-industrial complex and continue to train their ground forces in small unit, off-the-road tactics. The North also has a militia of 1.6 million to defend key targets and factories.
Unless the US uses tactical nuclear weapons, it will be difficult to defeat North Korea unless its army turns on the Kim dynasty. An invasion of North Korea would prove a risky operation that might invite Chinese intervention, as it did in 1950. However, the US has hinted over the years that it may use tactical nuclear weapons to halt another North Korean invasion of South Korea.
Moreover, US ground and air forces are bogged down in Afghanistan and the Mideast, their equipment is run down, and the US Treasury seriously out of money. A real war in Korea might plunge the US into a depression. One must wonder if Kim Jong-un and his advisors have chosen this moment when Washington is over-stretched abroad to challenge the US.
The Pentagon estimated a full-scale invasion of North Korea could cost 250,000 American casualties. In short, a real war, not the police actions launched by the US in Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq.