A U.S. war with North Korea could be costly
President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea strays radically from the usual norms of diplomacy.
Trump has replaced nuanced messaging, designed to prevent miscalculations or misinterpretations that could accidentally lead to war, with blunt schoolyard banter designed to taunt and instigate.
As a result, many believe war with North Korea is becoming increasingly likely.
Why has Trump taken this strategy?
The obvious explanation is that he is simply tempestuous and unpredictable and knows no other way. Another rationale is that he believes his aggressiveness will bear fruit where other strategies have failed.
If it’s the latter, the administration must assume the risks are worth taking. In other words, if Trump’s combativeness leads to war rather than North Korean concessions, the war will be short, easy to wage, and relatively pain free.
Unfortunately, reality belies these assumptions. First, U.S. intelligence on North Korea is limited since we have very little human intelligence inside the country.
Thus, a first-strike to obliterate North Korea’s nuclear weapons or the regime would probably fail. A North Korean nuclear retaliation replete with devastating consequences cannot be ruled out.
A conventional response, while less cataclysmic, would still cause thousands of deaths on day one.
Several military experts believe the administration is grossly underestimating how long such a conflict would last.
Rather than a short and decisive war, these experts believe it would be a long war of attrition. A former South Korean general recently said, “If we have to go into North Korea … it’s not going to be like toppling [Saddam] Hussein. Kim Jong Un and his family are a cult. It will be like pulling out all of your teeth.”
Another South Korean military expert said the war would be more like the U.S. war against Vietnam.
The administration may also be downplaying the massive logistics required to wage a conventional war with North Korea.
First, the U.S. would need to evacuate the roughly 200,000 U.S. citizens living in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan. However, since the North Koreans would observe this massive maneuver, our action could trigger a North Korean pre-emptive strike.
Additionally, offensive and defensive preparations for a conventional attack would be visible.
For example, according to Kim Yeol-soo, head of security at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, the U.S. would need to mobilize almost 700,000 U.S. soldiers, 160 ships, 1,600 aircraft and 2.7 million South Korean reservists, along with aircraft carriers, F-22 jets and B1-B bombers.
And since the U.S. only has about 30,000 troops in South Korea compared to the North’s 7.5 million reservists, U.S. forces would have to come from outside the region and into nearby bases in Japan. None of these movements can be achieved surreptitiously, so a surprise U.S. conventional attack is impossible to pull off.
War with North Korea will likely be lengthy rather than short, and myriad logistical hurdles must be scaled for a conventional war to succeed. With the administration’s rhetoric and assumptions at odds with reality, the risk of a U.S. miscalculation is alarmingly high.