Kim Jong Un faces annihilation in almost all Korean War scenarios

(Bloomberg) — After decades of empty threats, much of the world is put off as North Korea vows to destroy its enemies. But in recent months, some prominent analysts have begun to warn against it Kim Jong Un Maybe he’s actually serious about preparing for war.

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Now in his 13th year at the helm of North Korea, Kim is more aggressively testing the limits of what his opponents will tolerate. Aided by rapid advances in his country’s nuclear capabilities and missile program, the 40-year-old dictator began 2024 by removing the goal of peaceful unification from North Korea’s constitution and declaring he had the right to “destroy” South Korea.

While such bellicose rhetoric would normally be dismissed – Kim could just be showing off ahead of South Korea’s April 10 election – two prominent analysts sparked a round of discussion among North Korean observers with an article suggesting that Kim isn’t bluffing this time.

“Like his grandfather in 1950, Kim Jong Un has made the strategic decision to go to war,” former CIA officer Robert Carlin and nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker wrote in early 2024 on the North Korea-focused website 38 North. They didn’t predict how soon this might happen.

Carlin and Hecker’s views are not universal: Most analysts argue that any large-scale attack would be an act of desperation or suicide and would prompt a response from South Korea and the United States that would undermine the Kim family’s nearly eight decades of rule would end. But with numerous conflicts raging in Ukraine and the Middle East, this is exactly the kind of war the world could find itself in – with potentially devastating consequences not only for the Korean peninsula, but also for the global economy, and especially for the chip industry. Supply chain.

Seoul responded to all speculation bluntly: “The Kim regime will come to an end” if it wages an all-out war, South Korea’s defense ministry said in January.

Here are the possible scenarios if Kim Jong Un decides to follow through on his threats and attack South Korea.

How it begins

In 1950, North Korean troops invaded South Korea, surprising the United States. The powers of Kim Il Sung — Kim Jong Un’s grandfather — took over much of the peninsula before U.S. and South Korean forces launched a counterattack. China’s intervention led to a standoff that resulted in a ceasefire but no formal peace treaty, and the Korean peninsula has since split around the 38th parallel.

Kim Jong Un is unlikely to risk a similar invasion. But he has shown an appetite for smaller provocations that could spiral out of control – a trait shared by his father, Kim Jong Il.

Read: Kim Jong Un vows to advance his nuclear ambitions in the new year

A flashpoint are the border islands on the Yellow Sea, which belong to South Korea but are in waters claimed by Pyongyang. In 2010, about two years before Kim Jong Un came to power, Yeonpyeong Island was the scene of a deadly artillery shelling that killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians and set houses on fire. About six months earlier, South Korea had accused North Korea of ​​torpedoing its warship Cheonan near the island, killing 46 sailors – a claim Pyongyang denied.

South Korea has since promised that another attack in the Yellow Sea would be met with an even stronger response, raising the risk of miscalculations on both sides that could quickly escalate.

“If North Korea makes a provocation, we will punish it multiple times,” conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol said in January after North Korea conducted artillery exercises near a border island. The South Korean leader has taken a tough line against Kim’s regime and responded to his provocations with military exercises in which he often used the United States in demonstrations of force.

Attack on Seoul

Any escalating attack in the periphery would immediately draw attention to the greater Seoul area, home to about half of the country’s 51 million people. North Korea has spent decades stockpiling millions of artillery shells and thousands of rockets in terrain north of the demilitarized zone, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from South Korea’s largest city.

This border region is also home to about 70% of South Korea’s $1.67 trillion economy, which is the base for some of the world’s leading technology and manufacturing companies, including Samsung Electronics Co., LG Electronics Inc. and Kia Corp. Even a short conflict would have repercussions in global supply chains and disrupt the global economy.

In a demonstration typical of his more aggressive stance, Kim in March watched his forces fire the weapons that could be used in an attack on the South Korean capital. According to a 2020 Rand analysis, just a minute of artillery and rocket fire against Seoul could cause nearly 15,000 casualties. A one-hour barrage would increase that number to over 100,000.

In any case, a major conflict would be inevitable.

Full of conflict

If Kim were to start a war in full force, he would likely start it with an artillery bombardment of key military, political and economic targets in Seoul. It is precisely for this purpose that North Korea keeps its howitzers, mortars and rocket artillery in secure positions and ready to fire at short notice.

At the same time, an estimated 200,000 soldiers in Kim’s special forces – part of a 1.1 million-strong active-duty army – would attempt to cross the border by land, sea, air and even tunnels, according to South Korea’s defense ministry. One goal would be to target bridges on the Han River, which flows through central Seoul, dividing the city in half and making it difficult for millions of people to flee to the peninsula’s less populated southern end.

Kim would also seek to inflict huge economic costs as quickly as possible. The Rand war game analysis found that a five-minute North Korean artillery attack on an LG-operated factory in Paju, north of Seoul, would jeopardize an $8.9 billion investment and cause thousands of casualties.

But North Korea’s advantages in being the first to strike would not last long.

South Korea is also combat-ready: It has Patriot defense systems to intercept incoming missiles, 555,000 active-duty troops and a military budget larger than North Korea’s entire sanctions-hit economy. There are also 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, and American spy satellites constantly monitor the Korean peninsula.

Although North Korea has a manpower advantage, most of its armed forces rely on “increasingly outdated equipment” from the Soviet era, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in its report on the world’s armed forces in 2023.

North Korea’s few Soviet-era fighters and its squadrons of single-propeller An-2 biplanes – developed in the 1950s and with a top speed of about 160 miles per hour (260 km/h) – would be easy prey for South Korea’s ground-to-ground Ground-to-ground aircraft. Aerial missiles and modern F-35A jets that can reach speeds of over 1,200 miles per hour.

“The United States and South Korea would have absolute air superiority in every possible way essentially immediately and from the first moments of the war,” said Michael Mazarr, a senior political scientist at Rand.

The same applies to other weapons systems: Pyongyang’s submarines are mostly small underwater clunkers that cannot stray far from the coast because they are easy to detect. Its tanks date back to the Soviet era and are easily destroyed by Stinger missile systems, which were deployed in Ukraine to stop Russia.

What South Korea does not attack in the first few waves would likely be subject to air and missile attacks in the following days, leaving North Korea’s cities vulnerable to destruction – as happened in the original Korean War.

“Inadequate availability of fuel and transportation, poor maintenance of ground communication lines, and inadequate training limit North Korea’s ability to sustain large-scale conventional offensive operations,” the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said in a recent report.

“Bloody nose” punch

Another possibility is a “blood nose” attack by the United States and South Korea against North Korea, an option discussed during the Trump administration. This scenario would only be possible if the allies believed that a full-scale attack by North Korea was imminent, intended to demonstrate strength and remind Kim that his aging military is no match for America’s might.

But the move was always seen as risky because it would likely lead directly to a larger conflict. Additionally, in recent years, many of North Korea’s liquid-fuel missiles, which take time to fire, have been replaced with solid-fuel versions that Kim can fire quickly and without much warning from rail cars, lake properties and launchers hidden in caves.

If Kim misjudged and believed the U.S. and South Korea wanted to end his regime — rather than just deliver a message of deterrence — he could use a nuclear weapon preemptively, said Duyeon Kim, deputy senior fellow at Seoul’s Center for a New American Security.

A U.S. intelligence estimate declassified last year said Kim would likely use his nuclear arsenal only if he believed he and his regime were in danger.

“Our analysis at this point is that he will behave in an increasingly provocative manner, but is not interested in escalating this into an all-out war, and that there is some kind of limit to that,” the US Director of National Affairs told The Secret Service Avril Haines told Congress in March.

Read: North Korea wants to galvanize voices in US and South Korea, spy agency says

If a fuller North Korean attack were likely, South Korea would seek to station new bunker-buster missiles and squadrons of fighter jets south of Seoul. US bombers in Guam as well as ships and fighters stationed in Japan could also come to South Korea’s aid.

The South Korea-U.S. alliance would use its air superiority to attack command centers, weapons depots, missile launchers, radars, military bunkers, missile silos and nuclear storage facilities in the hope of wiping out as many of North Korea’s assets as possible.

Kim in his sights

Also on the target list: North Korea’s leaders, including Kim. Yoon is not afraid to talk about his country’s so-called three-axis plan, which calls for pre-emptive strikes, large-scale attacks and the elimination of Kim. Pyongyang’s propaganda apparatus has condemned South Korea for organizing “decapitation units” and promised to destroy “the puppet warmongers” with a nuclear strike if they tried.

The question of nuclear weapons is the most shocking. Various estimates suggest that North Korea may have between 40 and 90 warheads. The Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyzes said Kim was aiming for between 100 and 300 in the long term.

An attack on the Seoul region with one of North Korea’s most powerful bombs could cause about 400,000 casualties and 1.5 million deaths, Rand estimated. North Korea could also move against U.S. ally Japan or attack American facilities in Guam or even North America, although opinions are divided over whether Kim’s regime has the intercontinental ballistic missile technology to attack targets on the U.S. mainland.

“North Korea has yet to demonstrate its ability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States, and questions remain about its competence in re-entry vehicle technology,” said Lami Kim, a nonproliferation expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

North Korea has also sought to use lower-yield tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield, perhaps to slow a U.S.-led counterattack. But using nuclear weapons would expose Kim to a far greater response, as the U.S. could retaliate quickly and overwhelmingly.

In this case, the death toll from a general strike could be in the millions. A full-scale war could disrupt the global economy and cause trillions of dollars in damage. And Kim’s regime would almost certainly be over.

“We expect that through 2030, Kim Jong Un will most likely continue to pursue a strategy of coercion, potentially including non-nuclear lethal attacks, to advance the North’s goals, intimidate its neighbors, extract concessions and undermine the regime’s military credibility to strengthen domestically.” “says the latest report from the US Secret Service National Intelligence Estimate.

Is conflict inevitable?

The biggest questions now are whether the die has already been cast and what could prevent that.

Most analysts see Kim’s more heated rhetoric as mere saber rattling aimed at influencing South Korea’s election, unsettling the West or securing further concessions. Kim has staged provocations before every election in South Korea during his time in office, and he has a greater interest in dealing a blow to Yoon’s conservative party in the April 10 general election.

“The fundamental goal of the regime is to preserve the regime,” said Rand’s Mazarr.

Another variable to consider is China – historically Pyongyang’s closest partner, which came to Kim’s grandfather’s aid during the first Korean War.

Read: Kim Jong Un’s lifeline to Russia is an important reason to avoid war

Beijing has every reason to prevent a conflict from arising or spiraling out of control. A nuclear exchange on the peninsula or a conventional war that results in the defeat of North Korea would run counter to China’s long-term interests, potentially leaving American and South Korean troops near the Chinese border and the global economy in shambles.

But China’s influence over North Korea has long been limited, even though it is the country’s most important trading partner. Even when Beijing worked with the U.S. at the U.N. Security Council to condemn North Korea’s nuclear developments during the Trump years, the actions did not change Pyongyang’s behavior. Kim is also working to diversify his economy away from China by selling some of his artillery supplies to Russia for the war in Ukraine.

This economic windfall – which could amount to a small amount of billions – could be a factor, along with his own desire for self-preservation, in helping Kim stay in check. The fact that he is selling millions of artillery shells to Russia could be another signal that Kim does not actually want war, as it would risk running out of weapons to defend himself.

In addition, there is now a chance that Donald Trump, who met Kim three times and generally sought better relations with North Korea, will win the US presidency again. Either way, Kim has already shown that he has a long-term plan for his family to continue ruling the nation his grandfather founded in 1948, signaling that his daughter could take power decades from now.

According to Daniel Pinkston, an international relations lecturer at Troy University in Seoul and a former Korean linguist in the U.S. Air Force, if Kim had actually been preparing for war, he would have already invaded South Korea. A simpler explanation, he said, is that it deters North Korea.

“The North Korean leadership is waiting for a restructuring of the world order and the collapse of the US-led alliance system in East Asia,” Pinkston said. “If that doesn’t happen, I don’t see any theory of victory for North Korea.”

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