That the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has no intentions of giving up its nuclear arms arsenal seems clear from the outset of the much-anticipated summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un taking place in Singapore on June 12. However, even if some pro-forma steps towards a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea (or rather the entire Korean Peninsula) will be agreed upon, the media focus on denuclearization overlooks the persisting danger of North Korea’s mid-range and long-range artillery capable of unleashing a devastating level of destruction against South Korea.
According to a U.S. Department of Defense estimate, North Korean conventional artillery strikes could cause over 250,000 casualties in Seoul (the city’s metropolitan area is home to 50 percent of the country’s population) alone in the event of a war. A recent analysis by the Rand Corporation estimates that over 32 million South Koreans (and foreign residents) out of a total population of 51 million would be vulnerable to North Korean artillery barrages should a full-scale military conflict on the peninsula break out.
Overall, North Korea is estimated to be capable of fielding over 6,000 artillery systems in the mid-and-long-range category, a large number of which is deployed in hardened facilities (over 4,000 according to one estimate) providing added protection from so-called counter-battery fire in close proximity to the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This includes over 1,440 122-millimeter self-propelled (SP) guns with an estimated range of 15 kilometers, around 430 170-millimeter M-1978 Koksan SP guns with a maximum firing range of 60 kilometers, and an estimated 35-38 KN-09 300-millimeter multiple rockets launchers capable of hitting targets at a distance of up to 200 kilometers. These guns are thought to be capable of firing 10,000 rounds per minute at Seoul.
As I noted last year (See: “Military Stalemate: How North Korea Could Win a War With the US”), while the level of training of North Korean artillery personnel is thought to have declined in recent years, there are several indications that the DPRK has reinforced its artillery forces along the DMZ recently. What makes DPRK artillery particularly dangerous is that it is capable of firing both conventional and chemical munitions. Indeed, North Korea is estimated to have a chemical weapons stockpile of 2,500 to 5,000 metric tons including mustard, sarin, and VX nerve agents. Any use of chemical shells would naturally significantly increase South Korean and U.S. casualty figures. As I noted last April when I tried to calculate casualty figures from conventional and chemical shells fired at Seoul (See: “What the Second Korean War Would Look Like”):
Assuming that around 70 percent of long-range systems are operational, and factoring in gun crew training (assumed to be mediocre at best) as well as a 15 to 25 percent detonation failure rate of KPA artillery shells, ROK /U.S. forces and civilians in Seoul would still be exposed to a deadly barrage that could kill thousands if not tens of thousands in the first hours of the conflict before KPA artillery is either taken out or has to withdraw due to the fear of being destroyed by counterbattery fire.
According to the Rand Corporation study, it would take weeks for U.S. and South Korean forces to destroy the DPRKs artillery force through air and artillery strikes, or a limited ground invasion. For example, “if North Korea had 100 240-mm MRLs within range of Seoul, each day they could have five MRLs shoot one volley of 110 rockets. Even if all were destroyed after firing, the DPRK could sustain this rate of fire for 20 days,” the study estimates.
This corresponds with what U.S. Army Colonel (ret.) James Creighton, the former Chief of Staff of the Eighth United States Army in Korea, told me last year. “The approximately 7,000 North Korean tubes that are in range of Seoul are all deeply buried and dug in,” he noted. “The U.S. and ROK Air Forces combined with U.S. and ROK artillery are well trained and rehearsed to take them out but it would probably be 1 – 2 weeks at best. I believe that it would be a tall order for air forces to get all of the sites. North Korea has developed mobile capabilities which makes it even more difficult.”
While the most likely outcome of the summit will be some statement of principles, paired with a commitment to meeting again (perhaps underlined by formally locking in place the current DPRK moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile testing), even a North Korean agreement to denuclearize and give up the majority of its WMD arsenal would leave the DPRK military with an intact capability to threaten South Korea with devastating violence. More succinctly put: Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea can continue to hold Seoul hostage.
Consequently, any long-term peace process would have to address North Korea’s conventional threat to the South. For example, an agreement similar to the treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, which was negotiated and concluded during the last years of the Cold War and established comprehensive limits on military forces in Europe and laid out practical steps to reduce the risk of conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces, could be considered. This would also mandate the establishment of strong verification mechanisms including on-site inspections. It goes without saying that this is an unlikely proposition at this juncture.
While it is fair to assume that no matter what happens in Singapore tomorrow, North Korea’s artillery will continue to threaten South Korea for the foreseeable future, the subject of North Korea’s conventional threats to South Korea deserves more attention amid the media frenzy over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.