Tale of the tape: North Korea vs. joint US-ROK force
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Escalating threats and counter-threats arising from the United States and North Korea have created an ominous standoff. President Trump warned Pyongyang that it faced “fire and fury” for aggression. The American leader added that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded” should it act foolishly. The Democratic People’s Republic kept up the rhetorical duel by threatening to engulf Guam with an “enveloping fire” of ballistic missiles.

It would be a mistake to assume this sabre-rattling is merely a rhetorical dustup that will end peacefully. What if escalation, miscalculation or local incident sparks a second Korean War? What kind of conflict might follow?


If the hostilities stayed non-nuclear, two relatively recent American interventions suggest the elements that will likely be present in a hot war on the Korean Peninsula. Both the Persian Gulf War and Iraq War were major land operations. They mostly hewed to the U.S. military’s doctrine for ground warfare, which lays down a six-phase operational scheme.


Beginning with phase 0 (shape the battlespace to facilitate victory), it follows a progression of actions with phase I (attempting to deter an adversary), phase II (seize the initiative), phase III (dominate the battlefield by superiority of firepower and maneuver), phase IV (stabilize the environment by rooting out pockets of resistance) and finally phase V (enable civil authority to take control).

During the Iraq War, Washington ran into trouble during phase V when it lacked sufficient troops to impose order on a rioting civilian population that gave way to an insurgency throughout the country. Otherwise, the strategy worked.  

One striking difference in any second Korean War stems from the fact the United States, unlike in both Gulf interventions, is not now visibly engaged in large-scale preparations for a conflict on the peninsula. In the months leading up to the 1991 and 2003 fights against Iraq, the Pentagon labored to pour concrete for extending runways, preposition munitions and deploy thousands of soldiers on Iraq’s doorstep.

Similar preparatory steps have long been in place in East Asia, except for a naval build-up in Korean waters, which could occur over a two-to-four week period. The Pentagon has been in a heightened military posture in South Korea since the end of the three-year Korean War in 1953 because of near-constant provocations from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). More crucially, there is already a substantial military and infrastructure presence in South Korea.

The Republic of Korea’s (ROK) land forces number over 600,000 active-duty troops; although smaller in number than the million-soldier regular army in North Korea, the ROK troops are substantially better armed than their counterparts across the Demilitarized Zone, which separates the two states. U.S. forces, by contrast, number 28,500 troops in the South with an additional 80,000 in Japan, Guam and Hawaii.

In comparing other implements of war — artillery, tanks, aircraft and warships — the DPRK mostly enjoys superior numbers. But who would suggest that the North’s decrepit 70 submarines were a match for America’s 10 super-high-tech subs lurking in the seas off the Korean coast. In this case, Stalin’s adage doesn’t apply: Quantity does not have a quality all its own in 21-century warfare.

Whatever the exact tabulations of armaments, militaries are complex organisms. One can never be sure how they will perform under high-intensity combat that a cross-border war would entail. Since coming to power in late 2011, Kim Jong Un starved his conventional forces to surge resources for an all-out push to build nuclear warheads and longer-range ballistic missiles.

Given the disrepair and age of the DPRK’s conventional forces, Kim’s strategy makes sense. But this policy translated into many fewer training hours for Northern pilots to fly legacy combat aircraft. Against U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots, Pyongyang’s Cold War-vintage MiG 29s are poised to be little more than sitting ducks for America’s supersonic stealth bombers and fifth-generation fighters.

One major assumption sometimes made by outsiders is that a second Korean War will be a replay of the first, with the DPRK again invading and the ROK fighting a defensive war. This apparent defensive orientation stems from press releases about joint U.S.-ROK military exercises over the decades, which play up the defense of South Korea so as not to stoke Pyongyang’s fears of invasion.

In 1950, South Korea hardly had an army to speak of to repel the Northern invaders, so it retreated and collapsed until American and allied forces rescued the country. Today, the ROK military is an up-to-date fighting force. The North may well fire the opening salvos into the South. But don’t expect the ROK troops to play defense for long. Wars are rarely won by defensive strategies. In fact, the best defense is a good offensive posture.

Additionally, the race will be on for the United States and the South to neutralize the artillery and rocket launchers raining down fire on Seoul with as much “shock and awe” devastation as can be mustered. The South’s armed forces, protected by its own air cover, will likely go on the offensive at the beginning of the fighting by punching corridors across the North’s DMZ fortifications.

Once through the zone, they will barrel up the western side of the peninsula (which is less mountainous than east) and close in on Pyongyang some 85 miles away. A hard-charging offense forms part of the U.S. military’s Air-Land Battle doctrine, which was developed in the 1980s for use against the Red Army in Europe and modified against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards with devastating results. It emphasizes rapid movement of men and military vehicles along with sustained airstrikes and sophisticated technology to defeat larger forces.

Significant differences emerge from the two Middle East wars — nuclear arms in the North and Seoul’s extreme vulnerability to the DPRK’s conventional artillery, just over the DMZ. Both dictate the fast-paced and explosive use of American-ROK airpower in the initial campaign to reduce both threats. Knocking out Pyongyang’s known nuclear capacity will be essential, and neutralizing its bombardment of the South’s capital will spare thousands of lives.

Civil defense measures and shelter in Seoul’s subways can mitigate some of the North’s casualty-producing barrage on the city of some 25 million people. In a war of choice, it would be better not to engage the North in conflict so as to spare Seoul’s at-risk population. But if North precipitates hostilities, then the ROK and the United States will have no option but to fight.  

If a desperate Kim ordered the use of nuclear weapons, then Pyongyang could expect to be vaporized in an atomic cloud by its adversary. Transforming the conventional battle into a nuclear war changes everything about the nature of the conflict, except that the United States and ROK will still prevail over the North, only at tremendous costs.

Thomas H. Henriksen is an emeritus senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he focuses on American foreign policy, international political affairs and insurgencies. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.