By 2020 the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) could possess as many as 100 nuclear warheads, allowing it to pursue war strategies that could hold the Republic of Korea and the United States hostage to the threat of devastating atomic attack.
But North Korea's conventional weapons pose a major threat of their own, according to a January 2019 report from RAND, a California think tank with close ties to the U.S. military.
"Even without using nuclear weapons, North Korea has the capacity to unleash a devastating level of violence against a significant portion of the ROK population through some mix of conventional artillery and possibly chemical munitions."
A DPRK artillery barrage could inflict as many as 250,000 casualties in Seoul alone, RAND reported, citing a U.S. Defense Department estimate.
"Conservative predictions of a likely attack scenario anticipate an initial artillery barrage focused on military targets, which would result in significant casualties," U.S. Army general Vincent Brooks, head of U.S. Forces Korea, told a U.S. Senate committee in March 2018.
"A larger attack targeting civilians would yield several thousand casualties with the potential to affect millions of South Korean citizens," Brooks continued, "not to mention hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and nationals of other countries within the first 24 hours."
Seoul with its 10 million inhabitants lies just 25 miles south of the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. But the DPRK's tube artillery and rocket launchers could strike as far as 125 miles south of the DMZ.
As South Korea's population grows and North Korea deploys new artillery systems that can strike farther, more and more people become vulnerable to a non-nuclear attack by Pyongyang's forces.
32 million people live in range of North Korea's farthest-firing artillery, a 300-millimeter-diameter rocket launcher. As recently as 2000, just 27 million people were in the weapon's range.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the North Korean army has steadily built up a powerful artillery force along the DMZ. The force includes more than 13,000 rocket and tube artillery pieces, Reuters estimated.
North Korea's 107-millimeter rocket launchers endanger 40,000 people living within five miles of the DMZ. 910,000 people live within range of the North's 12-mile-range 122-millimeter rockets.
The DRPK's 170-millimeter self-propelled Koksan artillery pieces can fire as far as 24 miles, endangering 7.7 million people. 19.8 million people are within the 36-mile range of Pyongyang's 240-millimeter rockets.
RAND gamed out North Korean artillery strikes on the Cheorwon Valley that extends north from Seoul. 1,000 artillery systems belonging to the North Korean army's V Corps could fire 25,000 rounds during a 10-minute barrage, endangering as many as 180,000 people. The adjacent II Corps's 108 artillery pieces could fire 1,500 rounds during a 10-minute attack, potentially harming another million people.
During wartime, South Korea and the United States could struggle to suppress the artillery fast enough to prevent a bloodbath, RAND explained in its report. "With over 60 years of preparation, the DPRK is one of the most heavily fortified nations. This can pose several challenges for allied counterfire, air strikes and a ground invasion, potentially putting significant numbers of civilians at risk."
"Artillery can be sheltered from allied fires in self-contained underground facilities and hardened artillery sites provide added protection by housing artillery in bunkers of precast concrete covered with earth."
The problem could get worse before it gets better. North Korea is only improving and expanding its artillery arsenal on the northern side of the DMZ. In November 2018 Pyongyang claimed its forces tested a "newly-developed ultramodern tactical weapon.” The weapon in question could be a new or upgraded rocket launcher.
David Axe serves as the new Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.