With the United States’ recent transition toward a more aggressive line of rhetoric directed at Kim Jong Un’s North Korean regime, there’s been a growing sense of concern within the United States about what a war with North Korea might actually look like. Here in the relative safety and comfort of the U.S., we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the type of warfare our nation has been engaged in for the past 16 years, but as American Secretary of Defense James Mattis pointed out, a war with North Korea would likely include “the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
It is, of course, important to note that Mattis is also on record for having said that diplomacy has not yet failed in regard to North Korea, meaning war is far from a certainty, but if we were to go to war with North Korea… what might it look like?
As is the case with any properly managed war, the answer to that question depends entirely on the objectives and criteria the United States establishes for victory. Our goals could vary from using minimal strategic strikes to eliminate high-threat targets (like ICBM launchers), all the way to a complete removal of the Kim regime, and another American effort toward the quagmire that is nation-building.
Our objectives would likely be defined in a large part by the way the war broke out, and Kim’s behavior as it does. The U.S. objectives, and how Kim Jong-un manages the war from the North Korean side of the border, are both unknown quantities at this point, so for the sake of argument and analysis, I intend to use a premise that seems the most logical to me, and make deductive leaps based on that premise and my understanding of the United States military, and our relationships with allies and opponents in the Pacific.
Because there is a distinct possibility that choosing to take unilateral action against North Korea without any legitimate (read: something worse than threats and chest pounding) provocation could, at best, leave the United States with little international support, and at worst, ignite a third world war, we’ll move forward with the assumption that North Korea made the first move. Because Kim is undoubtedly aware that a nuclear strike would likely result in retaliatory nukes being launched back his way, that first move would probably involve a more traditional tactic: a ballistic missile launched at U.S. or allied assets with a conventional warhead, or a repeat of the 2015 incident in which a South Korean warship was sunk by a North Korean torpedo strike, could suffice.
It’s possible that Kim and his regime might hope such a move would bolster their threats, but would instead be met by an American-led coalition intent on ensuring no further aggressive acts could be taken. China and Russia, for the sake of argument, would remain on the sidelines while the United States, South Korea, and Japan took the lead with support coming from a number of other partnered nations in tow.
This is where a war with North Korea turns into a real barrel of snakes… although it seems logical to remove Kim Jong-un from power, we need to bear in mind that the North Korean government is currently operated as a dynasty. Cutting the head off of the snake would require the implementation of an entirely new state government, and converting the (sometimes loosely) indoctrinated populous of North Korea into a modern democracy likely wouldn’t be met with more success than we’ve seen in more recent attempts in the Arab world. It seems likely then, that the United States would seek to eliminate Kim’s nuclear stockpile and force him into submission, wherein the U.S. and North Korea could finally find themselves at the negotiating table.
I can sense some enthusiastic readers preparing their (well-reasoned) arguments for why we would have to remove Kim from power, but a war with North Korea doesn’t have a positive outcome. There’s no way U.S. troops on North Korean soil results in a happy ending – and it’s my honest opinion that when there’s no possible good outcome, you must seek the least bad one. A collapsed North Korea would see millions of refugees flooding into otherwise uninvolved nations, and create a humanitarian crises on a scale the world simply couldn’t support. If you think nations have had problems finding places for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees… just wait until we’re talking millions of North Koreans. The U.S. may even be able to garner some Chinese diplomatic support by agreeing to try to keep the North Korean borders from becoming too porous – which could truly only be done with by leaving Kim’s government at least partially functional.
So with the wheels of war moving and our objective set – what would come first? Ordnance. Lots of ordnance. At the onset of war with North Korea, the United States would likely bolster the border with South Korea and proceed to pound their reclusive nation from the sky, via strategic bombers, ship born artillery, and of course, ballistic missile strikes. One carrier strike group would have at least two Arleigh Burke class destroyers, each with a compliment of 96 Tomahawk missiles. It would be likely that the U.S. would position two strike groups off the coast of the Korean peninsula as war began to seem inevitable, meaning 400 Tomahawk missiles would likely come screaming down out of the sky onto North Korean targets, followed by a seemingly non-stop pounding from aircraft launched from carriers, South Korea, Japan, and even from B-1B Lancer Bombers out of Guam.
North Korea’s ballistic missiles would also take to the air, but many of them would likely fail to find their targets, with many others intercepted by South Korea’s THAAD emplacements, and the Aegis missile defense system employed by the U.S. and Japanese navies. Undoubtedly however, some would find their marks, and the U.S. Navy would suffer losses.
North Korea is believed to have somewhere between 900 and 1000 military aircraft, with MiG 29s serving as their primary fighter platform. Dog fights would be a prominent part of the early days of the war, but they would likely be short-lived – as U.S. and allied fighters turned North Korea’s jets into scrap metal.
The air strike targets would, of course, be largely nuclear – though we are aware that Kim has the ability to transport at least six nuclear ICBMs via converted Chinese timber trucks, so U.S. intelligence would certainly be earning overtime as they attempted to locate these missiles. Beyond the obvious nuclear concern, artillery placed in the mountains near the DMZ that separates North and South Korea are well hidden – and have Seoul, the capital of South Korea, well within their range – along with more traditional targets, like military bases.
As war broke out, those massive guns would begin to fire and the ten million residents of Seoul would stand little chance against the onslaught raining down from the sky. Ballistic missiles would certainly follow suit, but the artillery would be more difficult to defend against, and more difficult to eliminate – as they’ve been hunkering down and planning for a chance to get back at their sister nation ever since the Korean war first ended.
The loss of life in the early days of the war would be staggering for American allies. While U.S. and partnered assets used strategic targeting to eliminate equipment, military personnel, and things like roads and bridges to hinder North Korean advances within their own borders, North Korea would lob every conventional piece of ordnance they had at any target within range – likely using sleeper cell citizens within the South Korean population to provide targeting coordinates to increase the deadliness of their shelling. North Korea would, in all likelihood, attempt to use a version of the “shock and awe” methodology first made famous by the United States in Iraq – but instead of using superior firepower, they would use an abundance of ammunition and a complete disregard for civilian lives.
Continued in Part Two.
Modified image courtesy of PACOM