(Disclaimer: I’m by no means an expert in the situation in the Korean Peninsula, I’m going off of what I know based on what I’ve read about the region. If you are more knowledgeable than I am on this topic, I’m more than happy to hear what you have to say)
In the past few weeks, North Korea has been getting, well, a little provocative. They have tested missiles, threatened the United States, threatened to have more nuclear tests, and overall have been pissing off everyone in their general vicinity. It seems like they are really pushing us to see what we will do. The reasons for this are fairly simple, North Korea is taking advantage of the political situation in South Korea (they just arrested their former president after impeaching her), and they are testing the new Trump administration.
In an interview last week President Trump talked about a partnership between the US and China regarding North Korea, saying: “We have tremendous trade deficits with everybody, but the big one is with China. … And I told them, ‘You want to make a great deal?’ Solve the problem in North Korea. That’s worth having deficits. And that’s worth having not as good a trade deal as I would normally be able to make”. He seems to be proposing a deal where the Chinese would receive more “favorable” trade deals in the future if they deal with North Korea. The Chinese seem to have gotten the message, coal imports from North Korea have dropped significantly recently. China is the North’s largest trading partner, so if they put the squeeze on Kim Jong Un he is sure to feel it. Hopefully the North will calm down because of these efforts.
But what about if that doesn’t work? What if despite our best efforts, North Korea decides to attack us or our allies? What if the Kim Regime goes nuclear and launches a missile at the US, South Korea, or Japan? What would a war look like?
Before I start, let’s remember that war is, and always will be the most terrible thing that mankind does to itself. There is always suffering in war, no matter how long or short it is, or with what weapons it is fought with. War should ALWAYS be the last resort of a nation.
It is likely that if a war occurs, the North will attempt to make good on their threats of a missile launch. Where this missile goes is a big question, because it could go a short range towards the South, towards Japan, or it could be aimed towards the United States. On the latter two of those targets, I am willing to put my confidence in the anti-missile capabilities of the United States and its allies. I don’t think a missile could get very far with a Naval Strike Group sitting off the coast, along with the Japanese and South Korean Navies nearby. Even if a missile strike hits its target, it won’t lessen the blows that North Korea would receive soon after in fact, it could make it worse for them; If the North does go nuclear, it is likely that the US would be less hesitant to follow.
Any move by North Korea must require all of their effort at once, so any missile attack will likely be accompanied by land operations, along with the utilization of any sort of air force they have. Seoul, the capital of the South, lies just 35 miles south of the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between the two countries. The North probably has artillery pointed at Seoul awaiting for the order to fire, so it is likely that the first volleys of the war will be aimed from the North towards the Southern Capital. Northern Artillery will have the first-strike advantage if they start the conflict, and losses from that will likely be extensive in the South for as long as those batteries are around for. Along with artillery, it is also likely that the North will attempt to cross the heavily-fortified DMZ into the South or utilize tunnels underneath the border to infiltrate. Until the South and the US has time to mobilize and get their air forces in motion, the North will probably score some very early victories.
Those victories will come to an end once the full might of the US and its allies is brought down. Air and technological superiority are some of the many advantages we have over the North. After the initial stages, this will be a very one-sided affair. Pyongyang would probably be reduced to rubble from bombing raids and any military and industrial centers would be destroyed quickly. The North will lose their capability of launching and coordinating any operations. I don’t know how long this phase of the war will last, but it probably won’t be too long.
If the North does not surrender, the war would enter the long and hard phase. The population of North Korea is around 25 million, and it is likely that at least some of them would engage in an insurgency against American or South Korean troops. I haven’t the faintest idea how long this would last, but it would drag us into a similar situation that we faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The aftermath of a war would be incredibly difficult, regardless of how the war reaches its conclusion. That population of 25 million is also heavily indoctrinated and a large amount of them are malnourished. A huge refugee crises in the region would likely follow the defeat of the North. Whether or not attempts would be made to reunify the two countries is beyond me.
Any way a war goes, it does not end well for anyone. The Northern government getting removed from power, mass civilian casualties, mass infrastructure destruction, and a likely annihilation of the military are all likely. They have no foreseeable path to “victory”. The US and its allies would be victorious, but South Korea would likely experience heavy losses in the war. If a Northern missile strike is successful, the damage from that is unimaginable. We would gain nothing from the war.
So to recap; any move the North makes would require its maximum effort all at once. They would score some early victories in a ground war but would quickly be demolished by US and Allied air superiority. We could be dragged into a counterinsurgency if the population is committed enough to their cause, and there would be a huge refugee crises in the region.
It seems like the most preferable situation is the one we are in right now. A tenuous peace. Hopefully the Chinese can talk the North down before they do something that turns the region into a pile of rubble filled with refugees. This is definitely a turning point, let’s hope that cool heads prevail. A war in Korea is a strange game, the only winning move is not to play.