As the crisis escalates, an unsettling question comes into focus: What would war on the Korean peninsula look like some 50-odd years after the armistice that brought the Korean War to an end?
A North Korean Attack: Though war would be catastrophic for both countries, South Korea would suffer the most in the first days of a full-scale conflict. Its capital of Seoul lies just 50 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) -- as big a misnomer as you will find, since the area is one of the most heavily militarized areas on the planet. On this de facto border, North Korea has amassed about 13,000 artillery pieces, rockets, missiles and other ordnance that can reach Seoul in a matter of minutes. Seoul, a city of 1 million, could be flattened; also at risk are the 28,500 American troops stationed in the country. Additionally, North Korea could release its dams and flood much of the South, writes Christopher Hitchens. There's also its 1.2 million-member army to consider. And were North Korea to deploy nuclear and chemical weapons, the devastation would be much much worse.
South Korea's Response: South Korea is far from defenseless, however. It has a standing army of more than 500,000 and nearly 10 times that in trained reservists. It has twice the population of the North and is a First-World economic power with huge industrial capacity, while North Korea is an economic backwater where much of the population is malnourished. In any protracted conflict, these would be huge advantages. What's more, the DMZ is heavily mined, and the border area is hilly (even mountainous along the East Coast) and offers natural defensive positions.
International Actors: Alliances haven't changed much in 50 years. The U.S. backs South Korea, while China supports the North. Neither country would likely remain neutral in a Korean war, but it's unclear how involved they would be -- unless North Korea employed nuclear weapons, which would almost certainly trigger an immediate U.S. response. Since 1978, the U.S. has pledged to protect South Korea from a nuclear threat from the North. "Under the extended nuclear deterrence pledge, the U.S. military would use some of its tactical nuclear weapons, such as B-61 nuclear bombs carried by B-2/52 bombers and F-15E, F-16 and F/A-18 fighters, as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from nuclear-powered submarines, to strike North Korea's nuclear facilities in retaliation for any such attack on the South," military experts told The Korea Times. China will not support North Korean nuclear aggression, though it's unlikely to sit by idly if American and South Korean forces take over the North. Meanwhile, the main U.S. tensions with China will remain over Taiwan, which could exacerbate if Taiwan used the distraction of a Korean conflict to declare independence.
The Aftermath: Were full-scale war to break out, the endgame likely would be the end of North Korea's dictatorship; the U.S. would not settle for a peace that left Kim Jong-il in power. But what would you do with his brainwashed subjects, whose leader has done everything he can to block their access to the modern outside world? Hitchens, again:
This reintegration project would be much more difficult than the one following the reunification of Germany, where Soviet control in the East, however draconian, never approached the cult state that is North Korea. Whatever military challenges war would bring would be dwarfed by these postwar social challenges."The dirty secret here is that no neighboring power really wants the North Korean population released from its awful misery. Here are millions of stunted and unemployable people, traumatized and deformed by decades of pointless labor on the plantations of a mad despot. The South Koreans do not really want these hopeless cases on the soil of their flourishing consumer society. The Chinese, who have a Korean-speaking province that borders North Korea, are likewise unwilling to suffer the influx of desperate people that is in our future."