President Trump has hinted at the possibility of military
action against North Korea, but any U.S. strike is
likely to rapidly escalate into an all-out war.
A full-scale conflict with North Korea would cause mass
casualties, even in the best-case scenario.
A U.S.-North Korean war could lead to millions of deaths, a
refugee crisis and long-term instability.
President Donald Trump’s taunt
this week that his “Nuclear Button” was
bigger and more powerful than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s
once again raised the specter of armed conflict between the
U.S. and Kim’s regime.
Trump has been engaged in an intense and at times juvenile
battle of insults and threats with Kim since he took office. In
that same time, Pyongyang has rapidly expanded its nuclear and
Amid the constantly escalating rhetoric between Trump and North
Korea, it’s easy to lose sight of what exactly is being
threatened and just how devastating war with the country would
be. It’s a conflict that would undoubtedly kill thousands, if
not millions, of people and likely bring about the first use of
nuclear weapons in combat since World War II.
A picture released on Dec. 13, 2017 by North Korea’s state
news agency shows Kim Jong Un at a conference in Pyongyang.
First, A Rapid Escalation
Analysts have looked at a number of possible scenarios for how
a war between the U.S. and North Korea would play out.
Most likely, hostilities would start small, but quickly become
difficult to rein in. For example,North Korea could retaliate
after the U.S. shoots down a missile test or because of some
kind of misunderstanding around a perceived American military
Experts say that if the U.S. were to launch an initial strike ―
say, targeting a North Korean missile site ― Pyongyang could
easily interpret it as the start of something larger.
“More likely a limited strike would not stay limited and would
quickly escalate. Everything I’ve read about North Korean
military doctrine and way of thinking indicates they would
fight back fiercely and would regard even a so-called limited
strike as the first salvo of the invasion that they’ve been
predicting for years,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, head of the
International Institute for Strategic Studies Non-Proliferation
and Nuclear Policy Programme.
North Korean defectors, including a former diplomat,
have echoed that assessment, warning that if the U.S. were to
conduct any sort of limited strike, Pyongyang would likely
respond harshly to deter a full-on invasion from the U.S. and
Threats To South Korea And Japan
Among North Korea’s immediate targets would be U.S. bases in
South Korea and Japan, experts say, which Pyongyang would
likely attempt to destroy using nuclear weapons as a show of
force to deter further invasion.
The problem with the North Korean strategy, experts say, is
that rather than cause the U.S. and its allies to back off from
a conflict, the use of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang would
motivate the U.S. and its allies to launch an intense,
full-scale attempt to destroy North Korea’s military and
decapitate its leadership.
It’s unlikely that the U.S. would succeed in completely
obliterating Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal or its conventional
weapons before North Korea could target South Korea with its
artillery and devastate major metropolises like Seoul and
A national meeting at North Korea’s People’s Palace of
Culture, released by North Korea’s state news agency on Dec.
25, 2017. (KCNA KCNA / Reuters)
Threats To U.S. Cities
North Korea could also potentially launch intercontinental
ballistic missiles against the U.S. mainland, either in an
immediate strike or after threatening cities like New York
and Washington with a strike to prevent further American
Analysts’ current assessments of North Korea’s missile
and nuclear capability is that the country could reach most
of the mainland United States with its intercontinental
ballistic missiles and potentially be able to target major
Although there is debate among missile experts over how
accurately North Korea could deliver a nuclear warhead to the
U.S. and whether such a weapon would survive re-entry into
the Earth’s atmosphere, the North Korean military has shown
itself to be increasingly proficient at conducting successful
tests and is continually advancing its missile technology.
It’s possible that Pyongyang could already hit cities like
New York, Washington and Los Angeles with nuclear weapons.
It would take about 30 to 40 minutes from launch for North
Korean missiles to reach their targets in the U.S. in the
case of a nuclear attack. The missiles would leave cities in
rubble and kill thousands in the initial blasts ― but as in
the cases of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
the deadly effects would not stop there.
“It’s so horrible that people don’t really ever want to deal
with what it would really look like. We pretend that there’s
a flash and everyone’s dead, but that’s not what happens,”
said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert
at Middlebury Institute of
International Studies at Monterey.
“There would be survivors for days trying to make their way
out of the rubble and back home, dying of radiation
poisoning,” he said.
Unreliable Missile Defense
To try and defend against missile attacks, the U.S. has spent
decades investing billions into developing and testing
missile defense systems that could knock missiles out of the
sky before they reach populated areas. But missile defense is
an extremely difficult endeavor that experts liken to hitting
a bullet with a bullet, and tests so far have proven it’s not
guaranteed to work.
“People think it ought to work, because it exists and we
spent tens of billions of dollars on it, but it hasn’t been
shown to be reliable or to work in real-world conditions,”
said Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Global Security
Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“I would not count on it being a good defense, that’s not the
way you should think about it,” she added.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency has around a 56 percent success
rate in its tests since 1999, which means that if North
Korea were to launch multiple missiles, the chances of at
least a few warheads making it to their targets is extremely
high. This data goes against Trump’s statements on missile
defense in October, when he claimed that the U.S. can shoot
down missiles “97 percent of the time” ― prompting missile
experts to worry about Washington’s overconfidence in the
“I’m worried about missile defense’s role, since an
misapprehension or overestimation of its capabilities can be
dangerous,” Grego said.
Japanese troops take part in a missile defense drill
outside Tokyo on Aug. 29, 2017. (Issei Kato/Reuters)
Guerrilla Warfare And Long-Term Instability
Although much of the focus in a hypothetical conflict with
North Korea concerns the role of missile strikes, the country
also has over a million troops at the ready to fight on the
“Their military is the fourth-largest in the world and is
supported by a paramilitary that is 4 to 5 million strong.
There’s no doubt that North Korea would put up a fierce fight
in the event of a war,” said Fitzpatrick.
Although experts say that the U.S. has the overwhelming
military power to win a conflict with North Korea, they
note a likelihood of continuous guerrilla warfare in the
aftermath and the need for a massive occupation force to
prevent the nation’s collapse into anarchy. A population of
more than 25 million people would need food and aid, while
also transitioning from a totalitarian political system that
has closed it off from the world for decades.
China is also concerned that the fall of Pyongyang would
create a massive number of refugees crossing the border.
Military forces and arms could also join the exodus and
present a major crisis for the government.
If North Korea’s regime fell, there would also be an urgent
proliferation crisis and a race to prevent its extensive
conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons stocks from
falling into the wrong hands. Altogether, containing the
fallout would be a military and political endeavor rarely
seen in history, likely costing trillions of dollars and
killing untold numbers of people.
A New And Unpleasant Reality
As tensions between the U.S. and North Korea continue to
escalate, Trump’s inflammatory statements and
Washington’s talk of a military option against North Korea
has brought increased uncertainty and concern about the risk
But there’s also a broader shift in the U.S. relationship
with North Korea as American policy adapts to the growing and
unpleasant reality that Kim’s regime has the power to target
“This moment is so fraught because the North Koreans are
doing something very unusual. The North Koreans are
transitioning from being like any other country which is
vulnerable to American military coercion into a mutual
deterrence relationship,” Lewis said.
“We really only have one historical data point, and that’s
the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where we
transitioned into a mutual deterrence relationship ― we
didn’t like it and we had the Cuban missile crisis. The North
Koreans are now making that same transition and we’re having
a crisis about it.”
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