While North Korean artillery could indeed devastate Kyeonggi, allied air power would target those firing tubes right from the start. Worse for North Korea, tens of thousands of dead South Korean civilians would be a humanitarian catastrophe but would not shake the constitutional and material foundations of the South. And it would immediately cost Pyongyang any remaining global sympathy. China in particular would have no choice after such a civilian holocaust but to abandon North Korea to its fate. If China did not, it would immediately confirm the fears of every neighboring state that it is a dangerous hegemonic aspirant, and it would face a very tight containment ring with Japan, India, and ASEAN working together.
A similar logic applies to a Northern nuclear strike against the South. Estimates are that North Korea has between five and ten warheads with yields between five and ten kilotons each. (Those numbers come from U.S. and South Korean intelligence, but they are soft.) That yield – the energy released by the atomic chain reaction – is about half that of the Hiroshima bomb, which killed more than 100,000. A Northern strike would again create a humanitarian catastrophe, but almost certainly not knock the South out of war. With fifty million people, South Korea could ride out even a full North Korean first strike and still fight.
Worse, large questions loom about whether the warheads could actually be delivered. North Korea’s air force is even more dated than its army, so we assume they would use a missile – hence all the tests. But this is still tricky. Nuclear warheads must be miniaturized to fit; the earliest U.S. bombs were enormous. Precise targeting is hard; North Korean rockets may simply fall in the water. (This may seem unlikely, because South Korea is not that far away. But those who remember the ‘throw-weight’ debate of the Cold War will recall that the USSR regularly built very large ICBMs, because their guidance technology was so primitive. It is not hard to imagine this applies to North Korea as well.) Worse, missile defense technologies are improving, and the U.S. has begun moving such assets to the region. And finally, as with a conventional devastation of Seoul, a nuclear strike would immediately cost Pyongyang all global sympathy. Indeed, China might reckon at that point that nuke-using North Korea is so dangerous that it should actually help the Americans and South Koreans invade the country.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Lastly, a point rarely mentioned in the media coverage is that South Korea still has the death penalty. After a second Korean war, particularly if it involves enormous civilian casualties in the South, most think there would be war crimes trials. And given how awful North Korean human rights abuses are, there will likely be a truth and reconciliation process that will probably not offer much reconciliation. In a North Korea collapsing under U.S.-Southern airpower and a ground advance, one could easily see the Kim family running for their lives as did the Gaddifis or Ceaușescus. Angry North Koreans might simply lynch them as happened to Mussolini, while captured elites would almost certainly face the hangman like Saddam did.
In short, most analysts think a war is extremely unlikely. Pyongyang will lose – quickly and completely. This will not be 1950 all over again. If there is a second war, Seoul will push for a final resolution to the long nightmare of North Korean orwellianism, and the U.S. will likely support that. China will be backed into a corner, because North Korea’s survival strategy depends on civilian counter-value strikes that will be intolerable to global opinion. And no one in the Kim family wants to wind up like Gaddifi or Milosevic. While Dennis Rodman’s new bff, Kim Jong-un, may be too young and naïve to know this stuff, I am all but positive, as are most in the analyst community, that the generals and Kim Jong Il loyalists who surround KJU on the National Defense Commission do know this well.