The risks of war with North Korea

Millions of deaths, insurgency, and WMD proliferation

Picture of a mother and daughter in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, by John Pavelka.

Three hours ago, the United States and South Korea launched missiles off the coast of the Korean peninsula in response to a North Korean ballistics missile test confirmed earlier that day. War between these countries could becoming more likely, and it could kill millions of people and spark an insurgency against South Korea and the United States that could doom any attempts at reunification, military experts suggest.

Analysis from the nonprofit global policy research institute RAND Corporation also suggests that such a conflict would run the risk of North Korea using its weapons of mass destruction before selling any that remain to terrorist organizations and rogue states.

The US is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in response to North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile test earlier this month. 53% of registered voters in the United States would support a military intervention against North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons, according to a poll conducted by Fox News. Others, such as Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby in his The Week article, “The case for invading North Korea”, describe a “moral imperative toward regime change” because of the crimes against humanity that the North Korean regime has committed against its people. However, proponents of such a conflict may not be aware of the likely tragic outcomes of such a war.

Invasion

“The world would see civilian casualty numbers equal to the entire Syrian conflict in a matter of days,” said Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling.

The world would see civilian casualty numbers equal to the entire Syrian conflict in a matter of days,” Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said to the Military Times in regards to the initial attack that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, could face from North Korean rockets and artillery. Nearly 26 million people live in Seoul, and if only conventional weapons are used, a South Korean government war game from 2004 suggests “there could be two million casualties within 24 hours after the outbreak of war.” Even conservative estimates put the number of likely causalities in the hundreds of thousands. If North Korea uses weapons of mass destruction, this number could be even higher. Just one nuclear bomb within four miles of Seoul would be enough to kill millions of people directly from the blast and then indirectly from the radioactive fallout.

In addition to nuclear weapons, the US Department of Defense wrote that that, “North Korea probably has had a longstanding chemical weapons (CW) program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents and likely possesses a CW stockpile. North Korea probably could employ CW agents by modifying a variety of conventional munitions, including artillery and ballistic missiles.” The Department of Defense further asserts that North Korea has “a potentially robust biological warfare capability.

Occupation

Postcard from North Korea. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, by John Pavelka.

Although the initial invasion could kill millions of people, proponents for a war with North Korea argue that North Koreans will welcome the invading forces as liberators. “After the regime falls, no one will fight for the Juche idea or the North Korean regime, which everyone in North Korea hates,” writes The Week’s Pascal-Emmanuel Gorby.

Col. David S. Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Georgetown University, does not share this view. Maxwell writes, “sixty years of political indoctrination emphasizing the myth of anti-Japanese Partisan Warfare and the guerrilla exploits of Kim Il Sung as well as the total hostility to any foreign influence has laid the foundation for a popular resistance to any intervention from outside of north Korea, to include Koreans from the South.”

In an article for the Small Wars Journal, Maxwell describes how guerilla warfare against foreign influence is foundational to the North Korean national identity, and that “this indoctrination has developed the highest levels of distrust and fear of outsiders which will make any stability operations extremely difficult and makes the population ripe to support an insurgency.”

“The subsequent security situation in North Korea could be far worse than ever experienced in Iraq, raising serious questions about whether North Korea could really become part of a unified Korea” said Bruce W. Bennett, senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Bruce W. Bennett, senior defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, agrees, “Any North Korean believing the regime’s propaganda will oppose ROK-led unification. Even North Korean children are taught to attack Americans.” Bennett writes that many if not most personnel in the North Korean military will be indoctrinated to oppose unification. The North Korean active duty military is thrice the size of the active duty Iraqi military in 2003, with ten times the number of reserves and a dearth of weaponry throughout the country. Thus, even if only 10 to 20 percent of North Korean military personnel decide to wage guerilla warfare against the occupying forces, Bennett states, “The subsequent security situation in North Korea could be far worse than ever experienced in Iraq, raising serious questions about whether North Korea could really become part of a unified Korea.”

Proliferation

1954 United States nuclear weapons test. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While war with North Korea would likely risk the use of weapons of mass destruction and an insurgency against the occupying forces, proponents argue that such a conflict would make everyone more secure. However, the collapse of the regime would pose its own risks to global security in the form of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. John Nilsson-Wright, the head of the Royal Institute of International Affairs or Chatham House’s Asia Programme, warns that, “There are other ways in which nuclear material could be a threat, especially with the possibility of it proliferating on the international market. The very possibility of regime collapse opens the door to nuclear and ballistic material getting into the wrong hands.” And it is not just nuclear weapons that could be proliferated. As mentioned previously, North Korea also has a chemical weapons program and the capacity to create biological weapons, both of which would be even more difficult for occupying forces to completely locate and secure.

The Boston Globe reported that South Korean intelligence estimates over 10,000 underground facilities throughout North Korea which could contain enriched uranium. A RAND Corporation report, “Preparing for the Possibility of a North Korean Collapse”, outlines the nature of the proliferation problem, “it appears that the ROK and United States do not know where many of the weapons are stored, making it difficult to prioritize sites to be visited for weapon collection and elimination or even to know where to check for weapons.”

“Any groups gaining control of these [North Korean] weapons might well sell them to third parties to gain cash for food and survival. If WMD is sold, there is a serious potential that it will eventually make its way to rogue states or terrorist groups through established international black market connections. Terrorist groups would have strong interest in using WMD against the United States, and deterring them from doing so would be very difficult,” RAND reports.

The report continues that the military and other authorities would attempt to disperse these weapons in order to prevent them from being destroyed or seized by South Korea and the United States, compounding the difficulty of successfully locating all of these weapons of mass destruction. The report concludes: “Any groups gaining control of these weapons might well sell them to third parties to gain cash for food and survival. If WMD is sold, there is a serious potential that it will eventually make its way to rogue states or terrorist groups through established international black market connections. Terrorist groups would have strong interest in using WMD against the United States, and deterring them from doing so would be very difficult.”

Thus, while most American registered voters support military intervention to curtail the North Korean nuclear program, war could cause these weapons of mass destruction to proliferate. It could also mean million of causalities on the Korean peninsula in the initial invasion, and more in the likely insurgency against South Korean and American soldiers. All of this suggests that US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was correct when he said that, “if this goes to a military solution, it’s going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale.