Washington North Korea’s nuclear threats are grabbing the world’s attention. But if the North were to strike South Korea today, it would probably first try to savage Seoul with the men and missiles of its huge conventional army.
The attack might well begin with artillery and missiles capable of hitting South Korea’s capital with little or no warning. North Korea’s vast cadre of commandos could try to infiltrate and cause chaos while the South tried to respond.
The hair-trigger nature of the danger is reflected in the pledge of preparedness that American ground forces stationed just below the North-South divide have lived by for decades: “Fight tonight.”
If it came to war, destruction — civilian and military — would be heavy, even if the North held back whatever nuclear weapons it may have. The consensus American view, generally shared by allies, is that the South would prevail but at enormous human cost, including a refugee crisis on the Korean peninsula.
Fears of military conflict have increased this week, particularly regarding disputed waters off the western coast, after North Korea conducted an apparent nuclear test on Monday and then renounced the armistice that has kept relative peace between the Koreas. It has held since the two sides fought to a standstill — with the U.S. and the U.N. backing the South and China and Russia supporting the North — in the 1950-53 Korean War.
The North is threatening to respond in “self-defense” if the U.N. Security Council imposes more sanctions as punishment for the nuclear test, which Washington and others say violated previous U.N. resolutions.
At the outset of the Korean War, which began 59 years ago next month, North Korean armor rolled across the border, catching the South by surprise. An emergency U.S. defense effort initially crumbled, and the North’s forces almost succeeded in pushing the Americans off the tip of the peninsula.
U.S. and South Korean forces have had nearly six decades to anticipate how a renewed attack might unfold and how they would respond. The expectation is that the North would slip commandos, commonly called special operating forces, across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the North and South or into southern waters aboard small submarines to carry out sabotage and assassination.
In congressional testimony in March, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Gen. Walter L. Sharp, estimated that the North has more than 80,000 such commandos. He said it is the largest special operating force in the world, with “tough, well-trained and profoundly loyal troops” who are capable of clandestine missions such as sabotaging critical civilian infrastructure as well as attacking military targets.
The South has had glimpses of the commando capabilities. Until recent years the North would routinely infiltrate agents across the DMZ. One of its submarines ran aground in South Korea during a failed spying mission in 1996.
Sharp said North Korea’s army is the world’s fourth largest with 1.2 million troops on active duty, backed by as many as 7 million reserves, with an estimated 1,700 military aircraft, 800 naval vessels and more than 13,000 artillery pieces. The numbers do not tell the entire story, though.
Much of the North’s equipment is old and decrepit, and it lacks the high-tech reconnaissance capabilities of the South.
Sharp did not mention chemical weapons, but it is widely believed the North has a chemical capability that it could unleash in the early stages of a land war to demoralize defending forces and deny the use of mobilization centers, storage areas and military bases.
Complicating the defensive calculations of the South and its American allies is the immutable fact that Seoul, with a population of about 10 million, lies about 35 miles south of the DMZ — within easy range of much of the North’s artillery.
“It’s a very, very direct route. That’s always been the problem, right from the early days,” said Kerry Brown, an Asia analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank. “It’s very vulnerable to a sudden, savage all-out military attack.”