According to an opinion piece by Henry M. Seggerman in The Korea Times back in December of 2010, "North Korea has 11,000 heavy artillery pieces pointed at Seoul and could kill one million Seoul residents in a few hours. North Korea can continue with provocations without any fear of heavy South Korean retaliation." This is a bit hyped. Although estimates go up to 13,000 artillery pieces, the formulation I recall for effective fire was "5,000 artillery tubes," and, as Popular Mechanics — of all publications! — points out, North Korea is incapable of rendering Seoul "flattened," nor would Seoul be consumed in, in one translation, "a sea of flames" in a North Korean attack.
However, Seoul is only 35 miles from the border with North Korea; North
Korea has mobile artillery and rockets; North Korea does have an air
force and a large army; and North Korea has had time to infiltrate the
Demilitarized Zone with the South with, well, God knows what weapons.
After noting serious problems for the North Koreans with their military,
a subdued report by The International Institute for Strategic Studies states that"In
any conflict, North Korean artillery, firing from fortified positions
near the DMZ, could initially deliver a heavy bombardment on the South
Korean capital. Allied counter-battery fire and air strikes would
eventually reduce North Korea’s artillery capability, but not before
significant damage and high casualties had been inflicted on Seoul.
Similarly, the North Korean air force could launch surprise attacks
against military and civilian targets throughout South Korea before
allied air superiority was established. The potential delivery of
chemical or biological weapons by artillery, short-range missiles and
aerial bombs is an additional threat – especially to unprotected
At any given time, the US has some 30,000 troops in
South Korea as what even respectable sorts used to call "trip-wires,"
and my friends and I more cynically called "hostages": A North Korean
attack would bring in the US, and we do have the firepower to reduce
North Korea to a wasteland.
But not without a lot of fallout — starting with nuclear fallout — on
South Korea, and problems with the Chinese, North Korea's neighbors, and
the main US creditor.
Short-form: There really are no military options on the Korean Peninsula. Not sane ones, not for the US of A.
The non-military option I suggest is to give the North Koreans what,
for the last couple decades or so, they've said they've wanted: direct
negotiations with the United States and a peace treaty ending the Korean
War (or "Police Action" for the pedants who note that the US Congress
never declared war).
But, you might well say, the North Koreans have developed and are deploying nuclear weapons and delivery systems.
Okay, I respond, that is a dangerous thing for them to do but understandable.
Consider this. China invaded Tibet and remains in Tibet, and the United
States and "the International Community" viewed that aggression with
alarm and sent strong notes of protest … and that was that. Saddam
Hussein invaded Kuwait, and got hit with the Gulf War (Iraq War 1.0) and
what we call "The Iraq War" (Gulf 2.0 and following), upon the tenth
anniversary of which I am writing this essay. What were the differences
between Iraq and China prompting different responses to aggression?
(1) There are reasons to believe that Kuwait actually is a country with
historical existence. Still, its most immediate existence comes from
the drawing of lines on imperial maps. Many of those lines don’t make
sense in terms of tribal geography, ethnic and linguistic groups'
territories, and other matters of practical concern (like a port for
Iraq) — and in a rational world such political lines would've been drawn
differently to start with and, again, in a rational world, be peaceably
readjusted today. But trying to redraw lines in our world leads to
trouble, and it is an important rule among the countries that emerged
from the old European empires, "Successor states to the European empires
shall not attempt to change their borders by force." Saddam broke that
(2) There are a whole lot more Chinese than Iraqis.
(3) Iraq and Kuwait have a lot of oil, with them and their oil near
Europe and not all that far from the USA; China has coal and is close to
the US only by container ship.
(4) China has nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.
George H. W. Bush pushed the Iraqis out of Kuwait; George W. Bush
defeated Iraq in war and overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein. And
George W. Bush included in "an Axis of Evil" Iraq, Iran, and North
Iran and, relevantly here, North Korea, can't change much about their
differences with China — they're not going to change geography or
geology —with one exception: they can get atomic bombs.
And North Korea is getting a deliverable bomb, and, however loony much
of the North Korean leadership might be, that is a rational decision.
Fortunately, the North Koreans don't have much capacity to deliver
nuclear bombs, plural, and we have over-kill. North Korea can cause a
whole lot of damage in its region now, with conventional weapons, and
may be able eventually to nuke a USA city or two, which would probably
end republican government in the USA but otherwise not represent "an
existential threat": as World War II and its aftermath demonstrated
convincingly, countries can lose a number of cities and survive.
However, as World War II demonstrated even more convincingly,
destroying cities is very unpleasant for the former inhabitants thereof,
and, if les so, for their surviving families, friends, and many fellow
So we have a stand-off with North Korea, and a very dangerous one, and
not one that won't be resolved just with sanctions: the minute North
Korean elite will not be hurt much by the sanctions, and they don't have
to worry about being turned out of power by their suffering subjects in
a 2014 (or 2016) election.
So let's do what we have to do: cut a deal.
The North Koreans want a peace treaty; let's negotiate one and as much
as possible get the hell out of Korean politics. South Korea is a major
economic power, and China is a major power every which way. Let us be an
honest broker and good Pacific-rim neighbor — but let the Koreans deal
with Korean problems, with quiet help from the Chinese.
And we can continue quiet efforts to encourage the Chinese to be a bit more decent to the people of Tibet.
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