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The Seattle Times March 04, 2003

The Korean War II: Analysts assess both sides in hypothetical conflict

The North's edge is more than matched by U.S. and South weaponry support and technology, experts say. But if Pyongyang attacked first, the casualties could exceed 1 million, largely because of its chemical arsenals. Such considerations undoubtedly come into play as U.S. officials consider a pre-emptive strike, but that would have bloody results, too. In fact, many say another Korean War would likely be a repeat of the first.

By Paul Wiseman
Gannett News Service

SEOUL, South Korea - The United States and South Korea would almost certainly win any war on the Korean peninsula, but the cost of victory could be appalling.

If North Korea attacked first or if its war machine wasn't seriously damaged by a U.S. strike aimed at destroying its nuclear weapons program, in the first two or three weeks of fighting that nation could use its awesome firepower to leave more than 1 million people dead or wounded. Most would be South Korean troops and civilians, but thousands of U.S. troops stationed here would also likely die, the U.S. military estimates.

South Korean defenses could be pulverized for several hours by as many as 500,000 artillery rounds per hour from North Korean positions just 30 miles from Seoul. North Korea's 500 to 600 Scud missiles, many carrying chemical weapons, could pound targets across South Korea, and longer-range missiles could hit civilian and U.S. military targets as far away as Japan and possibly even America's West Coast.

"They certainly have the ability to deliver a devastating first blow, especially if there is no lead-in time for us," says Joseph Bermudez, author of a detailed book called "The Armed Forces of North Korea." "They could make a significant penetration into South Korea, no doubt about it."

The threat of so much death and devastation means the U.S. would face a terrifying choice if it can't find a diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear-weapons ambitions: whether or not to launch a preventive strike and risk another Korean War.

The threat is one reason the South Koreans - who have the most to lose - are reluctant to go along with the Bush administration and take a tougher line toward the North.

Interviews with U.S. military officials here, North Korean defectors and defense analysts suggest a war with North Korea would be more difficult and bloodier than a war with Iraq.

Even so, there's a wide consensus that combined U.S. and South Korean forces would eventually win. North Korea doesn't have the fuel, spare parts or air power to win a sustained war against forces as imposing as the United States and South Korea, which itself has a 560,000-strong army. Thousands of well-armed, well-trained U.S. and South Korean troops guard the border. North Korea's tanks and aircraft are obsolete.

In addition, precision missiles are already targeting North Korean positions, land mines and razor wire are blocking the invasion route across the North-South border, South Korean ships are patrolling coastal waters and U-2 spy planes are keeping close watch on North Korea's military.

Nevertheless, U.S. Army Maj. Gregory Pickell, assessing the prospects for war, concluded in 2000 that "Korea is the military's nightmare." He warned that U.S. forces were unprepared for a Korean conflict.

North Korean society is designed for war, little else. It spends about 30 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its armed forces under its "military-first" policy, even as a third of its people go hungry every year.

The United States spends an amount equal to about 4 percent of annual GDP on its Defense Department.

If North Korea decided to attack, or felt provoked by U.S. action, its military plans call for a blitzkrieg-style attack across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea, according to South Korea's most recent Defense White Paper, published in 2000. The North would want to take advantage of superior manpower to overwhelm South Korean and U.S. defenders before the Pentagon could bring in reinforcements or establish air superiority.

A largely South Korean ground force would try to stop the North Korean infantry assault in its tracks. There would almost certainly be a fierce infantry and tank battle north of Seoul, involving the 15,000 troops of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division. The defenders would need to withstand a North Korean assault for up to 15 days and then hold the line for two or three weeks more while U.S. and South Korean forces mobilized for a counterattack, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a research group devoted to defense issues.

U.S. war plans call for counterattacking into North Korea, destroying the North Korean military and deposing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. The plans require about 750,000 U.S. reinforcements.

The terrain along the DMZ would benefit the U.S. and South Korean defenders. Rice paddies north of Seoul would slow the North Korean advance. Elsewhere the terrain is mountainous, likely forcing the advancing North Korean troops into narrow corridors.

But the defenders probably wouldn't get much warning.

Over the past two decades, the percentage of North Korean troops deployed near the DMZ has risen to 70 percent from 40 percent.

U.S. officers expect they would get only a day or two's advance notice of an onslaught. Just evacuating the thousands of U.S. civilians in South Korea would take up to 21 days.

If a war began with a preventive strike by the Pentagon on North Korean nuclear sites, U.S. and South Korean forces would be controlling the timetable and would be better prepared. But even then, analysts say, the North would do everything it could to seize control of as much of the South as possible before U.S. reinforcements arrived. It would aim to:

. Kill as many U.S. troops as fast as possible in hopes of crushing the U.S. will to fight.

. Lob missiles at U.S. bases in Japan in hopes of making the Japanese think twice about letting the U.S. military use its territory to wage war on the North. The North has about 100 No Dong missiles that can hit Japan. U.S. intelligence officers told Congress this month that North Korea has an untested Taepo Dong 2 missile capable of reaching the western United States.

. Use chemical weapons. One estimate, cited by GlobalSecurity.org, says North Korea could kill 38 percent of Seoul's 12 million people by hitting the city with 50 missiles carrying nerve gas.

. Meanwhile, North Korea's commandos, disguised as civilians or South Korean troops, would try to cause chaos behind South Korean lines. The North has the world's largest contingent of special forces: more than 100,000 troops, including one all-women unit.

The Pentagon would try to strike North Korean missile bases, airfields and artillery batteries. In fact, it already has many targeted. But finding other targets could be difficult. The North Koreans have hidden bases in rugged mountain terrain and have mastered the art of building hardened underground batteries, even airfields.

Then U.S. and South Korean forces would use their advantages:

. North Korea's air force is no match for the United States': 90 percent of North Korean combat aircraft are Soviet or Chinese designs dating to the 1950s and '60s, according to Bermudez's book.

. North Korea's economic problems have left it short of fuel and spare parts. Its pilots get five to 10 hours of flying time annually; U.S. pilots get 200 hours a year.

. Morale among North Korean troops could quickly plunge. An invasion would expose them to the realities of South Korea's prosperity - a shock for soldiers who have been taught that South Korea is an impoverished U.S. colony.

For all these reasons, most analysts believe a conventional war would in some ways look like the first Korean War: North Korea delivering a solid first blow before being pushed back.

Nonetheless, no one wants a repeat: In the 1950-53 conflict, 3 million people on both sides were killed, wounded or lost.

Copyright 2003, The Seattle Times Company