What War Between North Korea and the U.S. Might Look Like

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How U.S.-North Korea Tension Could Lead to War

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With the window closing fast -- if not already shut -- for the U.S. to stop Kim Jong Un from obtaining a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, North Korea watchers are starting to analyze President Donald Trump’s military options. He warned last month that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if it continues to make threats. After the United Nations agreed to its most stringent sanctions yet on Kim’s regime, North Korea repeated its stance that its nuclear weapons program is necessary to deter a U.S. invasion. Kim’s military then escalated tensions by test-firing a ballistic missile that flew over Japan and by completing what it said was a successful test of a hydrogen bomb capable of being fitted onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. For Trump and the U.S., there are no easy choices.

1. Can’t the U.S. try a surgical strike?

It probably wouldn’t work well enough. North Korea’s missiles and nuclear facilities are dispersed and hidden throughout the country’s mountainous terrain. Failing to hit them all would leave some 10 million people in Seoul, 38 million people in the Tokyo vicinity and tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel in northeast Asia vulnerable to missile attacks -- with either conventional or nuclear warheads. Even if the U.S. managed to wipe out everything, Seoul would still be vulnerable to attacks from North Korea’s artillery.

2. Why might Kim go nuclear?

“Even a limited strike” by the U.S. “would run the risk of being understood by the North Koreans to be the beginning of a much larger strike, and they might choose to use their nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. Somehow, the U.S. would need to signal to both North Korea and China -- Pyongyang’s main ally and trading partner -- that a surgical military strike is limited, and that they should avoid nuclear retaliation.

3. Is regime change an option?

New leadership wouldn’t necessarily lead to a new way of thinking among North Korea’s leadership. Kim’s prolonged exposure to Western values while at school in Switzerland led some to speculate that he might opt to open his country to the world -- until he took power and proved them wrong. Moreover, if Kim somehow were targeted for removal, the ruling clique surrounding him would have to go as well -- making for a very long kill list. China, fearing both a refugee crisis and U.S. troops on its border, would likely seek to prop up the existing regime.

4. Does that mean all-out war is the best U.S. option?

A full-scale invasion would be necessary to quickly take out North Korea’s artillery as well as its missile and nuclear programs. Yet any sign of an imminent strike -- such as a buildup of U.S. firepower, mobilization of South Korean and Japanese militaries and the evacuation of American citizens in the region -- could prompt North Korea to strike preemptively. China and Russia may also be sucked in. “Realistically, war has to be avoided,” said John Delury, an assistant professor of international studies at Yonsei University in South Korea. “When you run any cost-benefit analysis, it’s insanity.”

5. How might North Korea retaliate?

The most immediate reaction would likely be massive artillery fire on Seoul and its surroundings. North Korean artillery installations along the border can be activated faster than air or naval assets and larger ballistic missiles that can target South Korean, Japanese or American bases in the region with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Those countries have ballistic-missile-defense systems in place but can’t guarantee they will shoot down everything. Japan has begun offering advice to its citizens on what to do in the event a missile lands near them -- essentially try to get under ground -- and U.S. firms are marketing missile shelters. While it’s unclear if North Korea can successfully target U.S. cities like Denver and Chicago with a nuclear ICBM, it’s similarly unknown if U.S. defense systems can strike it down -- adding to American anxieties.

6. What would be the economic toll if war broke out?

South Korea accounts for about 1.9 percent of the world’s economy and is home to companies including Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. A severe drop in business activity due to war on the peninsula would cause widespread pain in the region and globally -- and that’s without deployment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons against its neighbor. Global financial markets would also suffer a tremendous shock in the short term, with flight to safe haven assets such as gold, the U.S. dollar and the Swiss franc. “The humanitarian crisis and economic reconstruction of the Korean peninsula after such a nuclear conflict would require large-scale international co-operation led by China, the U.S. and the European Union and it would likely take over a decade to rebuild the economy,” according to Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia-Pacific economist for IHS Markit.

7. What options remain on the table?

Many analysts say it’s time to start talks to prevent the situation from worsening. Stopping North Korea from obtaining a thermonuclear weapon, or more advanced solid-fuel missiles, is a goal worth pursuing, according to Lewis. However unpalatable it may seem, that means offering rewards to entice North Korea back to the negotiating table. Lewis suggested one reward could be to scale back U.S.-led military drills around North Korea. The question of what can be offered to the North Koreans “is a conversation that should be happening both with the public, with Congress and with the North Koreans, instead of having this imaginary conversation about war scenarios,” said Delury. “The realistic option is a diplomatic one that slows this thing down. And that’s going to require a lot of talks.”

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • A Bloomberg infographic on North Korea’s military buildup.
  • A QuickTake Q&A on why the U.S. missile-defense system, known as Thaad, angers China.
  • The U.S. shouldn’t agree to stop naval exercises, writes James Stavridis, former military commander of NATO.
  • A research paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute outlines the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
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