Hundreds of thousands dead, at an optimistically low estimate, is what awaits us if war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. Most importantly, the vast majority of these victims will be Koreans, South as well as North, which means we have an even greater obligation to avoid armed conflict between our forces and that of the North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Un at all costs.
In a recent article published in The Quad that meant to paint a picture of what war with North Korea might look like and who would win, the author did little else than describe a numbers game of how North Korea’s military might compare (or rather, doesn’t) to ours. While obvious that much accurate research was done on the points the author tackled (such as sizes of armies, missile arsenals, etc.), the article’s title betrayed its content, giving no description of what a war with North Korea might entail.
It irresponsibly boiled the issue down to the question of who would ultimately win in the long run, disregarding the losses both sides would take along the way. This is as misleading as those who, when talking about the possibility of war with Russia, argue that our military and nuclear capabilities were greater than theirs and so we would win in the event of war. Yes, this may be true, but it fails to account for the number of casualties that would be piled up in the process of claiming victory.
Just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Korea are thousands of conventional artillery pointed about 40 miles south at the South Korean capital Seoul and its surrounding areas. As described in the Huffington Post, “[b]urrowed into hard granite mountain faces and protected behind blast doors, 15,000 North Korean cannons and rocket launchers are aimed at the glass skyscrapers, traffic-choked highways and blocks of apartment buildings 35 miles away in Seoul and the U.S. military bases beyond.” According to Mark Bowden in The Atlantic, a U.S. military official estimated that if Seoul was broken up into three-square-foot blocks, the guns would be able to pepper them all within hours. Seoul and its surrounding areas are home to about 25 million people and bordered by mountains and a river, making evacuation a near impossibility. (If we were to evacuate, it likely would be before a first-strike.)
This could not be done while going unnoticed by the North Koreans, thereby tipping our hand to the imminence of a strike on their territory, and almost certainly prompting the firing of these artillery.) Kim Jong Un is not only holding the North Koreans hostage to his regime, but also the South Koreans, who he will pull the trigger on at the first sign of an invasion or large scale attack. This is what stops us from attacking, and which Bowden noted was the reason that former President Nixon did not retaliate militarily when North Korea shot down a U.S. aircraft, killing over 30 service members.
While aptly described by Sam Harris as a moral maniac, Rocket Man is not irrationally crazy, as we know. While giving no regard to the well-being of the Koreans who he claims to rule over by divine right, his actions have been quite rational as a strategy of keeping us on our toes and deterring us from attacking.
Having nuclear weapons is an almost certain deterrent to other countries’ desires to remove you from power, so long as they have reason to believe you would use them, which we partly do have. However, we are sure Kim understands that while launching a nuclear missile on the American mainland (once he can do so, which may be before the end of Trump’s presidency) would not be the end of America as a country (if it was successful), the response from us could be the absolute annihilation of North Korea as a country.
While giving no qualm about sacrificing his own people, Kim cares immensely about himself and his regime. Keeping this in mind, if he becomes backed against a wall strategically, we must assume the very worst from him.
For the sake of argument, let us imagine a conflict broke out and assume, entirely unrealistically, that we successfully took out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, managed to avoid the destruction of Seoul and that Kim’s government was toppled. This would cause a refugee, humanitarian crisis and armed conflict that would make a post-Saddam Iraq or Civil War Syria seem like a playground. Why?
We would then be left with a stateless North Korea, which holds a population of around 25 million that have been told by three generations of leaders that it is a master race, almost naturally destined to be in conflict with and under threat from the United States (an idea that has to be kept constantly alive by Kim’s regime and is the justification for the pursuit of military might above all else), and is largely uneducated and almost entirely isolated from the outside world.
They are spread over a mountainous terrain where pockets of guerrilla resistance could gain footholds, perhaps led by Kim’s current military commanders. Even with part of the country being disillusioned to the regime, do we expect such a population to cooperate with an American-occupied post-war Korea?
So we come back around to the question, what would a war with North Korea look like and who would win? We would certainly win the war against Kim’s government. But, this would likely come by the sacrifice of millions of lives, and it can’t be stressed enough that nearly all of the lives lost will be Korean, meaning we not only have no right to instigate a war but have a responsibility to avoid one at almost all costs.
The result of such a war would inevitably be an American-South Korean victory on the battlefield, but also would be one of the largest humanitarian crises the world has seen, made more difficult by pockets of political and military resistance. Adding to the confusion is the uncertain position of China and how they might respond should war occur, as well as how Russia might try to capitalize on it politically given their trade with North Korea. At the moment, there is unfortunately no good outcome for the conflict between America, her ally South Korea and our adversary North Korea.
Brandon Langston is a student at West Chester University. He can be reached at BL882717@wcupa.edu.