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artillery pieces that could level South Korea’s capitol; stores of chemical and biological weapons, and numerous, if outdated anti-aircraft guns.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.