North Korea, for lack of a better term, is one hell of a hot mess. And its one that if South Korea and its ally the United States ever had to go to war with would create all sorts of problems.
From a leader who has more in common with the fictional Dr. Evil than any other normal head of state to rants about going to war against the United States and South Korea on an almost weekly basis to much more serious and deadly temper tantrums (like attacking a South Korean naval vessel and opening up its artillery to shell islands), one never knows what Pyongyang is capable of—just look how it treats it own people.
And that is what makes it one of the most dangerous regimes on the planet today.
But in a straight up war with Seoul and Washington, many military minds are of the opinion that Pyongyang would lose—and lose badly. Sure, North Korea could come out swinging, launching a massive strike across the DMZ, firing off a blistering artillery barrage at Seoul that would induce panic on par if not worse than 9/11 and maybe even have the guts to use those nukes the Kim regime has been threatening the world with for years. But in the end, most agree Kim Jung-un would be signing his own death certificate.
History tells us though that not all heads of state are rational actors. Our history books are riddled with the tails of dictators and rogue regimes who think they can overcome the impossible. What if Kim Jung-un one day felt he was backed into a corner—that his regime was in mortal danger—and decided to strike South Korea decisively and essentially?
While his military is not of a superpower pedigree, he could set the conditions to do an insane amount of damage quickly and create mass panic the likes we have not seen in decades—maybe just enough to give the North Korean military a slim chance at some measure of early success. And such early success could cost millions of people their lives.
This article will look at five specific weapons or capabilities that North Korea could use in a surprise attack as part of an invasion of the South. These five weapons could be used in various combinations— in one massive strike or used on their own— as the opening salvo of an invasion.
Such weapons would be used with the goal of creating fear and mass panic in South Korea— so much so that it would create adverse conditions making an effective multi-domain kinetic counterattack difficult to execute. This would help a North Korean invasion take as much early territory as possible and make the always important “fog of war” that much thicker. ROK and American forces would be fighting one of the toughest challenges ever devised— a nightmare scenario for certain.
Instead of trying to strap a nuclear weapon on a missile that might not hit its target, North Korea could decide to send multiple teams of commandos on a trip through secret tunnels under the DMZ and fan out across South Korea— all armed with nuclear materials. Their mission: to detonate deadly atomic packages in the five most populated cities of South Korea.
Their goal would not be to strike a military target, but to simply create havoc throughout the country. Pyongyang could even deliver such a blow though short or medium range missiles armed with nuclear material— no special teams or tunnels needed and no super accuracy would be necessary if all you were trying to do was hit a big target like a massive metropolis like Seoul.
We all know from the conflict in Syria the hell chemical weapons can rain down on a population. Unfortunately, North Korea seems to have invested considerable time and resources into developing its own stockpile of these weapons of mass destruction. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Pyongyang possesses the 3rd largest chemical weapons stockpile on the planet. NTIs analysis also notes that:
"North Korea may possess between 2,500 tons and 5,000 tons of CW agents. The South Korean government assesses that North Korea is able to produce most types of chemical weapons indigenously, although it must import some precursors to produce nerve agents, which it has done in the past. At maximum capacity, North Korea is estimated to be capable of producing up to 12,000 tons of CW. Nerve agents such as sarin and VX are thought be to be the focus of North Korean production."
So how could Pyongyang strike South Korea with maximum impact using such deadly weapons? Well, for starters, a massive folly fired from artillery shells or missiles is always the most thought of approach. However, with a little ingenuity, North Korea could also spread small amounts of chemical weapons in some of the largest cities in the ROK using teams as I laid out above. With a little planning and ingenuity, Pyongyang could use such a plot to create panic and slow the response times of ROK and U.S. forces— a fog of war thickened by deadly chemical agents hanging in the air.
A Nuclear Strike on America?
Yes, we all know North Korea has been testing long range missiles for years. But could North Korea actually plant a nuclear missile on U.S. soil?
Although it cannot at at this point, the possibility cannot be ruled out in the future. General Vincent Brooks, the Commander of U.S. Army forces in the Pacific, sure doesn’t. Indeed, at a recent event here in Washington, Brooks warned that Pyongyang’s capabilities are becoming a physical threat to U.S. territory.
Here is a possible scenario: Pyongyang could have the ability to launch a long-range, nuclear armed or nuclear material tipped weapon at Hawaii or Alaska. They don’t have to be picky about the target if the goal is just to incite fear and panic while launching some combination of the attacks I lay out in this article as part of an invasion.
If one is simply aiming at Anchorage or one of the more densely populated Hawaiian Islands there is the possibility— all be it, an unlikely one at this point— they could get through U.S. missile defenses. Stretch this scenario out 5-10 years, and North Korea could very well have a large and diversified enough missile arsenal to oversaturate U.S. missile defense systems and land a fatal nuclear blow.
An Artillery Strike
This scenario has been around for awhile. Pyongyang launches a massive artillery barrage on Seoul. The chaos that would result would be massive. Imagine millions of people flooding out of one of Asia’s largest cities. If one wanted to induce sheer panic and hence help your invasion strategy, this would be an effective way to do it.
While many point out that U.S. and ROK forces could quickly take out such artillery pieces once they fire their deadly barrage, enough damage would already be done to cause a massive exodus as Seoul residents attempt to make their exit. The mass of people stampeding any and all exits out of the capitol would act as its own weapon— panic and fear always are.
In my humble opinion, this is the great unknown when it comes to North Korea’s military capabilities. Yes, we know Pyongyang has struck out using its army of hackers several times in recent years, but just how good are they?
Could they, for example, take down South Korea’s electricity grid? Could they inject crippling Malware into critical command and control nodes needed to effectively launch a counterattack against Pyongyang?
Does North Korea have cyber agents in other countries ready to strike or armies of computers infected with dormant malware and viruses ready to attack using denial of service methods against targets of importance? Could Kim strike U.S. military facilities with Malware or hard to cure computer viruses?
While there is lots of different expert opinions on this, I think it is safe to say we don’t have as good of an idea as we should— and that fact itself should have you concerned.
North Korea is the pandora’s box no one wants to open. Yet, we must consider the possibility that Kim Jung-un or some other future North Korean dictator just might do that for us if he feels his regime is either about to crumble or some how misinterprets allied intentions and decides to strike first.
Whether part of a massive strike using all of the above five weapons or part of some stand alone attack— all the opening salvo of an invasion— North Korea has potent capabilities to inflict great harm against Seoul and Washington. While no one wishes for such a conflict to occur, one must always prepare for the possibility. The five above weapons and how they could be used were dreamed up in just a few hours; North Korea has had decades to stew on such scenarios. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.