North Korea
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
North Korean military officers vow to wage a sacred war against the US at a meeting in Pyongyang in this undated photo released by North Korea’s KCNA news agency on September 22. Photo: Reuters.

Analysis 20,000 South Koreans killed per day: the terrifying cost of a US war with North Korea

The defeat of North Korea would be inevitable, say US analysts, but it would come at a devastating price, even without the use of nuclear weapons

North Korea

US President Donald Trump’s threatening posture toward North Korea – most recently exhibited at the United Nations, where he warned that the US could “totally destroy” the country – has prompted military strategists to examine what would actually happen if a war broke out.

The scenarios are a sobering corrective to the notion that North Korea’s nuclear capacity could be taken out in a single strike, or that the government would prove as fragile as that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

And even in the event of a conventional war, the toll could be catastrophic - 20,000 South Korean lives per day, according to one Pentagon estimate.

“Too many Americans have the view that it would be like the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan, or like combat operations in Libya or Syria, but it wouldn’t remotely resemble that,” said Rob Givens, a retired Air Force Brigadier General who spent four years stationed on the Korean peninsula.
This undated file photo distributed on September 3, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second from right, inspecting a purported hydrogen bomb at an undisclosed location.Photo: AP

And that is before the North Koreans turn to nuclear weapons. “There is only one way that this war ends,” Givens said. “With North Korea’s defeat – but at what cost?”

James Stavridis, a retired Navy admiral and dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said the horrific war many have long feared with North Korea is a distinct possibility. He puts the chances of conventional conflict with North Korea at 50-50 and the chances of nuclear war at 10 per cent.

In an all-out contest for regime survival, [North Korea] will come after the United States. They are not going to win, but they will try – I guarantee that
Rob Givens, retired US Air Force Brigadier General

“We are closer to a nuclear exchange than we have been at any time in the world’s history with the single exception of the Cuban missile crisis,” Stavridis said.

The conflict that Stavridis envisions might start with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un launching a missile that lands on or near Guam.

The United States then moves aircraft carrier strike groups within range of the peninsula and retaliates with an air strike on a coastal launch facility, perhaps using a Tomahawk cruise missile – similar to the attack the US launched to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

The strike is intended as a message, not an invitation to all-out war. But Kim, unlike Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, is unlikely to sit idly by.

“He has to react. He knows that if there is a military strike and he does nothing about it, they’ve called his bluff and the game is all over for him,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst on North Korea.

North Korea might respond by lobbing a few artillery shells toward the 35,000 US troops currently stationed in South Korea.

North Korea has about 11,000 conventional artillery pieces dug into the mountains north of the demilitarised zone. Although much of the equipment dates from the Soviet era, it is in excellent working order and well protected from drone strikes and air strikes because it is designed to be rolled in and out from tunnels in the mountains.

The United States would try to take out the artillery with drones and air strikes, but that would take days, in which time the North Koreans would probably launch a punishing barrage aimed at Seoul and its population of 25 million.
This combination of file photos shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

As the war escalates, the North Koreans would probably bomb the bridges across Seoul’s Han River to make it more difficult for civilians to flee; use special forces and infiltrators to attack key facilities and personnel in South Korea; and launch short-range missiles against South Korean and US military bases.

The Pentagon has estimated the potential number of dead in South Korea at 20,000 each day, Givens said. And that is before the North Koreans turn to nuclear weapons.

Although North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and conducted six nuclear tests, the technologies have not yet been married together. That means that though the West Coast of the US now appears to be within range of North Korea’s missiles, it is unlikely that Pyongyang could credibly target the mainland United States with a fully functioning nuclear weapon at this stage.

On the other hand, a nuclear device could be smuggled into a container port or dropped from an aeroplane, perhaps near one of the US bases in Asia.

“In an all-out contest for regime survival, they will come after the United States. They are not going to win, but they will try – I guarantee that,” Givens said.

The paradox with North Korea is that its weakness is what makes it so dangerous – and why it is difficult to make comparisons with the cold war period, when fears of mutually assured destruction deterred war with the Soviet Union.
A mock North Korea's Scud-B missile, left, and South Korean missiles are displayed at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul. Photo: AP
South Korean army'K-9 self-propelled howitzers move on the street in Paju, South Korea, on August 29. Photo: AP
If Kim thinks his government is collapsing, many of those who have long studied the inscrutable leader believe, he would be inclined to reach for the nuclear option to take down everyone else with him – a last lash of the dragon’s tail.

“The North Koreans are in a weak position. They can’t sustain a protracted conventional war. They would have to reach for their weapons of mass destruction early on,” said Daniel Pinkston, a former military translator who now teaches defence strategy in South Korea.

The very notion of trying to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons, he added, “has a high likelihood that you are going to unleash the very thing that you are trying to prevent.”

Kim Jong-il, father of the current leader, is widely reported to have said, “I would destroy the world or take the world with me before accepting defeat on the battlefield.”

The oft-cited statistics about North Korea’s military are formidable: 1.2 million soldiers in the fourth-largest ground army in the world, among them more than 100,000 special forces trained to infiltrate South Korea. Although its military hardware dates back to the Soviet era, North Korea has more tanks than the United States (3,500 compared with 2,381) and more artillery pieces than China. Its nuclear fissile material is enough for at least 12 nuclear weapons, possibly as many as 60, depending on their size. (According to the Arms Control Association, the US has 1,411 strategic nuclear warheads.)

“The North Korean army is still inferior in every aspect of their operations, but they have massive artillery and missile capability, very large special forces and covert operations and submarines,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of a study of the military balance in Asia.

No doubt, a replay of the Korean war in the 21st century would be quicker than the 1950-53 Korean war, a slog through snow-choked mountains that killed nearly 2 million people and left the demarcation line between North and South Korea essentially in the same place where it had started.

But despite the mechanised, high-technology weapons deployed in modern-day warfare, a new Korean war could be as drawn out and messy as the earlier one.

“A war today would certainly involve a lot of technology, more precise and lethal systems than the last war, but you need to be very, very careful or you could be fighting in precisely those same mountains,” Cordesman said.

One of the unpredictable factors charting the course of a new Korean war is whether China would enter the war to save its communist ally.

The Global Times, a newspaper that often expresses Chinese government views, editorialised last month that China would not help North Korea if the US retaliated against a North Korean missile attack. However, it also warned that “if the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”

Most military strategists don’t expect the current Chinese government under Xi Jinping to send its troops across the Yalu River as Mao Zedong did in 1950. But Beijing could conduct air strikes to prop up the government in Pyongyang, in much the way that Russia has come to the aid of Syria’s Assad. The Chinese also might intervene to call for a peace deal that would end up keeping Kim in power.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: the terrifying cost of a War in Korea