South Koreans, for their part, fear that the United States, their ally, could suck them into the vortex of war. They are right to worry. Even a highly effective American first strike against North Korea could fail to prevent Kim from firing the numerous ballistic missiles, multiple rocket launchers, self-propelled guns, and artillery pieces he has trained on South Korean targets, notably greater Seoul, which has 25.6 million residents (about half the country’s population) and ranks among the world’s five most populous conurbations. While some proportion of these weapons would misfire or be destroyed by US and South Korean air strikes and counter-battery systems, the death toll in Seoul, particularly its northern regions, would still be substantial.
The odds are that those who doubt that North Korea will lash out following an American attack, imply that the “casualty rate” they calculate for South Koreans is tolerable (for whom?), or highlight the deficiencies of North Korea’s missiles and artillery are ensconced safely in an office within the Boston-Washington, DC, corridor. Koreans can be forgiven for fixating on a different, and intolerable, scenario: one in which the current crisis culminates in war and thousands of people, on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, perish in a matter of hours. Their fate hinges on whether Kim and Trump continue to play the intimidation game or eventually choose to emulate JFK and Khrushchev.
Rajan Menon is an Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York. He is also a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.