Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Unacceptable Price

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 25, 2017 --  

War with North Korea may not end its threat. But it will certainly leave Seoul in ruins.

Within the first hour of war breaking out, most of Seoul would be in flames. Thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, some less than 20 miles from the northern suburbs, would pound the South Korean capital of 10 million residents. Short range missiles of the tried-and-true Scud variety would deliver more explosives to the city, killing large numbers of civilians trapped in bomb shelters, homes, or hopelessly clogged evacuation routes heading south.

Overwhelming U.S. air power would eventually silence the artillery, but not before a huge civilian toll had been taken. North Korea would also launch dozens of longer range missiles at targets in Japan and perhaps farther afield targeting American military bases in the Pacific, and perhaps even cities in the contiguous 48 states. Assuming non-nuclear strikes, overseas casualties would be moderate but terrifying -- North Korea's long range missile arsenal is simply not large enough to inflict enormous casualties with conventional warheads. America's THAAD anti-missile system might shoot some down, but planners may save this system for use against missiles likely equipped with nuclear warheads. And unless he believes all is lost, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un would be foolish to order a nuclear strike.

This is the best case scenario should war be triggered. Tens of thousands of South Koreans civilians would be killed before a quick ceasefire could be arranged. Such a conflict could be triggered by miscalculation, overreaction or accident. North Korea might mistakenly think a military exercise by Americans is an actual attack. It might angrily respond to a surgical strike by the Trump Administration, or it might launch a test missile that goes off course, earning a response that quickly escalates.

The above scenario is best case because it does not involve the use of nuclear weapons, and because it results in a quick ceasefire. Should the war go nuclear, all out war against North Korea would be unstoppable, possibly resulting in nuclear retaliation, but certainly escalating the intensity of response and expediting the country's defeat. The absolute worst-case scenario involves a large-scale war that does not quickly go nuclear, but does not stop until the Kim regime is eliminated. This is a prospect that could take months, and end with hundreds of thousands if not millions dead.

The high costs of all of these scenarios are why America cannot responsibly use war as a means of solving the North Korean problem. While hard-headed presidents and generals might accept the tens of thousands of South Korean dead to be rid of the Kim regime, this best case scenario would still leave the regime intact, and probably only temporarily slow production of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The chance of one of these scenarios playing out is at its highest risk since 1994, when Jimmy Carter brokered a shutdown of North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear program, staving off a military strike by the Clinton administration. While war was avoided, that deal quickly went sour. North Korea revealed a parallel program of uranium enrichment in 2002 and detonated a nuclear explosion in 2006.

Today, the Trump administration is responding nuclear and missile tests with escalating rhetoric, promising to finally solve the problem of North Korea, and threatened to be sending an aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines to the region. North Korea responded by broadcasting a video showing a mock nuclear attack on America, a mushroom cloud rising over the Lincoln Memorial.1

Real hope for solving the Korean problem comes from cutting a deal with China. The country has long served as North Korea's lifeline, keeping the regime alive to prevent a refugee crisis and American and South Korean troops on its border.

Assuaging these fears is where a supposed dealmaker like Trump can be useful. He must broker a three-way deal with the China and the South Korea to enforce a total economic blockade. In return for abandoning their North Korean ally, China would get a 100-year military protectorate over the territory of today's North Korea and be removed from responsibility for civilian refugees. In return for being spared a devastating war, South Korea would agree to take civil control including financial and humanitarian responsibility for North Korea after the regime falls. America can promise China it will remove its anti-missile systems after the regime's fall.

Such a grand bargain is still fraught with risk. The Kim regime might launch of war before it dies a slow death under economic duress. Or it may linger on for years while waves of famine repeatedly grip the country, killing thousands despite humanitarian aid. But such a scenario is preferable to even the best case scenario that could come from military conflict. So long as the modern metropolis of Seoul is in range of North Korea's guns, solving the problem through war will always carry an unacceptable price.

Related Web Columns:

Freeing the Hostage
The Path to the Second Korean War
, October 17, 20006


1. USA Today, North Korea Propaganda Video Shows U.S. City Being Destroyed, April 19, 2017