Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003 and is not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) or a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The DPRK is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and is believed to possess a large chemical weapons program. North Korea is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), but is suspected of maintaining an offensive biological weapons program in defiance of that treaty.A moment to clarify terms for the weapons we are talking about. The press and politicians are fond of tossing around the acronym WMD, meaning "Weapons of Mass Destruction," for atomic, biological, and chemical weapons. I had previously known of these by the more logical acronym ABC. A little research told me that the proper term now is CBRNe.
In English the term CBRN is a replacement for the cold war term NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical), which had replaced the term ABC (atomic, biological, and chemical) that was used in the fifties. The addition of the R (for radiological) is a consequence of the "new" threat of a radiological weapon (also known as "dirty bombs"). In the new millennium, the term CBRNe was introduced as an extension of CBRN - the e in this term representing the enhanced (improvised) explosives threat.Who knew that my acronyms were a full half-century out of date?
A missile test now represents a greater danger of escalation towards war than any previous missile test. South Korea was stung by two North Korean provocations in 2010--the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island--and declared that any further provocation would be met with force instead of forbearance. South Korean destroyers will monitor and American ones could shoot down a North Korean missile that threatens to hit South Korea. The United States has placed another anti-missile defence to protect its base in Guam. In addition, Japan has deployed anti-missile systems to use on any missile that overflies its territory. However, we do not know what North Korea's response would be if one of its missiles were shot down. It would, undoubtedly, feel that it had to respond, and that response could provoke an additional response from its neighbours. The result could conceivably be a spiral towards war, as the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, has warned.
The question this posting tries to answer is "What would that war be like?"
If War OccursThe main weapons that North Korea possesses are conventional, and often either old or old-fashioned. It has a 1.1 million man army, 3000 tanks, a large artillery force, substantial special forces within the army, and a large number of hardened, dug-in military sites that would not be trivial to destroy. With these weapons, the North Koreans could, if they felt they must, shell the South Korean capital of Seoul, launch a full assault on South Korea, and create widespread terror and chaos behind the South Korean and American defensive line.
Shelling SeoulIn 1994 and again in 2013, North Korean spokesmen threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire." Its potential to do so is often accepted as fact. North Korea has, in fact, 10,000, 11,000, or 12,000 artillery pieces within range of Seoul. (The number differs according to the source). The counter battery effort--identifying the location of the North Korean artillery and destroying it with missiles, bombs, drones, and self-propelled howitzer rounds would quickly reduce its effectiveness. According to a Chinese article, the American government has announced that it would use the B61 "bunker buster" bomb (a tactical nuclear weapon) if necessary. Despite all this, the first hours would be brutal, and several thousand people in Seoul would die.
The Main AssaultThe American and Korean Operational Plan for an invasion is called OPLAN 5027. It is regularly updated. For example, before 1973, OPLAN involved a retreat to a line behind the Han River, which would be held until reinforcements allowed a counterattack. That implies giving up half of Seoul to North Korean occupation.
More recently, due to a reassessment of the strength of the North and South Korean militaries, the plan is to hold a line north of Seoul while striking North Korea itself with the far superior American and South Korean naval and air forces. Again, the eventual counterattack could take Pyongyang and, potentially, all of North Korea. The ability to do this depends on several factors.
First, the ROK forces must be able to withstand DPRK forces over the first 5-15 days. Second, they must hold the line while US and ROK forces are mustered for the counteroffensive for another 15-20 days. Such a campaign also entails CFC air forces controlling the air and neutralizing DPRK attacks against southern airbases, as well as successful aerial interdiction of DPRK ground force movements.The geography of Korea requires that a second Korean War have similar elements and objectives as the first one. It could also have the same result. In the first, North Korea was defeated but the Chinese took over the war when the UN forces reached the Chinese border (the Yalu River). Keeping the Chinese from entering the war would be a primary objective of diplomacy this time.
Although few people outside of North Korea give the North Korean blitzkrieg much chance of success, it is fascinating to read a North Korean opinion on the matter.
Special ForcesThe North Koreans have 180,000 special forces soldiers. To put this in perspective, the American Special Operations Command has 63,000. Even if this number were only half of the total of the American special forces, it would still be far short of North Korea's. Knowing the weaknesses of its army in a direct assault, it has developed the largest special forces in the world. Their job would include attacks on people, infrastructure, and special buildings to create terror and disruption. The number who could get behind the main battle lines is substantial: "Estimates reveal that the North Koreans can deliver over 7,000 SOF personnel to each of South Korea's coastlines." This is in addition to whatever number may be delivered by air or infiltrate the South Korean and American lines. We can assume that the special forces would kill many people directly or indirectly, as by the destruction of dams.
Aftermath of WarIf North Korea managed to delay a total military defeat, it might try to negotiate terms of peace. China would certainly support this. The United States and, especially, South Korea, might not. There is no way to predict the results.
Complicating things would be North Korea's small nuclear deterrent. If it survived the war (because taking it out early on would be an American priority), it could still be used as a threat. How credible the threat would be is another matter, since the North Koreans do not, yet, have a credible way to drop an atomic weapon on their enemies. Could they try a suicide option--for example, threatening to blow up the population of their own capital if enemy troops enter it? If the North Korean regime did this, could it survive against its own army and people? There is no way to predict the results.
However, there is a set of South Korean and American options, called OPLAN 5029, to guide the response to a collapse of the North Korean regime. The Chinese may have their own plans in place against that eventuality. If those plans conflict, there is no way to predict the results.
You can follow the developments in the 2013 Korean Crisis on a handy Wikipedia page.
Update 15 April 2013. The US Army War College recently wargamed approaches to "securing" North Korean atomic assets. The takeaway:
In the end it takes the U.S. a force of 90,000 troops and 56 days to secure "North Brownland's" nuclear weapons.
"We are not very well prepared to deal with a collapsed North Korea," said Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.On the good side, I like the cut of their jib when it comes to moving civilians out of the cities that they intend to enter.
U.S .troops, he said, had immediate problems surging into the North Korea-like country. V-22 Ospreys zoomed U.S. soldiers deep beyond the border, but with reinforcements so far behind they were quickly surrounded by the enemy and needed to be pulled out. American troops eventually made it over the border, but with nuclear sites located in populated areas, their mission became more difficult. U.S. forces made humanitarian aid drops to draw people out of the cities.It was also interesting to read the characterization of the land in these war games as "a family regime that had nuclear weapons." Now where did I read the phrase "family atomics" before?