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 missile capabilities.
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.
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 move.
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 its allies.
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 Tokyo.
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 military action.
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 American cities.
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 defense systems.
“I’m worried about missile defense’s role, since an misapprehension or overestimation of its capabilities can be dangerous,” Grego said.
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 ground.
“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 have brought increased uncertainty and concern about the risk of war.
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 the U.S.
“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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