The possibility of war between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the United States has recently increased. It is necessary to consider what such a war might look like.
I use the term war rather than merely American attacks on North Korean nuclear and missile program facilities. We have to consider the possibility of North Korea’s response and a more extended conflict.
Such a war would be based on North Korea’s decision to move its nuclear program to a stage where the US and other countries conclude it is possible North Korea is close to a deliverable nuclear weapon.
Given that the North Koreans could not survive a nuclear exchange, it is hard to understand why they would have moved their program to this point.
The Most Dangerous Period For North Korea
The obvious reason for having a nuclear program is to use it as a bargaining tool. The reason for having a nuclear weapon would be as a deterrent to a foreign power seeking regime change in North Korea.
The most dangerous period for North Korea is when it is close to having a weapon, but does not yet have it. That is the period when an attack by an external force is more likely.
It is the period before North Korea could counterattack. Pyongyang’s decision to deliberately send signals that it has a nuclear weapon increases the urgency of an attack. Its decision is odd, even if it already has one or two nuclear weapons.
A US decision to attack will be based on the severity of the consequences should the North Koreans use their weapons—if they have them. If not, the decision is based on the possibility that North Korea is close to having them.
The problem with a US strike is five-fold:
- First, does US intelligence have clarity on the locations of critical North Korean facilities?
- Second, are the president and his staff confident in their intelligence?
- Third, can the facilities be destroyed with non-nuclear weapons?
- Fourth, is battle damage assessment possible (in other words, can we know with confidence whether the facilities were destroyed)?
- Finally, if only a nuclear weapon—or multiple nuclear weapons—can destroy the facilities, does stripping North Korea of nuclear weapons justify the significant political fallout the US would face in launching such an attack a second time? And does it justify the risk that it might legitimize the use of nuclear weapons by others?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I don’t think the US will stage a pre-emptive nuclear attack absent clear intelligence that North Korea intends to strike first.
I also will at least assume that a conventional attack is possible, and that battle damage assessment is possible. Under those circumstances, absent Chinese pressure compelling North Korea to step back from its current capabilities and demonstrate that it has stepped back (which is hard to prove), the United States might well attack.
Potential Counterattacks From North Korea
Assuming an attack is successful, North Korea would face the question of how it would respond. It has two options. The lesser of the two, which North Korea appears to have threatened, is to attack American citizens in South Korea. That includes kidnapping and extracting them to North Korea.
A far more significant counter would be to use its heavy concentration of artillery along the western section of the border with South Korea to initiate extremely intense shelling of Seoul. The casualties and damage from such a move could become extreme, even in a short period of time. Trading Seoul for North Korea’s nuclear program is not an option.
Were this to happen, the American response would likely be missile strikes and airstrikes designed to destroy North Korea’s artillery. The problem is that if the US waits to see if North Korea initiates a barrage, that delay of a few hours would create unacceptable casualties.
For the United States, such an attack on a close ally would be unacceptable. It therefore would have to assume that this is what North Korea will do. North Korea deployed substantial resources for this possibility and has conducted exercises to test readiness (although it hasn’t fired).
North Korea’s Air Defense System
Therefore, the US must consider air attacks on an area running along the border to a slant distance from Seoul of about 25 miles, and a depth also of about 25 miles. In other words, the US must devastate an extremely large area very quickly.
The immediate problem is North Korea’s air defenses in this area. North Korea has a range of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), including some indication that it has developed the equivalent of the Russian S-300. If so, they are able to engage aircraft several hundred miles from the target.
The sequence for destroying the artillery is by dispersing vast numbers of area munitions from strategic bombers. The workhorse aircraft for this mission would be the B-52. The B-52 is able to carry a large tonnage of munitions and release it quite accurately from high altitude.
But given that North Korea has high-altitude SAMs and the B-52s are not stealth, the losses of B-52s could be high.
The US has B-1s and B-2s—the latter is said to be invisible to radar. But no one has tried to use them against a SAM concentration like North Korea has. At any rate, the US has fewer of those, and for an area attack, the number of sorties required and the time penalty for Seoul would be unacceptable.
Destroying SAMs Or Ground Assault
The US would have to fall back on a conventional opening of an air campaign with a Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) attack. In English, they must destroy the SAMs. This would be carried out by a number of aircraft, particularly a class of plane called the “Wild Weasel.” These are attack aircraft armed with missiles that home in on radar beams.
They carry electronic warfare systems for detecting and jamming radar. These missiles are extremely fast and follow the beam down to destroy the search radar and render SAMs useless. An SEAD attack could last for days or weeks, during which time North Korean artillery would be raining down on Seoul. The US either accepts the possibility of extreme aircraft losses or the destruction of large parts of Seoul.
That leaves open the possibility of a ground assault. A ground assault directly against a concentration of artillery requires large losses as the force moves into contact. A flanking move to the east is possible, but it will be visible and the artillery can pivot—at least some can.
Plus, the North Koreans have mine belts deployed throughout the border region. Similarly, the artillery is defended at depth, so an airmobile operation to take them from the rear would likely require deployment over 60 miles to the rear.
The North Koreans, therefore, appear to have an effective counter. Their artillery is dangerous and targets South Korea’s capital and largest city. Destroying the nuclear facilities while Seoul is devastated would raise questions about American military capability that would resonate. The United States needs a win for political reasons.
North Korea Has The Upper Hand
It is possible that North Korean artillery is less formidable than most think. It also is possible that US military planners have defined a solution that is less dangerous than I have.
But the fact is that on the surface, North Korea could give up its nuclear capability, still win a decisive victory against the Americans by destroying Seoul, and inflict severe losses on the American Air Force. It would emerge with the regime intact and even more credibility than before.
North Korea might not initiate a response. But the United States doesn’t know what North Korea intends, and its intentions might change. With the best intelligence in the world, attacking and destroying a SAM concentration takes time, and Seoul doesn’t have time.
The North Koreans know that and calculate that they have the upper hand.
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