When I was living in South Korea, I would often try to pin down American military people there, asking them what we should expect should the suspended war between the North and the South heat up again.
The short answer?
“We don’t know.”
The long answer?
“You can kiss your ass goodbye. And, we don’t know.”
Here is what I, personally, have been able to glean from occasional study of this issue over the years. What would probably happen is the first sign that something was about to happen would be the activation of hundreds, if not thousands of sleeper cells in the South on the part of the North. They would cause general chaos through sabotage and other forms of mischief.
At that point, that is probably when expats would be told by their respective governments to get the hell out of Dodge, something bad is about to happen.
The next thing that would happen is the largest artillery barrage in military history would darken the skies of Seoul and flatten the city. And, unfortunately for everyone involved, there is evidence that the North might throw in some chemical and biological warfare just for fun. The North’s million man army would then push through the DMZ and fight an epic battle for Seoul.
Now, this is where things get even more interesting.
The North’s shock and awe attack of the South would probably get them at least to the outskirts of Seoul within the first few days. And probably the first few weeks of the war would go fairly well for the North. But here’s the rub — the North simply can’t do anything at this point that wouldn’t cause their ultimate downfall. It would be total war for both sides and it’s unlikely that the North Korean government would be allowed to continue in its current form by the major powers of the world if the NORKs showed they were not “rational actors” anymore.
The American public, outraged at the staggering deaths of American civilians and soldiers in a now leveled Seoul would demand action and hundreds of thousands of American troops would be zooming towards the situation as fast as humanly possible. The South’s army would engage in a bloody pitched battle with the North as all this happened.
In some ways, the thrust of each side’s military threat is the unbearable cost to either of a first strike. If North Korea attacks the South with the decades-old motive of forcing reunification, U.S. and South Korean air and sea power can obliterate all key military targets, invade and topple the regime. In the unlikely event of the South and U.S. forces instigating a conflict, the North can destroy Seoul, send missiles toward Japan and attack with a missile or airplane-carried nuclear device.
The U.S. military perpetually updates its contingency plans for war in Korea, a document known as Operations Plan 5027, or simply OPLAN 5027.
It officially envisions the U.S. providing units to reinforce South Korean in the event of an attack, but the commander of joint forces would be an American.
As parsed by the security documentation compiler GlobalSecurity.org, OPLAN 5027 lays out some scary possibilities.
The roughly 500 artillery tubes trained on Seoul, twice the firepower the North had in the 1990s, could devastate the South’s capital. They are part of a 12,000-strong force of self-propelled and easily moved artillery and rockets. And though they are old, they could sustain a firing pace of up to 500,000 rounds per hour against the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command defenses for several hours.
Soon enough, the American Air Force would take to the skies of the North and after an epic, bloody dogfight would take control and make life hell for the supply lines of North. The war could go several different ways at this point.
China could freak out like it did in the 50s and send a million men towards the South in an effort to support the North, but given what China feels is its relationship with the West now it is unlikely that would happen. They could put a huge amount of pressure on the States to go back to the status quo. China would argue that the North has made it’s point and now everything should go back to the way it was — or else.
Or, China could have had enough of North Korea could sit on its hands and take a wait and see approach. As I mentioned, the North is known to have biological and chemical agents and it’s possible that as they started to lose the war they would lash out with these in an effort to win as many concessions as possible. The question now is, would the U.S. public be willing to put up with the bloodshed required to advance north to overthrow the NORK government? Or would they, too, simply want to put the genii back in the bottle and go back to the 1953 DMZ borders?
Now, for me, the biggest question is why in the world would the North start a war to begin with? The only thing I can think of is once they get a few nuclear weapons and they feel comfortable that they have the ability to hit the U.S. with them, they may feel that is their ultimate failsafe. That’s the thing that really worries me. That the North is close to no longer being a “rational actor” and that once they feel they can actually strike the U.S. with a nuke that they will attack the South thinking they might actually be able to pull off unification on their terms.
I could see something like this happening: China finally gets fed up with the North, stops giving them food aid and the North goes crazy, lashing out in frustration. (Another scenario I’ve heard of is the North would do artillery barrage on Seoul then just stop, feeling they had made their point.)
I really hope this doesn’t happen. Too many people would die. But if the North does start a war, I hope America has the good sense to squash it like a bug and China stays out of the way.