What War In Korea Would Actually Look Like?

A shooting war in Korea would be horrific. It must be avoided.

On Monday this week, James Snell wrote a piece arguing in favour of a pre-emptive invasion of North Korea. His arguments are compelling and well-intentioned; however for many reasons his suggestions are impractical on both a tactical and a strategic level.

On the surface it is easy to see why many people believe we should invade. At a tactical level, the combined military might of the United States, South Korea and the other Western allies is vastly superior to that of North Korea, and such an invasion would free the North Koreans from what is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. South Korea has half a million men under arms,
with a significant number in reserve. They have almost 2,000 tanks, varying from older American M48s to over a thousand modern K1 tanks. Their Navy has a number of modern warships and submarines as well as a very capable force of maritime patrol aircraft, and their Air Force numbers almost 500 aircraft, including almost 200 F-15K Slam Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon combat aircraft.


The US has several thousand troops in South Korea, as well as forces stationed in Japan and a significant number of combat aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, which is one of the most advanced air dominance fighters in service anywhere in the world. There is a carrier battle group permanently stationed in Japan, with additional naval forces based at Pearl Harbor, and they have already demonstrated the ability to project air power directly from the United States in the form of their B-52, B-1B and B-2 strategic bombers. Even in their peacetime posture the military power of South Korea and the US is, quite simply, eye-watering, and it is easy to see why people believe they would completely overwhelm the North Korean defences.

Facing the Allies are the North Korean People’s Armed Forces, which includes an army that numbers well over a million men – one of the largest in the world. They also possess one of the largest collections of tanks and artillery in the world, with even the most  conservative estimates showing them as having almost 5,000 tanks and a similar number of artillery pieces. As well as tanks and
artillery, the regime possesses several thousand ballistic missiles of varying types and ranges, all of which can potentially be armed with chemical and biological warheads. Their Air Force numbers several hundred fighters and bombers of various types, which are combined with a vast array of surface-to-air missile systems to create a formidable integrated air defence system. Their Navy
includes a large number of small, fast attack craft as well as an estimated 70 diesel-electric attack submarines.

While most of the North Korean equipment is technologically obsolete, the sheer number of weapons systems that they have fielded is a cause of significant concern to the Western allies, especially considering Western intelligence agencies believe that between 70% and 80% of the North’s armed forces are deployed within 100km of the demilitarised zone that divides North and South Korea. We know that the North Korean Army has as many as a thousand pieces of artillery aimed at Seoul. Over ten million people live in the city alone, rising to almost twenty five million in the wider Seoul conurbation. As soon as hostilities break out, those artillery batteries are going to open fire on one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.

S KoreaIt doesn’t matter how good their intelligence is and how powerful their weapons are, the US and South Korea simply do not have the resources to target and destroy all of these weapons before they are able to respond. Thousands, if not tens of thousands of people will die before the allies are able to silence the guns, rising even further if the North were to use their chemical or biological arsenal. Evacuating Seoul would be impractical to the point of impossible and would be a dead giveaway to the North that something was afoot, removing the element of surprise that is so vital in the opening waves of any military operation. Even if you could evacuate without the North realising, where would you put 25 million displaced South Korean civilians? How would you feed and accommodate them? The logistics for that would be more complex and more demanding than the logistics to feed and supply the Allied forces during the Second World War. You couldn’t, so the civilians of Seoul would soon find themselves on the front line, hunkering down to try and avoid the constant barrage from the North Korean artillery. Dealing with the threat to Seoul would prevent the Allies from pressing forward into North Korea, giving the North time to consolidate their forces to counterattack against the Allies.

The threat to Seoul not only removes the possibility of a pre-emptive invasion of North Korea, but it also puts to bed the idea of a No-Fly Zone or some kind of limited campaign such as the one seen over Libya. Does anyone seriously believe that the North Koreans would consider it a “limited” campaign? No, of course they wouldn’t. As soon as you start trying to decapitate the leadership with
“Drone strikes or SAS squads” the North will start shelling Seoul, Incheon and any other target within the range of their 5,000+ pieces of artillery. If you declare a No-Fly Zone you’ll end up in the kind of air war not seen since Vietnam. To assume that we could simply launch a limited war without it immediately escalating is laughable.

On a strategic level, an invasion of North Korea makes even less sense. North Korea’s only significant ally is China, which has a strong interest in keeping the North Korean regime in place. While exasperated with the increasingly deranged and belligerent bluster that comes from North Korea, the Chinese value the buffer that they provide between them and the US-supported liberal
democracies of South Korea and Japan. They would not tolerate a pre-emptive invasion of North Korea and would likely get involved themselves. If the North attacked first then the situation would likely be a repeat of the 1950-1953 Korean War, namely the Chinese acquiescing to a counter-attack provided any advance does not extend beyond a certain point (in the Korean War this was the Yalu River). They certainly would not agree to out-and-out regime change, and should the Allies push their luck by approaching or crossing the Chinese “do not cross” line, then the war would escalate significantly, risking a wider regional conflict and possibly a direct confrontation between China and the United States. Given their commercial interests in China, not to mention the fact that China holds a significant amount of US Government debt, an invasion of North Korea that risks such a war is the last thing the United States is looking for.

While James may see the benefits of ousting the North Korean regime, it simply doesn’t make any sense for the Western allies to Kim Jung unconsider starting such a war. Ultimately the Allies would prevail, but it would be a difficult and bloody fight with horrendous casualties on all sides. He suggests that the war would be worth it if “casualties were confined to under 100,000 people”, a number that would likely be exceeded within hours as soon as the North start shelling the densely populated civilian population centres of the South. By way of comparison, the Korean War of 1950-1953 saw 1.2 million military personnel killed on all sides, with a further 2.5 million civilians estimated to have been killed or wounded. This is all without nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, and well before the South had such large civilian population centres as those seen in Seoul or Incheon.

To suggest that today we could confine a war on the Korean peninsula to under 100,000 casualties is totally unrealistic. The cost in lives would likely be higher than any war the US has fought since Vietnam, and the cost in cold, hard cash higher still, but that would only be the beginning. Higher still would be the cost of securing the peace, as South Korea will require significant assistance to rebuild and North Korea would need to be rebuilt from scratch. The effort to do so would be along the lines of the effort needed to rebuild Germany and Japan after the Second World War. At a time of shrinking economies and high levels of sovereign debt, it is hard to see where the money for such a reconstruction would come from. The risk of sparking a war with China would be extremely high, which would be ruinous not only for the world’s two largest economic powers but also for the rest of us. Ultimately, the best policy for dealing with North Korea is the current policy of containment and deterrence. Military action should never be taken off the table, but in the case of Korea it should remain only as an option with which to respond to a North Korean attack.

Born in Yeovil, Bob Foster moved to the West Midlands, and following a brief spell in Dublin after university now lives in the North West. When pushed he describes himself as socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-military and anti-Government. His passions are American history, military history and defence policy, and when he doesn’t have his nose in a book on air power or a political memoir he can be found building model aircraft and warships. He works in the defence industry, but speaks for himself. He tweets as @Bobski1984



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