North Korea’s largest nuclear test, its sixth, has pushed the nation’s weapons yield into the hundreds of kilotons of TNT. That is estimated to be 10 times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Once again, the United States has reacted with calls for another round of international sanctions, and moves to increase American military forces in the region.
The People’s Democratic Republic’s latest missile tests apparently indicate the ability to reach across the Pacific and strike the continental United States. Hundreds of medium-range missiles with chemical warfare and high-explosive warheads are within range of Japan. Thousands of artillery pieces stand pointed at Seoul.
As a war of words escalates between Pyongyang and Washington, it’s worth considering what would actually happen if a second Korean War were to break out. It could easily produce a destruction greater than any conflict since World War II.
The calculation behind North Korea’s nuclear gambit is simple. Nuclear weapons, including the ability to strike the United States, are the ultimate insurance against forced regime change.
Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have learned this from Iraq and Libya. Both gave up their weapons of mass destruction only to see their dictators toppled by Western military intervention. Syria let Israel destroy its nuclear reactor in an airstrike in 2007, and now finds itself in a protracted multi-sided civil war, and the target of foreign intervention.
The most likely scenario that leads to full-blown war would be an American military build-up in South Korea that the North interprets as a preparation for war. Whether that perception was accurate or not, if convinced of this, the hermit kingdom might launch a pre-emptive strike. Alternately, a limited American airstrike could provoke the same: massive retaliation.
Such a war would likely begin far from the DMZ, in North Korea’s mountainous and sparsely-populated northeastern province. From there, a barrage of dozens, possibly hundreds, of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles would be fired at military bases and major population centers in South Korea and Japan.
These missiles could carry conventional explosive warheads, and most probably would. Some could be equipped with part of the nation’s vast stockpile of chemical agents, such as VX nerve gas. A handful, perhaps as many as six or seven, could be tipped with nuclear weapons in the hundred-kiloton range.
Given their relative inaccuracy, the nuclear-armed missiles would likely be fired at major metropolitan areas. Seoul, Incheon, and Busan in South Korea. Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya in Japan. At the same time, North Korean artillery would begin to pound Seoul with thousands of rounds of high-explosive shells every hour.
Hard to stop them all
In the barrage of decoy missiles, it is unlikely that the America’s regional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system could target and destroy more than a handful.
While hundreds of North Korean Scud-sized missiles rained down on South Korea and Japan, a few of the detected launches would be arcing on a higher trajectory, heading east over the Pacific Ocean. These are the North’s stockpile of long-range ICBMs, capable of hitting America’s west coast.
Given the limited stockpile of North Korean nuclear weapons, estimated to be no more than a dozen warheads, it is likely that only three or four would be fired at North America. These, too, would likely be launched alongside non-nuclear decoy missiles, since the missiles are considerably cheaper and more plentiful than the bombs.
Within half an hour, nuclear detonations would decimate major American cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. On its best day, America’s limited missile defenses might save one or two targeted cities, but almost certainly not all of them.
About 26 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area, 39 million live in and around Tokyo and 23 million live in densely packed Southern California, with tens of millions more in other West coast urban areas.
Just accounting for the nuclear detonations, each one would kill hundreds of thousands, depending on factors like urban density and where exactly the blast occurs. Combined with the artillery, chemical, and conventional missile bombardment, the death toll under this scenario has been projected to reach up to eight million, including up to three million in the United States.
In the event of such a nuclear Pearl Harbor, the response from the United States would be swift and merciless. North Korea’s oppressed population numbers an estimated 26 million.
A single Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine could deploy up to 162 high-yield nuclear weapons on a moment’s notice. Just that small fraction of America’s nuclear arsenal could likely produce North Korean survival rates below 10 percent. Additional weapons could be deployed by B-1 and B-2 bombers, and from the arsenal of Minuteman ICBMs still dotting the Rocky Mountains with its underground silos.
A single day of cataclysmic warfare, perhaps over in a few hours, could leave more than 30 million people dead. There will be little of North Korea left. But South Korea, Japan, and the United States would be devastated. Vast swathes of east Asia and the American West would be contaminated with radiation, history’s worst-ever environmental disaster.
This is the scenario that has some American policymakers thinking seriously about regime change or a limited first-strike intended to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
The chances that such a strike could succeed without the use of nuclear weapons are slim. North Korea’s nuclear program is widely dispersed and heavily hardened. No pinpoint strike would do, instead dozens of locations would have to be hit, each by several aircraft. The North’s missiles are kept mobile and likewise scattered widely across difficult terrain.
The sheer scale of such an operation would also mean a massive initial round of cruise missile strikes to disable the North’s air defenses, including missile batteries and radar stations. Far from being limited, such a strike would be tantamount to launching a full-scale war. The attempt would also likely provoke the very North Korean retaliation it aims to prevent.
Even if a massive first-strike air campaign somehow disarmed Kim Jong-un of his nuclear arsenal and long-range missiles, Seoul still sits just thirty miles away from thousands of heavy artillery pieces, which could fire tens of thousands of rounds before being destroyed by counter-battery fire. Millions of civilian lives and one of the world’s economic powerhouses would still be at risk.
Not worth the risk
In a way, North Korea has proven its point. This regime is not like Saddam’s Iraq, Qaddafi’s Libya, or Assad’s Syria. Instead, Kim Jong-un has the ability to strike back at his enemy’s’ home territory and major cities.
It’s a price no American president should be willing to pay. Unfortunately, deterrence rests on the underlying rationality of senior actors on both sides. Then the United States elected Donald Trump, and North Korea was inherited by the bellicose 30-something Kim Jong-un. If ever there was a pair of leaders likely to bluster and blunder into a catastrophically destructive war, it’s Trump and Kim.