What a Military Conflict with North Korea Would Look Like

It won’t look pretty.

But such a conflict will be unavoidable considering how the acquisition of an ICBM by North Korea poses an unacceptable risk to America.

I know about a bit about game theory and have acquaintances in the military.  Using my own knowledge of statistics and what I’ve gathered from talks in private, I can base this analysis of how a fight with North Korea will probably sort out.

Specifically, how a fight will escalate in the event of war:  Game theory is most famous for its Cold War era projections of how a conflict between America and the USSR would eventually escalate into a nuclear exchange.  Simulations based on game theory repeatedly indicated that even a conventional conflict would steadily escalate up to a nuclear conflict in part because the perceived downside to using nuclear weapons decreased as the risk of losing a conventional conflict increased.   The ease by which a nuclear exchange could be born from only a limited conflict is why the Soviets and Americans never fought a conventional battle directly against each other.

Because a Second Korean War could very well lead to a nuclear exchange, we will take the lessons of the Cold War to see how each side might view the risk-reward calculations in a war.

First, there is the order of battle.  At North Korea’s disposal are its nuclear program; over 1 million man army deployed in offensive positions along the DMZ; artillery pieces that could level South Korea’s capitol; stores of chemical and biological weapons, and numerous, if outdated anti-aircraft guns.

Against this threat South Korea has over 500,000 well-equipped soldiers deployed in strong defensive positions along the DMZ; counter-batteries ready to respond to an artillery bombardment by the North; and support aircraft for its land forces.

The United States has stationed 30,000 ground forces in South Korea; holds reserves nearby in Japan; and scattered powerful air, naval, and nuclear assets across the theater.

North Korea will not want a war until its nuclear program reaches a more advanced stage.  Therefore, any conflict prior to that point will have to be instigated by the United States.

How might an American move to destroy the North’s nuclear arsenal take shape?

An American invasion of North Korea is unlikely.  The needed buildup would take too long and be easily noticeable by the North, to say nothing of what would surely be the heavy cost of such an effort.

American air strikes targeted at the North’s nuclear program are the most likely option.

Unlike a military strike on Iran’s nuclear capacities, a air assault on North Korea is much more dangerous:  The North has a vast air defense system, positions better fortified than anything Iran has and (unlike Iran) has the ability to retaliate severely with its conventional forces in the aftermath of a airstrike.

The most important question is how would the North respond to an air assault limited, initially, to their nuclear assets only.

In response the North would choose from these options based on how it weighs the value of the risks vs rewards that accompany each choice –

  • Accept whatever damage America inflicts on their nuclear program with only token retaliation.
    • Pro for the North – The conflict does not escalate into a war they would ultimately lose.
    • Con for the North – Their nuclear capabilities likely suffer heavy damage, thus leaving them more vulnerable in a future confrontation with America.  They also lose face.
  • Open fire on Seoul with Northern artillery batteries positioned along the DMZ
    • Pro for the North – Punishing their enemies for an American strike might deter them from similar strikes when the North inevitably begins rebuilding its nuclear assets.
    • Con for the North – South Korea and America will immediately counter attack against the North’s artillery as well as the North’s other land forces.
  • In addition to counter attacking with conventional forces the North uses whatever chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons they have against American and South Korean forces and, perhaps, Japan.
    • Pro for the North – Inflict the maximum amount of death and destruction before the Kim regime goes down in flames.
    • Con for the North – The North is immediately destroyed, or mostly destroyed, in a nuclear attack by America.

If the North chooses military retaliation that retaliation will, in the beginning, probably not involve WMDs since that would invite an American nuclear response.  One other complication with using nuclear weapons early is that the North may not be completely confident these weapons will work in a real conflict after they’ve witnessed their nuclear tests suffer numerous failures recently.

Conventional artillery and land assaults against Seoul and other strategic positions in South Korea are the most likely initial responses, if there is a strong response.

This conventional attack will spark a full scale conventional war because South Korea’s military is trained to assume any artillery attack against Seoul is the start of a land invasion.  The bulk of the South Korean military, backed by American air power, would meet the first Northern salvo by destroying as much of North Korea’s artillery pieces as possible in order to minimize how much destruction Seoul suffers.  But this would take a certain amount of time; once North Korea’s shelling came to an end much of the South’s capitol and many hundred’s of thousands of South Koreans would have been killed in the fighting.

If the North Korean army advances South they would be largely shot to pieces against the South Korean army’s superior weaponry and defensive positions, though this would victory would also come at a heavy cost for the South.

Because a Northern artillery attack against Seoul would lead to a very violent reaction by South Korean and American forces, it is possible the North may calculate that it is better not to retaliate with artillery (and certainly not with WMDs) if their nuclear program is struck by American air and naval power.

But it is also at least equally possible the North will decide to opt for a conventional artillery attack that will quickly turn into a conventional war.

As fierce as the clash would be, the North’s aging conventional defenses would be worn down in a few weeks.

It is at this moment where the North would have to choose to use whatever WMDs it has left.  If it does decide to use them in one final act of destruction, it is better for America that such an endgame occur not in the Western Hemisphere but in Northeast Asia instead.


7 thoughts on “What a Military Conflict with North Korea Would Look Like”

  1. Superb analysis. Your final conclusion – cool as a cucumber – is correct.

    This fills in some additional details:


    It would be good to run the analysis from USG’s standpoint.

    What are USG’s geo-strategic goals here? What outcomes can it accept? What is the best possible outcome? What is the worst?

    To begin with, does USG really want re-unification of the Korean peninsula?

    If Korea was unified, then China could make a deal with the South: “expel the Americans, and we will throw you a pot of gold.”

    A different possibility is that if Korea was unified, and if USG still had a security pact with the South (now unified Korea), then USG has no buffer with China and in the event of a conflict (that could result from a crisis elsewhere) USG and PRC would be looking at a full scale land war.

    Thus, USG does not want re-unification.

    So what is the goal?

    The ending of the nuclear weapons program is a necessary condition. Kim can be lived with – for now.

    How to achieve it?

    Make em a offer he cannot refuse.

    Firstly, the squeeze needs to be put on PRC. Firstly, USG should make clear to PRC that in the event of some of the possibilities you describe above, USG will hold PRC ultimately responsible for it.

    This means that USG will punish PRC economically and cause non-military trouble for it elsewhere including and up to closing the Straits of Malacca.

    Other possibilities beyond your usual trade sanctions.

    1: Boosting independence momentum for Taiwan.

    2: Causing trouble in Hong Kong and attempting to create a Gungdong independence movement.

    3: Start trouble in Tibet and Xinjiang (Afghanistan can then become a useful supply base for Muslims in Xinjiang).

    4: Selective prohibiting (in order to cause consternation) of Chinese students attempting to attend U.S universities.

    5: Law Suits and demand for reparations over PRC’s history of stealing technology.

    These are sticks, what about carrots?

    1: Formal recognition of the Communist Party and their system as a politically legitimate expression of the Chinese people with agreements to respect China as a “Civilisational State” with its own history, culture, ethics and political philosophy.

    2: Recognition of China as a “Great World Power.”

    3: Promises to open a dialogue over Taiwan.

    4: Cathedral propaganda campaigns showing Xi as a “great leader”, a “man of peace”. Plenty of rewards and recognition, including a Nobel peace prize. Plus, the promise of financially rewarding speaking tours, films, books and all kinds of “tribute” to Xi when he leaves office.

    5: Economic sweeteners – perhaps big plans of USG-PRC partnerships in Asia, Africa and the Middle East; in addition, allowing more Chinese investment in America and American investment in China.

    The deal, however, is that Kim and his family must go (the best option) or that NK end its nuclear program (the necessary condition).

    If Kim “abdicates”, then USG will guarantee that he and his inner circle will be pardoned of all crimes (human rights abuses). Furthermore, Kim will be free to live anywhere in the world (including America).

    Kim will also become a billionaire; he will be treated as a “Hollywood celebrity” the subject of (positive) films, documentaries and books.

    He can live the life of the “greatest playboy in the world.”

    NK, meanwhile, will be formalised into a Sovereign, Military, Corporate (People’s) Republic. The Army assumes majority ownership and control of the country. The Generals, and other senior officers, assume the position of Board of Directors, with a revolving CEO (Chairman) position.

    NK will be formally recognised as a legitimate state, and its borders will be formalised with SK.

    Furthermore, USG, PRC and Japan will financially invest in the country in return for NK gradually reducing its military over a 5-10-15 year period.

    However, it will be made clear to Kim and his inner circle that unless the nuclear weapons program is mothballed, USG will attack and if Kim retaliates with an attack on SK, then, in addition to PRC getting punished, Kim, his family, his inner circle and his military will be annihilated in WW2 fashion.

    Total annihilation.

    Any and all options, including nuclear and chemical weapons will be on the table.

    Everyone can “make out”; everyone can “eat”; everyone can be a hero and a superstar or they will die painfully and shamefully.


    Love the blog, you’re an excellent explainer and simplifier. The name Imperial Energy is inspired by you. (Can you guess who?)

  2. What are USG’s geo-strategic goals here? What outcomes can it accept? What is the best possible outcome? What is the worst?

    To begin with, does USG really want re-unification of the Korean peninsula?

    The initial objective should be to either destroy or severely harm the North’s nuclear program with airstrikes. If Kim retaliates meaningfully then the North deals with the consequences as described above.

    Reunification? I’m not sure even the South Koreans want it back given that tying the North back to the South would make German reunification look as straight forward as the modern Czech Republic uniting again with Slovakia.

    I’m not keen on an American occupation given how many resources it would tie up. I’m tempted to think it may be worthwhile to have China occupy the North in the event of a post-war regime collapse just to take rebuilding off our hands.

    But would China want the job given that we aren’t exactly look forward to it either?

    I’m afraid China’s help is not forthcoming. They may somewhat prefer North Korea not advance their program. But if that is their preference, judging by their actions, it isn’t strong enough to make them apply serious pressure.

    The Chinese view may be that whatever damage is done in a Second Korean War will not disrupt their own country enough to warrant a very forceful Chinese intervention.

    Coercing China to diplomatically intervene looks to me like it would only drive China and North Korea into a joint military alliance.

    At least in current diplomatic positioning China has not indicated it would ally with Kim in the event of a war.

    But if China feels threatened then we risk pushing the two together.

    And, yes, I see the new blog is yours, I just haven’t had time to update the links.

  3. There are other possibilities.

    “The initial objective should be to either destroy or severely harm the North’s nuclear program with airstrikes. If Kim retaliates meaningfully then the North deals with the consequences as described above.”

    Of course. The question is what, if any, are the broader goals? Does USG have any coherent strategy here?

    It is possible that this is part of strategy to contain, or even better disrupt, China.

    If NK does retaliate (and even if it does not) then tensions in the region will probably lead to the following consequences:

    1: Japan increases its military spending.

    2: Japan, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia backed by USG will continue to deepen their alliances.

    3: South Korea will be brought deeper into USG’s orbit.

    4: USG’s hostility will increase towards China. This will allow USG to create an enemy to give it and the country focus and discipline.

    5: This will, if managed correctly and if Fortune smiles, be a big part of Red Government strategy against the Blue Government.

    So, we have:

    1: Permanent war abroad with Islam and a “Cool war” with China.

    2: The “cool war” with China will lay the grounds for “economic nationalism.”

    3: Even more focus on national security.

    4: That the Blue government cannot be trusted with 1,2,3.


    1: A military attack on NK looks highly plausible, to likely.

    2: This is just the start of something in Asia.

  4. Of course. The question is what, if any, are the broader goals? Does USG have any coherent strategy here?

    ICBMs in the hands of the Kim dynasty is not remotely acceptable under any sane defense strategy even if disarmament requires America use nuclear weapons.

    It seems unlikely China will go out of its way to pressure the North and still less probably they will willingly give up their program. I also excluded the option of a preemptive American invasion of North Korea.

    This leaves the US with only a two military scenarios –

    A) Narrowly target their nuclear sites with airstrikes and hope the North doesn’t counter attack against the South. If the North doesn’t, great. And the chances are at least even they won’t because even a strictly conventional war would severely harm the Kim dynasty’s military.

    B) If they attack conventionally, we would have to decide if we only want to drive back North Korea’s forces and then stop at the DMZ, or, press the attack until the government collapses. If they use WMDs early, the regime will be destroyed in minutes.

    Much of what our response would be in totality depends on what North Korea does and does not do. Therefore we would be going into a targeted strike not entirely sure what the end game would look like.

    I see an advantage in only destroying the North’s invasion, but not toppling the regime completely as we did against Iraq in the First Gulf War.

    In addition to incurring great expenses occupying and helping rebuild North Korea, if the Kim dynasty falls we would have a difficult time justifying our extensive military presence in Northeast Asia as anything except a hedge against China.

    But if instead Kim remains in power, but is weakened and left with a disabled nuclear program we could maintain our forces in the region while also keeping tensions with China to a minimum.

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