A great deal of attention is currently focussed on the possibility of a conflict between the United States and North Korea, but what would be the character of a war between these powers if it actually broke out? Recent conflicts and current military preparedness would only be a guide to the very early stages, and there are much more significant implications to consider. Here are ten possible characteristics for analysts to think through.
1 Not just Nuclear Weapons
Despite the usual focus on nuclear weapons and the latest air, sea, and missile technologies, these may not be the sole determinant of the outcome and we would probably see a rapid development in systems deployed. Each major war in the past spawned rapid technological developments and it is likely that a conflict for the United States and North Korea would accelerate the use of their newest weapon systems and some novel initiatives. China would be tempted to trial its own new technologies, secretly facilitating their import into North Korea, in the event of a more sustained engagement. Older, so-called ‘dumb’ ordnance would also make its reappearance for reasons of supply and cost.
2 Conventional War, but in Depth
Conventional warfare would characterise the fighting that would erupt along the North-South Korean border. One can envisage a rapid American build up of divisions in the peninsula, but very high casualties would be likely on both sides from the beginning. A mass evacuation of Seoul and areas affected by the immediate fighting would soon overwhelm the available government services. Deliberate North Korean attacks on evacuees, designed to break the will of the South to continue resistance, would add to the pressure. But this would be a conflict where both sides would seek to fight in great depth, both territorially but also in the hearts and minds of the adversaries’ peoples.
3 Sustaining Morale amidst Heavy Casualties
Important though new technologies would undoubtedly be, not least in the sheer levels of devastation and consequent casualty tolls they imply, it is just as important to consider civilian and elite motivation. Sustaining morale over the medium term was as important in each historical major war. The North Korean population could initially unite more strongly around the defence of their nation, but it is not clear that they would remain loyal if the country suffered infrastructural breakdown or even a moderate intensity, but sustained conflict. Long-term hardship has inured the population to the stresses of war, but popular discontent could equally find a focus to protest, even passively. The war could, potentially, be very short, if the North Koreans abandoned their regime, but, there is every indication that, without access to alternative sources of information, the population will follow the government’s lead for some time after the regime’s collapse.
4 Popular Protests in the United States
In the United States, the sections of society already opposed to President Donald Trump would make their discontent more active over a period of some months, surpassing the scale of popular unrest that characterised the latter stages of the Vietnam War. It is likely that National Guard deployments would be required to augment overwhelmed law enforcement agencies. The scale and depth of popular protest, even in a just war, should not be underestimated as a factor in major wars.
5 Geopolitical and Economic Shift
There would likely be significant changes in the geo-political and economic environment. China would not directly support North Korea, but it would seek to profit from the peace, and ensure that its interests were represented at any peace settlement. A war in the region would adversely affect the ability of China to export and severely affect its domestic economy, and all the regional nations would be placed under significant economic pressure. Short term popular unrest in China can be anticipated. Given the disruption to the global economy, it seems that the United States would probably lose a number of east Asian and Pacific partners, while China, regarded as a neutral party, would benefit the most in the medium term. In commercial terms, major wars have tended to favour neutral powers over belligerent ones. On the other hand, there could easily be a corresponding boost the American domestic economy, especially in a sustained war, and an opportunity to supply regional allies thereby increasing the flow of American exports.
6 War with Global Impact
The war would probably escalate in phases. In an attempt to limit the conflict, one can imagine American attacks on command and control, and communication nodes. One can expect both sides to make extensive use of cyber attacks, revealing the extent of both US and North Korean peacetime penetration into public and private sector systems. It is unlikely that such attacks will be limited only to the belligerents, since attack effects would spread to other systems. Civil populations around the globe could therefore expect episodic and occasionally catastrophic failures in media, communications, navigation, banking and services. Both the United States and North Korea would escalate their 4GW (Fourth Generation Warfare) campaigns against the civil population, that is they will seek to demoralise the enemy public and turn them against their leadership. Electronic media and news will be in the front line of this activity, and a number of traditional Western media outlets, in their haste to get exclusive or rapid stories, will likely be discredited for harvesting and propagating what, in essence, will be the fake material of the North Korean regime and its sympathisers. Unconventional threats will be initiated from within Western societies as well as from outside, just as they were in the past.
7 A Pattern of Escalatory War: Early Optimism
Once the ‘Hot War’ phase has begun once could expect rapid escalation, with missile exchanges manned and unmanned air attacks, and naval operations. The pattern of major wars in the past provides another guide to the way in which the conventional operations could develop. In the early phase of the conflict there would be optimism and faith in superiority of American military or defensive systems, just as the Allied powers expressed in 1914, and 1940. North Korea is widely expected to launch conventional offensives, accompanied by overwhelming firepower, against civil and military targets in South Korea. They would be dependent on mass to sustain their momentum as their casualties would be significant, but with one of the largest armed forces in the world, the North Korean regime would regard heavy losses as acceptable.
8 Sustaining a Costly War
There would be the inevitable failures, setbacks, experience of devastation and loss, and crucially, an approaching stalemate as the United States closed down North Korean offensives but had to decide whether to counter-attack across the 38th Parallel and what its objectives were. By now, the war would have developed a logic of its own, as American planners seek out the most threatening formations of North Korean forces, its nuclear arsenal, and chemical weapons. The Americans would engage in an urgent search for the decisive edge in new technologies, new fronts, new methods or more ‘mass’ or resources. This phase of war in the past would be characterised as the materielschlacht, a battle of resources. If the North Koreans put up a protracted resistance, and were still able to field large numbers of troops and weapons, then the United States would be compelled to mirror the North Korean posture, which has been long in existence, of total war measures, including the mobilisation of the economy and the population. As in 1917 and from 1943, these conditions would put increasing demands on civilians. In North Korea, the intensity of the fighting, especially in urban areas would mean the heaviest losses amongst civilian populations, and these in turn would require extreme internal security measures.
9 Ending the War on the Ruins of North Korea
The concluding phase of a conflict would be marked by further escalation and devastation, reflecting the shift towards ‘Absolute War’ that characterised the fighting in Europe in 1918 and 1945. American victory would not be in doubt. The regime itself would be swept away. The casualty toll though would inevitably be the highest sustained for generations. In North Korea, the losses would be utterly catastrophic. The levels of damage to the country would require a massive international reconstruction and decontamination effort. China would seek to control the future of the peninsula, in line with its long-term, regional interests and desire to expand its influence in the East China Sea. Americans would have paid a high price to sustain their own influence in the region, but they would retain their military hegemony and would probably pursue their containment of rivals in East Asia.
10 New Nuclear Age
A war between the United States and North Korea would be predominately conventional, but nuclear weapons would almost certainly be used by one, if not both sides. The US will want to avoid their use on population centres but no such restraint could be expected from an increasingly desperate regime in Pyongyang. The conflict would nevertheless bring to an end the ‘nuclear taboo’ and militaries across the world would start from the planning assumption that, at the very least, conflicts would feature tactical nuclear weapons. There is every prospect that a US-North Korea War would therefore usher in a new era of warfare, where nuclear weapons or devastating yields of conventional weapons’ use becomes the norm.