Here’s an analysis of what a war in the Korean peninsula would be like.
Merely hours after US President Donald Trump drafted a hurried letter to his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un, citing hostility as a reason for the cancellation of the Singapore summit, scheduled for 12 June, the latter showcased his intent for the show to go on. Until Trump’s next Twitter surprise, the summit is on for now.
While Trump has stated that the US does not expect North Korea to undertake ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation’ (CVID), after their first proposed meeting, the summit is critical to the future course of diplomacy between the two countries.
The chances of a diplomatic impasse in Singapore are quite high. At the time of this article being written, of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad planning to visit North Korea are coming in. If the visit is confirmed or happens before the Kim-Trump summit, it could derail the agenda of denuclearisation, or even cease its criticality.
With men of fragile egos set to lead the discussion, could war be the last resort in the case of a diplomatic impasse?
Assuming North Korea disagrees with the idea of CVID, even in a phased manner, and China opts out of exercising pressure on Kim and continues to that sustains trade for the regime. Alongside, if the diplomatic pursuits of Japan and South Korea yield no results, Trump could well consider pushing the nuclear button before his first term comes to an end.
So, what would a war in the Korean peninsula be like?
In the next few years, or earlier, North Korea will achieve the capacity to target the entire US mainland with a nuke-mounted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Thus, the US would be tempted to choose between two options.
One, they could carpet bomb the North Korean regime, take control of the nuclear sites, eliminate Kim, and end the conflict once and for all. Two, they could sanction smaller operations, efficient enough to cause damage to Kim’s war assets, but not big enough to drive him out of power.
Factoring in Kim’s nuclear strength and unpredictability, Trump might opt for the first option. To begin with, US would have to invest resources far in excess of what they did in Iraq or Vietnam. Going in, they might be without an exit plan as well. Yes, the US alone has enough nuclear capacity to decimate North Korea 100-500 times, but things get complicated when military strength is accounted for.
Firstly, Trump will have to get leadership of South Korea, Japan and China on board for his plan. Clearly, there will be resistance from all three frontiers, along with diplomatic attacks from Russia for provoking a war in its neighbourhood.
Leading global players and international bodies might alienate Trump for starting another war, given how the European and Middle Eastern states continue to suffer due to the Iraq war.
However, if Trump finds the threat from North Korea’s nuclear ICBMs to be greater than the global backlash, he might as well move ahead, ignoring resistance from the Korean neighbourhood. Japan and South Korea, contemplating the possible destruction and danger to their cities, may choose to be reluctant allies in this misadventure.
Assuming the political puzzle is solved, the next challenge for US would be to achieve surprise in attack. Again, contemplating the fallout of a war in its neighborhood, China might alert North Korea about US’ preparations to ensure a stalemate, if not come to its defence. Even without China’s assistance, North Korea’s robust intelligence would be able to decipher the military developments in the Yellow Sea and Sea of Japan, where additional forces would be brought in.
A 2016 assessment from the Pentagon that the US would need to station at least 2,000 warplanes in South Korea. Thus, for the US to take control of Kim’s nuclear sites and weapons, without provoking a response, will not be possible.
Assuming North Korea’s intelligence fails to decipher US preparedness in its backyard, and China and Russia choose to not alert Kim, the next challenge for the US would be to achieve 100 per cent success in the first strike. This would include control of all nuclear launch sites, nuclear weapons mounted on mobile devices, ICBMs, and eliminating Kim and his closest aides, as in Operational Plan 5015.
Once US ventures into Kim’s ‘dynastyland’, it will find itself facing an adversary who would be quick to use a nuclear weapon, if not against the US, surely against Seoul or Tokyo. Repeated have cited how Kim would be looking to use nuclear weapons in the early days of war to prevent US and its allies from continuing the attack. Kim is no Mikhail Gorbachev or Nikita Khrushchev to exercise restraint in the face of a nuclear crisis.
For US, this will bring back memories of the Cold War, when Western Europe wondered if the US would sacrifice Paris to save Los Angeles. Even if the US forces take control of the nuclear weapons, North Korea would still be left with its artillery.
North Korea will have some capability to respond, and they would, by mounting their deadliest chemical and biological weapons on rockets capable of hitting Seoul and Tokyo and its 20 million residents in minutes. A Congressional Research Service stated that Kim has enough weapons to attack Seoul using 10,000 conventional rockets per minute, possibly killing close to half-a-million residents, and this is without factoring in any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon.
Given Kim has toxic gases to a few thousand tonnes and biological weapons that include anthrax, smallpox and yellow fever, North Korea could wound, paralyse or even kill more people than its entire population, without even putting its nuclear arsenal to use. A sustained sarin attack would kill 2.5 million people in Seoul alone, while choking 7-10 million in the area, and there would be no way for US or its allies to contain the casualties.
Another from Harvard’s Belfer Center states that a small quantity of anthrax, equal to a few bottles of wine, would kill 5 million people in Seoul. The regime could release its chemical and biological weapons via drones, missiles or assassins with nothing but a backpack full of lethal weapons. Not only Japan and South Korea, North Korea’s weapons could put more than 150,000 US lives in the island of Guam, a US territory, at risk.
The world’s fixation with North Korea’s nuclear capacity has resulted in no attention being paid to the thousands of tonnes of chemical and biological weapons the regime has managed to create and stock as if they were chocolate bars.
To add to the misery of US, North Korea’s terrain is rough and mountainous, ideal for guerilla warfare, something the local armed forces excel at. Even if Trump’s luck helped him attain control of Kim’s greater nuclear and artillery strength, there would be the question of ground warfare. The knowledge of underground networks and tunnels is common in North Korea, and in the event of an invasion, the regime could have special forces attacking the US and its allies from frontiers unknown. Worse, they could cross the Korean Demilitarized Zone (a buffer zone between North and South Korea) and attack Seoul within minutes with a mobile nuclear device.
If certain are to be believed, North Korea’s artillery is far superior to that of the US, at least in numbers, if not efficiency. Thus, the regime would be in a position to drag the fight for days, weeks, or even months. Even if Trump does not factor in the destruction within the US mainland, he would risk US lives easily in excess of 200,000 along with the millions in Japan and South Korea, for US troop deployment may exceed that in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some put the required US troop deployment number in excess of 500,000. The US Department of Defense puts US casualties in Iraq in excess of 4,000. In North Korea, they may well exceed 100,000.
Eliminating North Korea’s military will not be enough, for its population of 25 million see Kim and his family as gods, to be feared, to be worshipped, and to be protected. The resulting guerilla warfare could go on for months, or as in Iraq and Vietnam, for years.
Thus, for the first option to work, Trump would need all the luck there is in the universe. However, even then he would be left with millions dead, wrecked global economy, more than 20 million Korean refugees, and a land ravaged by war. The entire episode, even if it lasts a few days, would make the Syrian civil war look like a high-school feud and Brexit like a coffee table argument. The refugee count in the Korean peninsula itself would be more than twice of what was seen during India’s Partition in 1947.
Assuming Trump and his forces do everything right, assuming no nuclear bomb is dropped, assuming all sites are taken control of by US and its allies, assuming the loss of lives at the US end is minimum, and assuming Seoul or Tokyo is not bombed, the question of rehabilitation of North Korea’s refugees would remain. China and Russia would be faced with a situation far worse than what the EU faced during the Syrian crisis. Alongside, there would be the question of an interim government in North Korea. Would it be a communist one, loyal to Beijing, or one united with Seoul and backed by Washington?
The fallout would also be seen in the Middle East, where Russia would intensify its operations against the US. Assad, threatened by US actions in North Korea, could look to enhance his own defence operations. Iran, recently alienated by the US in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, could embark on its own programme for developing nuclear weapons.
Even if everything goes right in North Korea for the US, they would be looking at wars or its possibilities on two other fronts. In China, it might find a reluctant ally looking to take control of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, if any are left, or aiding the rehabilitation, but that would depend on the political understanding between the two superpowers.
The fate of 200 million people residing in both the Koreas and Japan depends on how Trump and Kim negotiate when they meet in Singapore next week. For now, it’s up to two unpredictable men, unprecedented in their leadership and actions, to ensure that the world does not enter a war, unlike any witnessed since 1945.
This is a war none can win.