August 14, 2017: What if the US or North Korea Attacks the Other?

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A Brief History

On August 14, 2017, President Donald Trump of the United States and Dictator for Life Kim Jong Un of North Korea have been engaging in a war of words, threatening each other’s country with one sort of hyperbolic annihilation or another.  Both countries have large military forces and nuclear weapons, so these threats are frightening.  Should they be?  What is the likelihood of military confrontation, and what would that confrontation be?

Digging Deeper

On August 14, 2017, President Donald Trump of the United States and Dictator for Life Kim Jong Un of North Korea have been engaging in a war of words, threatening each other’s country with one sort of hyperbolic annihilation or another.  Both countries have large military forces and nuclear weapons, so these threats are frightening.  Should they be?  What is the likelihood of military confrontation, and what would that confrontation be?

The Korean War of 1950-1953 ended with a cease-fire, but not a peace treaty, so the 2 Koreas are technically still at war.

Territory often changed hands early in the war, until the front stabilized. In red are North Korean and Chinese forces; in green are South Korean, U.S., Commonwealth, and United Nations forces.

The past 64 years has seen tensions on the border (the 38th Parallel of Latitude) remain high, with mass quantities of troops and arms arrayed by both sides pointing at the other side.  Just as North Korea was supported by China and the Soviet Union during the Korean War, China and Russia today are the primary allies of North Korea, and both these nuclear superpowers have threatened and warned the United States against attacking their friend.  The US and most of the normal world support South Korea, as they did during the Korean War.  The US maintains about 30,000 military personnel in South Korea and guarantees its sovereignty.

During the past several years, North Korea has worked tirelessly toward developing a nuclear arsenal and the means to project those weapons far beyond their borders, including the goal of being able to hit the Continental United States with nuclear armed ballistic missiles.   In 2006, North Korea tested its first nuclear warhead, and last tested a nuclear bomb in 2016.  It is estimated they currently have 10 such weapons available, and just this year it was reported they finally developed the technology to shrink the size of nuclear warheads to be practical warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The current crisis revolves around the development and testing of ICBMs by North Korea, and Kim now claims he has such missiles that can target the Mainland United States.  Intelligence estimates are that sometime in 2018 North Korea will indeed have the capability to launch a nuclear weapon against the Mainland US.

President Trump has threatened “Fire and Fury” against North Korea if the North does not stop testing and developing its ICBM nuclear capability, and Kim has threatened in return to either Nuke the US island of Guam or to at least send a few missiles to land near Guam to demonstrate North Korean capabilities (specifically, “nuclear thunderbolts” launched at the US).  Kim claims the North Korean missile attack on Guam is being readied and will be set to go in just a few days.  Trump responded by claiming the US military is “Locked and Loaded” for an attack on North Korea and has sent mixed signals about whether or not he would entertain the idea of a pre-emptive attack.  Trump and US officials have made it clear an actual attack by North Korea would be met by overwhelming force.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has voted for further economic sanctions against North Korea, a country already heavily burdened by sanctions and infamously incapable of reliably feeding its own populace.  Meant to apply pressure on Kim to forgo further nuclear and missile tests in order to get the sanctions relaxed, it is possible the sanctions may make Kim that much more desperate and perhaps provoke an attack on South Korea or US bases in Japan or Guam.  North Korea has also threatened to attack Australia (Crikey!) and Australia has promised to support the US and or South Korea if North Korea attacks either country.

If the US attacks first, it is likely a massive airstrike would be the method to project American power, likely using drones and stealth aircraft to deliver precision guided munitions to target North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, command and control (communications) centers, and to neutralize their conventional air and ground forces.  Although a limited demonstration attack against a relatively low value target is possible, the chance of such a demonstration triggering an all out war is so great that our expert analysts at History and Headlines (moi) believe that such a limited attack is too risky.  China and Russia have both vehemently warned the US against attacking North Korea, so triggering a response from those countries seems ridiculous if based on a small attack.

Would North Korea attack first?  On the surface, it seems such an action would be suicidal for Kim and his ruling clique, as well as the North Korean military.  But, Kim is nutty enough to possibly think he should do exactly that sort of demonstration of his own egotistical power.  After all, he was born and raised to believe his father and grandfather were basically gods and he is goofy enough to possibly believe all the idiotic myths told about his great mental and physical prowess over and over to the North Korean people.  The North Korean people and military are so insulated against foreign information and the internet that those people likely believe the propaganda told to them by the Kim regime and would indeed fight for the crazy Kingdom.

North Korea has a large military, and a paramilitary reserve of almost 6 million people, the largest such force in the world.  The active duty army of North Korea has almost a million men, and includes 4200 tanks, 2200 armored vehicles, 8600 artillery guns, and 4800 multiple rocket launchers.  The North Korean Navy (KPN) has 780 vessels of all types (mostly small, coastal types) and including around 25-30 submarines and another 40 or so midget submarines.  The KPN boasts only a few smallish frigates (smaller than a destroyer) and mostly torpedo and missile armed patrol boats.  The North Korean Air Force (KPAAF) has a large contingent of fighters and fighter bombers, mostly of Chinese and Soviet design, many of which are not first rate modern technology.  The most capable planes flown by the KPAAF are the 40 MiG-29 fighters.  The KPAAF boast over 300 helicopters, including 50 Mi-25 attack helicopters (Soviet “Hind”).

Countering this huge blunt force military is South Korea’s 625,000 man military and 3 million + reserves, equipped with US and Western weapons.  The ROK (Republic of Korea) Air Force has around 450 warplanes, mostly American origin and generally superior to those fielded by North Korea.  The ROK Navy has 10 submarines and around 110 surface combatants, including 12 destroyers and 13 frigates, a much more capable blue water force than North Korea.  The ROK Navy also has a highly capable 29,000 man Marine amphibious force with proper amphibious shipping and equipment (including 10 amphibious ships) to give them a credible amphibious threat.  With American assistance, the South Koreans would likely use electronic and cyber warfare to cripple North Korean electronics and communications.

So what happens if war breaks out?  In the event China and Russia do not intervene militarily, the South Korean and US forces would slaughter the North Koreans, but since Seoul, South Korea, the capital city, with its 25 million metro area inhabitants are so close to the border as to be within long range artillery range, it is quite possible hundreds of thousands of South Koreans could be killed before hostilities end.  The thoroughly indoctrinated true believers in the North Korean armed forces would probably fight very hard, heroically even, and are not likely to give up easily, requiring massive casualties to their ranks before surrendering.  We would confidently predict a regime change in North Korea in the event of a war, though it is likely the Chinese would not tolerate US or South Korean occupation of North Korea.  Would North Korea use nukes or chemical/biological weapons in the event of their imminent defeat?  Probably, if they could.  The US would certainly target all known North Korean weapons of mass destruction, though it is questionable if every one of such weapons could be successfully taken out.  A very real possibility exists of some sort of Nuclear, Chemical, Biological release.  Would the US nuke North Korea?  Our guess is “No”.  Too much pressure from China, Russia, and nearby Japan.

What if combat is initiated and Russia and or China intervene?  That is a hard one, and hopefully our military leaders and their computer models are figuring this out for us behind the scenes.  We suspect Chinese or Russian intervention would be local and limited, at least at first, and Chinese reaction may well be to attack Taiwan during the window of opportunity such a crisis would provide.  Despite US technological superiority in stealth and electronics, it is extremely possible the Russians or Chinese could sink a US aircraft carrier, a major disaster if it were to occur.

What is the best scenario?  Our fervent wish is that Russia and especially China would lean on North Korea to de-escalate the situation, and ideally would take measures to oust Kim Jong Un from power, replacing him with a less nutty regime.

Question for students (and subscribers): What do you think will happen?  Please share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Cha, Victor.  The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future.  Ecco, 2013.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.