Today, North Korean artillery pieces ranged across the border reignited flames of conflict that have been simmering for half a century by opening up on Seoul. Thousands of the as yet un-evacuated civilian population are now dead, yet the death toll continues to rise exponentially under the guns’ relentless barrage. As North Korean land forces begin to work their way around the DMZ.
This momentous event, of course, has not quite happened yet. But with tensions higher than ever before, and the world standing closer to using nuclear weapons than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it might be time to think through the impossible, and chart the course of a war with North Korea. There are, of course, an infinite number of ways a conflict in North Korea plays out; however, there are a number of generally recognised assumptions, so working with these and historical incidents in mind, it is not implausible to project how a conflict would likely play out.
So, to begin, at the beginning.
We begin with the kind of escalated tensions we see now. Both sides are feeling bullish. Having developed new range of missiles and the capability to attach warheads to them, Pyongyang is in full blood, beating its chest. It has succeeded in becoming nuclear — something it had always been told was impossible. It believes that this triumph of collectivism makes the DPRK a genuine world power, and that the deterrent power renders them invulnerable; they are in no mood to give an inch. President Trump, on the other hand, is under strong internal and international criticism. Hawks attack him for not yet striking, worried that the money freed up from the conclusion of nuclear and missile development will now be spent strengthening DPRK forces; doves, as ever, counsel that diplomatic options are the only solution; the media attacks his rhetoric. Through this, Trump keeps up his line of fiery rhetoric, desperate to prove that America’s role at the top of the world food order has been restored under him.
To back up his stringent Tweets, President Trump oversaw a huge increase in defence numbers; troop numbers went up — as did defence budgets. The carrier attack group stationed off the eastern coast of the Peninsula was strengthened, not just by more American aircraft carriers, but by Allied ships, too. The garrisons of America’s Pacific stations see a huge buildup — Kaneohe Bay sees scores of flights of Marines arrive (soldiers inside boast they are ‘a can of whoop-ass’), with tanks and equipment rolling off cargo planes everyday. There is a reinforcement in Okinawa, too, whilst a steady stream of aircraft make their way across the Southern Pacific to land at Australian bases. The Los Angeles-class submarines based in Guam quietly disappear one night. Locals awake to find all three gone.
Later that week a North Korean spy submarine attempts to land spies near Gangneung, in order to spy on the Republic’s military south of the DMZ. However, this time, the crew is captured as they come ashore. Unsure of whether the team was landed from one of North Korea’s miniature spy submarines or a new SSB, forces scramble to find the sub before it can return. A fearsome assembly of allied Anti-Submarine Warfare equipment is bought to bear in hunting the submarine; controlled from an ROK Air Force 737 AWAC, American Sikorsky Seahawks, ROKN P-3 Orions and a range of other helicopters and vessels lay a stream of sonar buoys no Captain could expect to get through, preventing any movement northwards. The North Korean Navy deploys a portion of the East Sea Fleet in an attempt to throw allied forces off the submarine’s scent; With the nearing of the North Korean navy forcing the allied ASW task forces to act more quickly, depth charges are deployed in an attempt to force the vessel to surface but, surrounded by the destroyers of Carrier Strike Group One, the submarine is sunk. Whether scuttled or sunk by ASW is unclear, but to North Korea this matters little. Its arriving fleet continues apace towards the Carrier strike group. There is a terse standoff, commanders eyeing each other constantly through binoculars. Two of the ships pass mighty close; North Korean guns are trained on the Japanese ship at all times. The sailors can see their opposite numbers. Yet there is no confrontation; the visible presence of large parts of Carrier Air Wing Two, scrambled before the fleet’s arrival, deters the ageing and underprotected North Korean force. The regime, however, immediately demands a full apology and that the infiltration team be returned; South Korea refuses.
Outraged at what it calls the ‘illegal sinking of one of our proud navy submarines on routine manoeuvres in international waters’, but unable to prove conclusively the ship was sunk, the DPRK is outraged. It states in a broadcast that ‘any future interference with our military programmes will be considered an outright declaration of war. The suckling pigs to the diseased teat of the Americans can now expect our strongest response.’ North Korea now cleverly applies pressure to two fronts. First of all, a surge of troops arrive at the border. Flyovers reveal this sizeable buildup of strength; ROK leaders hope it is posturing, but in light of the threat of a ‘strongest response’, they recall troops from leave and place all allied forces on high alert. The DPRK simultaneously tries another missile test, this time of its KN-15 missile, and this time, aimed at Japan. It does not announce the missile test, and that it is carrying a ‘prototype warhead delivery system’ until it is in the air.
Actually, the first warning the allied forces have of the incoming missile comes from a lowly Junior Lieutenant monitoring friendly aircraft on radar. Suddenly, a blip emerges on his screen. Jets are immediately scrambled, but the missile is long gone before they are able to get into the air. Without identification and without knowing the missile’s intention, the leaders are bought to their respective war rooms. The blip wanders eastwards, watched by thousands of pensive eyes. After it becomes clear the missile is heading for Japan, the responsibility for action is passed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In a phone conversation with Shinzo Abe, Donald Trump assures him that Japan will receive the US’ full backing in defending itself. Unsure of what the missile is carrying, he makes the decision to destroy it. With its Patriot missile defence systems already deployed in the West of the nation, Japan is able to intercept and shoot down the missile well before it enters Japanese airspace — or even its exclusive economic zone.
Warlike factions in the Kim court, outraged at the interference with the missile in international waters and confident in their protection under MAD, immediately demand war. Those who demure are denounced as traitors in an emergency meeting of the Cabinet. The hawks win the ear of Kim Jong-Un with false reports about the capability of his armed forces, and he decides to declare war.
The announcement is made first through Korean Central TV, several hours after North Korean forces have arrived at the DMZ in strength. The delay is a strategic masterpiece; it allows North Korean ground forces time to appear well behind enemy lines in battalion strength, via tunnels that extend into South Korean territory. Their appearance is timed perfectly to coincide with a string of other activities; North Korean spies stage several assassination attempts against targets in both South Korea and Japan, utilising conventional and more unlikely methods. The Korean People’s Navy East Sea Fleet, having remained in locale of the allied fleet following their clash, promptly attacks the Group, utilising a slew of North Korean submarines that have previously been hidden, utilising the noise generated by the surface fleet as cover. The fleet’s commander hopes that the element of surprise will give his ageing and underpowered vessels the edge over such a superior fighting force.After this attack, war is now very much been declared and Donald Trump does not hesitate to involve the US, declaring ‘total war on North Korea immediately’.
The war is announced to the world with an artillery barrage that goes down as the largest since the Second World War. The death toll is massive. Even with the submarine incident, the civilian areas near the border had not been evacuated. This would have involved the movement of tens of millions of people, may serve to stoke fear and would have seriously damaged South Korea’s prospering economy. North Korean artillery, stationed in Hardened Artillery Sites (HARTs), hits Seoul fast, and it hits Seoul hard. The few pieces of North Korean artillery with the range capable target high-value targets in the capital, but the damage is not as great as expected. This is a calculated gamble for Pyongyang; firing all their artillery pieces at purely civilian centres would have left military targets undamaged, slowing the advance of North Korean ground forces; this risks the objective of capturing Seoul, but targeting the South Korean capital with only the most capable portion of their artillery allows them to hit government targets, but also frees up the remaining tubes to be targeted at military installations along the border.
Planes from northern air bases and South Korean artillery pieces are called in to strike at the HARTs, but their reinforced nature and North Korean artillery techniques (bringing pieces under cover to reload) mean few of these installations can be put out of action. After many are killed by the initial artillery barrage, they are now trapped between DPRK forces advancing from the border and those already in South Korea. Reinforcements are slowed by the huge resources needed to aid evacuation of South Korea’s Northern cities. Unable to withdraw due to being trapped, the remaining forces dig in order to slow the advance on Seoul. Their is a grim certainty amongst their ranks. Their losses are huge, but they buy enough time to allow most civilians to be evacuated southwards.
DPRK forces then begin their advance southwards, capturing Seoul and and Incheon. The death toll stands at somewhere above the million mark. They do not only advance solely in the west, however; in the east, DPRK forces capture Sokcho and Yangyang airport, before attempting to combine with an amphibious assault on Gangneung. However, all is not as peachy as it would seem for the Kim regime; although advancing southwards, the lack of North Korean air power is beginning to take its’ toll. F-16s from the Seventh Air Force join in with ROK F-15s, F-16s and venerable F-4s to establish air superiority over the KPAAF‘s outdated Chinese and Soviet airframes. Given their outdated nature, the DPRK repurposed many of these airframes into ground-attack roles; its disposable MiG-21s and Chegdu-7 take the majority of damage from South Korean Surface-To-Air battlefield units, but its Frogfoots, designed for such a task, make their presence felt. There are moments of hope for the KPAAF, however; its MiG-23s prove to be remarkably competitive when dogfighting newer opposition planes. They are supposedly reserved for airspace defence, by Western pilots find it easy to goad them into combat; not so, however, with the experienced pilots flying its MiG-29s, which are used jealously; these newer Russian made aircraft are reserved for airspace defence, where they will make a fearsome combination with North Korean SAM batteries.
North Korea attempts the ambitious landing at Gangneung. It believes its naval attack has crippled Carrier Strike Group One. It was mistaken. The ageing surface fleet launches its anti-ship missiles, a mix of modern and ancient, en-masse in an attempt to overwhelm the Phalanx missile defence systems; some missiles do get through, causing damage to some of the smaller ships. The ageing surface ships fire and flee, attempting to escape back to their traditional role of defending North Korean waters. Almost all of the larger ships are hit by Hornets and Super Hornets launched from USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan. However, the submarines that had used the fleet as cover — noisy Romeo-class Chinese built vessels — strike at the same time, firing several torpedoes at the huge bulk of the supercarriers. One hits its mark, and the USS Carl Vinson begins to list. However, the combination of two carrier groups, even if lessened by one Nimitz-class carrier, is still a fearsome enough threat to dominate the eastern seaboard of the peninsula, particularly when reinforced by ships of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force.
The attempted landing at Gangneung succeeds, but comes at a high cost to North Korea. The price is worth paying for the regime. The element of surprise, particuarly at the border, has seen DPRK forces swarm South Korean and American forces. Major instalments, like Camp Red Cloud and Camp Casey, have simply been abandoned. The allied forces are making a gradual, bloody withdrawal, looking to regroup in the south. The Pusan Perimeter looms large in the minds of everyone. If allied forces can regroup and reinforced fast enough, they can prevent another stalemate — if North Korea can keep pushing, Pyongyang can use the threat of its new nuclear missiles to finally unite the Peninsula under the Kim dynasty.
This article is the first part of a three part series. The second and third parts will be published later this week.