What War With North Korea Would Mean

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This is part II of the series on a conflict in the peninsula. This section starts off with a discussion of what war with north korea would look like.

Last week, we offered background on the situation with North Korea. We presented a short history of the Korean War with a concentration on the lessons learned by the primary combatants. We also examined North Korea’s political development from the postwar period through the fall of communism and how these conditions framed North Korea’s geopolitical situation. We also analyzed U.S. policy with North Korea and why these policies have failed to change the regime’s behavior.

The primary concern is that North Korea appears on track to developing a nuclear warhead and a method of delivery that would directly threaten the U.S. This outcome is intolerable and will trigger an American response.

In Part II, we will discuss what a war on the peninsula would look like, including the military goals of the U.S. and North Korea. This analysis will include the signals being sent by the U.S. that military action is under consideration and a look at the military assets that are in place. War isn’t the only outcome; stronger sanctions or a blockade are possible, as are negotiations. An analysis of the chances of success and likelihood of implementation will be considered. As always, we will conclude with market ramifications.

What Would War with North Korea Look Like?
The U.S. has two objectives in a war with North Korea. First, it wants to protect South Korea against the artillery North Korea has amassed around the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Second, it wants to destroy North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the U.S. As we noted last week, North Korea has an estimated 21k artillery pieces on the DMZ, everything from sophisticated rocket launchers to infantry-manned mortars. Although many of the pieces are quite old, it is estimated that millions of South Koreans would still be at risk and casualties would be high.
A U.S. war plan would presumably use a massive air campaign with saturation bombing of an area along the DMZ and 25 miles deep within North Korea. Of course, this is a rather obvious target so the North Koreans have also built up a significant air defense system. It doesn’t appear to be anything the U.S. Air Force couldn’t suppress within a week or two. But, the U.S. couldn’t safely use its largest heavy bomber, the B-52, until air defenses were eliminated. Until then, we would expect that stealth bombers, the B-2, B-1 and maybe the F-35, would be drafted into a bombing role and deployed. Simply put, South Koreans would face an artillery barrage until North Korea’s air defenses were contained, which would mean thousands of dead or wounded South Koreans. North Korea also reportedly has massive stores of chemical weapons; it would not be a surprise to see such weapons deployed, especially if the North Koreans felt they were losing.

To meet this second goal in a war with North Korea would require massive bombing raids on its missile factories. If our analysis of the shift in policy is correct, the U.S. may decide to spare North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. However, if the U.S. did decide to attack these as well, it would likely require “bunker buster” weapons. To ensure these attacks were successful, manned reconnaissance missions might be required.
Secretary of Defense Mattis has described a war with North Korea as “catastrophic.”

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