How North Korea Could Go to War
The most intense period of fighting in Korea ended some 62 years ago, but the divide across the Peninsula remains the world’s most visible legacy of the Cold War. While the Republic of Korea (ROK) has become economically successful and democratic, North Korea has become a punchline.
Nevertheless, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has continued to increase the sophistication of its ballistic missiles, has developed nuclear weapons, and maintains the world’s largest garrison state. Pyongyang has also made clear that it isn’t afraid to provoke Seoul (and Seoul’s biggest supporter, the United States) with aggressive moves such as the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, and the bombardment of South Korean islands.
The general peace on the peninsula has more or less held since the 1950s. Still, while North Korea’s power has declined substantially relative to that of South Korea, the idea that Pyongyang might come to the conclusion that war could solve its problems still worries U.S. and South Korean planners.
If North Korea faced a situation in which it determined that war was the only solution, how might it seek to crush the ROK, and deter the United States and Japan?
Timing is Everything…
North Korea’s best hope for success in peace hinges, as it has for the past seventy years, on the potential collapse of the global capitalist system. This sounds… optimistic, but consider that South Korea suffered badly during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, that the capitalist world continues to suffer from the fallout from the 2008 Financial Crisis, and that Japan faces what appear to be insurmountable economic difficulties.
Even if a world economic collapse does not bring capitalism to its knees, another such crisis could put stress on the relationship between South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
North Korean prospects in the war depend utterly on sidelining the United States in some fashion, either through the presentation of a fait accompli, or through high stakes deterrence.
The situation with Japan is more complex, but Tokyo views North Korea as sufficiently threatening that a war would almost certainly incur some kind of intervention, if not necessarily in direct support of RoK forces.
The other scenario under which DPRK might decide to attack would come in anticipation of a major U.S.-ROK attack against the North. In such a situation, the North Korean leadership might decide that it has little to lose. The military balance would, in such a context, strongly favor pre-emptive action on North Korea’s part.
The clearest path to North Korean victory in war depends on a quick defeat of South Korean forces, providing the United States and Japan with a fait accompli that Pyongyang will expect Beijing to back.
The North Korean attack would likely involve a classic 20th century combined arms assault, using artillery to disrupt RoK defenses and soften up positions (as well as create civilian panic), infantry to break holes in the South Korean lines, and mechanized forces to exploit those gaps. The North Koreans could well add special forces (potentially deployed to South Korea before the initiation of hostilities) and regular forces deployed by tunnel to South Korean rear areas.
The Korean People’s Air Force is ancient, and has received no significant infusion of Russian or Chinese technology in years. The force has very little counter-air capability relative to the Republic of Korea Air Force, and its fighters would find themselves easy prey for well-trained South Korean pilots flying sophisticated aircraft. The KPA can expect very little ground support, either on the tactical or operational scales, and would likely struggle under South Korean air attacks.
To remedy these problems, North Korea would likely reserve a large proportion of its land-attack cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles for attacks on South Korean air bases, in the hopes of destroying fighters on the ground and rendering facilities useless.