As missiles and insults fly between Washington and Pyongyang, the world seems to be teetering dangerously close to resumption of the Korean War (which, technically, never ended). There has been a lot of analysis about what that war would look like from nuclear detonations to EMPs (electromagnetic pulses), to over 8,000 artillery pieces that target over 25 million residents in Seoul (which is over half the entire country’s population).
While we need to understand the expensive, bloody cost of another Korean War, we also need to understand the equally expensive: the staggering cost of victory.
Let’s say we win, which most experts agree would happen. Let’s say the combined U.S.-South Korean forces ultimately smash the DPRK’s antiquated war machine. Let’s say one of the North’s casualties is Kim Jong Un, either killed in combat or in a post-war, Nuremberg-style tribunal. Mission accomplished. Unfurl the banners. Then what?
What would be the financial price tag of rebuilding a shattered North Korea? The reconstruction of East Germany, one of the smoothest, most peaceful unifications in history, still cost the West German people roughly $1.9 trillion.
And East Germany was the picture of modernity compared to North Korea. South Korean estimates peg a seamless, German-style reunion somewhere between eight hundred billion and two trillion.
What would it cost after a devastating war? And who’s going to pay for it?
South Korea has budgeted for a reconstruction program that didn’t include rebuilding its own nation (which would no doubt suffer greatly in the conflict). Even without nuclear weapons, the North has enough conventional forces to wreck the Mississippi-sized country. While other countries like China and Japan might send limited aid, the lion’s share of the financial burden will undoubtedly fall on the U.S.
This is, assuming, of course, that the money is even there, given the economic shocks that will almost certainly follow the disruption of the global supply chain. Consider the number of products and parts of products made in South Korea, from Samsung flat-screens to Hyundai hatchbacks. How many production lines around the world would suddenly grind to a halt?
And that’s just money. What about people? How many refugees would another Korean War create? Some estimates predict as many as 5 million, if the crisis mirrors Syria. Right now, Kim's people are suffering a devastating harvest, and for all we know, plunging back into the kind of 1990s famine that literally caused incidents of cannibalism. Now imagine these millions of people streaming into China or Russia, a scenario that has prompted both countries to beef up border security.
Who knows how far these refugees will travel and where they might seek sanctuary. South Korea will have its hands full with trying to resettle its own newly homeless citizens. They may very well insulate themselves behind the DMZ and leave the North’s refugees to the rest of the world. And the world is still struggling to absorb displaced citizens of Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan. What will one more sinking of state do to the lifeboats around it?
And not all of these refugees will be friendly. At present, North Korea collects much of its cash from a mind-boggling web of state-sponsored crime kept in check only by Pyongyang. But what happens when Pyongyang lies in ruins? What happens when the controls on those mini-mafias are severed? Are we at risk of unleashing an army of international criminals, the way the Russian mob rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Soviet Union?
Don’t forget that al Qaeda developed with assistance from anti-Soviet guerillas, and ISIS rose after the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard. Nothing is more dangerous than a group of highly trained, highly disciplined, professional warriors with no way to make a living.
These ex-killers will have just been defeated by America, probably losing friends and family in the process. Do we really think some of them are not going to be out for revenge? Can we hope to protect our citizens from the kind of weapons they’ll have at their disposal? Like Iraq, these newly minted terrorists will have mountains of unused munitions cached all over their occupied homeland. Unlike Iraq, however, some of those weapons glow in the dark. Can we honestly guarantee that in the smoldering, chaotic aftermath of a second Korean war, some clique of disgraced commandos won’t get their hands on a cache of chemical, biological, or even nuclear material.
The invasion of Iraq cost us over $1 trillion and more than 35,000 U.S. casualties, and it set off a chain reaction that continues to destabilize the entire world. And Iraq wasn’t located in the heart of our world’s most heavily industrialized, densely populated region.
We presently don’t have any good solutions to the madman across the demilitarized zone, but crossing that zone in anger is no solution at all. War is hell, but so is postwar rebuilding. When we talk and think about the consequences of another Korean War, we need to remember what comes after we declare “mission accomplished.”
Max Brooks (@MaxBrooksAuthor) is a nonresident fellow at The Modern War Institute at West Point and a senior nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council. He is also the author of the New York Times Bestseller “World War Z.”