Nuclear war with North Korea would be devastating, even if it ended quickly, and here’s why.
The Economist published a fictional, yet disturbingly believable, account of what would happen if war broke out against North Korea.
It begins in March, 2019, after North Korea has successfully tested several more intercontinental ballistic missiles, and miniaturized nuclear warheads capable of re-entry on a missile.
When the North threatens to perform an atmospheric test with their new thermonuclear weapon, and President Trump orders a strike on the missile before the test, things go very wrong…
From The Economist:
[…] But even as Mr Trump was bragging about the success of the strike, Mr Kim was ordering elite units from his 180,000-strong special operations force to carry out a series of hit-and-run attacks on targets in the South. Some would infiltrate by using a network of tunnels running beneath the demilitarised zone (DMZ); others would be inserted from the sea by mini-submarines or flown in by ancient hedge-hopping An-2 biplanes that were hard for modern radars to spot. Meanwhile, North Korea’s navy had also begun laying mines in both the West and East seas in an effort to disrupt trade. A series of cyber-attacks on South Korea’s critical infrastructure also appeared to be under way.
[…] The first requirement would be to suppress North Korea’s surprisingly lethal integrated air-defence system, which fields, along with Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles, the indigenously produced and highly capable KN-06. With that out of the way, missiles, smart bombs and huge “bunker busters” would rain down on nuclear sites, missile launchers and command posts while South Korean special forces carried out “decapitation” raids to kill North Korea’s leaders. The idea was that by striking pre-emptively, any war would be both limited and short.
Mr Kim was aware that time was against him. At this stage, he too hoped to avoid an all-out war, which beneath his usual bombast he knew he might lose. But the build-up of forces in the South, especially the rapidly increasing airpower that would soon allow his adversary to launch a pre-emptive attack against his most important weapons, convinced him that he had to fire a powerful warning shot of his own.
With over 14,000 artillery pieces, about 1,000 of them positioned in caves and bunkers within range of Seoul, he could do a lot of damage quickly. But unleashing the kind of barrage that his regime had threatened in the past would take him rapidly past the point of no return. He also had to decide how much of his long-range artillery force of 170mm guns and both 240mm and 300mm multiple-rocket launchers he was prepared to expose at this stage to counter-battery fire from the South. He therefore opted for a limited salvo that would last under an hour before pulling back his artillery to positions where it would be less vulnerable.
His message to Mr Trump was that this was just a taste of what South Korea and its allies could expect if he continued with his aggressive war plans. It failed to have the effect that Mr Kim was hoping for. Despite hints that he might stop there, with several thousand civilian and military casualties already sustained, American and South Korean commanders had to take action in case this was just the prelude to an all-out artillery barrage.
Based on attempts to model the effects of such an attack, they believed that in just a few hours up to 100,000 people would be killed in Seoul and perhaps many more if they did not act fast. That meant putting OPLAN 5015 into action immediately and with it a warning directly from Mr Trump to Mr Kim that, if he launched a missile believed to be carrying a nuclear warhead, he could expect a swift and devastating nuclear response that would “remove him and his country from the map.”
The ferocity of the initial assault stunned Mr Kim. Large parts of his massive but technologically crude military infrastructure started disappearing. Tank divisions he had ordered south were sitting ducks in the narrow valleys they were forced to pass through. Any artillery that had been left in the open was being systematically destroyed by witheringly accurate counter-battery fire. Missile launchers supposedly hidden in caves were being pulverised by huge bunker-busting bombs. Twice Mr Kim had narrowly avoided being blown apart himself, when bombs had hit command bunkers minutes after his departure.
Faced with the imminent destruction of his regime, Mr Kim decided to go down fighting. The artillery he had held back began its bombardment of Seoul. A number of the shells and rockets had chemical warheads. Special forces already in the South were ordered to release poison gas in populated areas. Rumours rapidly spread of the use of biological weapons.
Most fatefully, Mr Kim, realising that his time would soon be up, had made up his mind to launch what remained of his nuclear arsenal. He cared little about the consequences either for his enemies or his own long-suffering people. He lived just long enough to know that neither of his two ICBMs had left its launch pad and three Musudan intermediate-range missiles, aimed at Tokyo and the American base at Okinawa, had been shot down by Patriot batteries in Japan before they could reach their targets. The new THAAD system and Patriot interceptors in South Korea had taken care of several medium-range Pukguksong-2 missiles. But to his satisfaction, two short-range missiles, hidden like needles in haystacks among multiple salvoes of conventionally armed rockets, had got through to Seoul.
The initial death toll was put at 300,000, but the effects of radiation would mean that many more would die in the months ahead, including large numbers of American civilians and service personnel. Mr Trump was advised that he had no option other than to retaliate with a nuclear strike on the North. The decision was taken to use America’s latest nuclear bomb, the guided B61-12, dropped by a B2 stealth bomber. It was both highly accurate and could have its explosive power dialled down to reduce civilian casualties and fallout. At least that was the hope.
After four had been dropped, North Korea’s war was over. Mr Kim and most of his high command had been vaporised in their bunkers, his missile force and nearly all his artillery had disappeared. Despite the use of relatively low-yield weapons, military casualties were in the hundreds of thousands. Over a million people were trying to leave Pyongyang, the capital, in case of further attack. With order breaking down and food supplies getting scarce, China found itself facing a humanitarian catastrophe on its border. It claimed that lethal radioactive material was being blown into Chinese cities by disrupted weather.
Nobody knew how an appalled President Xi would respond. The shock sent stockmarkets across the world reeling, foreshadowing a global recession to come. Mr Trump, however, was undaunted. He tweeted: “Nuke attack on Seoul by evil Kim was BAD! Had no choice but to nuke him back. But thanks to my actions, America is safe again!”
Truly a terrifying prediction.
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