Why Should We Worry About North Korea?

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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un could be bluffing. He could be talking about attacking South Korea as a way of keeping himself in power, or proving to his people and his neighbors that he is in command rather than his generals.

But what if he isn’t? What if an attack did occur? What would it look like?

Many military experts look at tensions on the Korean Peninsula like a real-life game of Risk. Each side has armies, aircraft and missiles lined up to defend each other even though the two sides aren’t exactly equal. The North has 1.2 million soldiers in uniform, including 200,000 special forces units. It also has long-range missiles capable of reaching all of South Korea, plus Japan and Guam.

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The South has only half that number of troops, but possesses more modern equipment, training and technology. Much of it has been provided by the United States, which also has a permanent deployment of 30,000 Army units and about 60 F-16 jet fighters in South Korea.

So what would conflict on the Korean Peninsula look like? Bruce Bennett, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, says it could start with a simple failure to communicate.

“The big concern is some kind of mistake,” Bennett said. “A miscalculation by the regime or a mistake by a local commander could cause an armed provocation that would provoke a response and then you get that spiral.”

Bennett points to the April 2010 shelling of a South Korean island by North Korean artillery batteries, or the sinking of a South Korean gunboat that killed 46 South Korean sailors. Those moves were supposed to demoralize the South Korean populace, but actually did the opposite. Since then, public opinion has pushed South Korean leaders to take a firmer hand with any kind of North Korean action.

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Any repeat of these past incidents could be the spark that ignites war. And what if Kim decided for a more direct attack on the South? The North currently has artillery units within range of the capital of the South.

“There are thousands of rockets that could be fired with each launch,” Bennett said. “That could involve hundreds of kilograms of high explosives. There are a couple thousand tubes that could reach the northern parts of Seoul. That could be devastating and very bloody.”

Bennett noted that North Korea possesses several wild cards in this conflict as well: chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. He said that Pyongyang has all three, but the extent and potency of each is not well known by western military analysts.