Thunder run to Seoul: North Korea’s war plan

N. Korea fires another ICBM

N. Korea fires another ICBM - Credit: Yonhap News Agency/PA Images

As tensions in the Korean peninsula have risen, various apocalyptic scenarios for how a potential conflict might unfold have emerged.

As tensions in the Korean peninsula have risen, various apocalyptic scenarios for how a potential conflict might unfold have emerged.

Since the Korean War ended in an armistice rather than a formal peace treaty, the two sides remain technically at war, so military planners on both sides of the border have spent literally decades focusing on a return to hostilities.

It is fair to say, though, that most 'wargamed' scenarios have been predicated on an attack from the North, rather than the South.

Experts say there is little chance of a decisive US 'surgical strike' succeeding. North Korean's missiles and nuclear facilities are dispersed and well hidden, and would make 10 million people around Seoul and 38 million people around Tokyo vulnerable to missile strikes, using either conventional or nuclear warheads. Even if the US did manage to eliminate the North's missile capacity, Seoul would still be vulnerable to artillery fire.

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Even a limited strike by the US would run the risk of Pyongyang interpreting it as a larger attack – or calculating they would be best responding with a full counter attack anyway.

A full-scale invasion from the South would be necessary to take out the North's artillery, as well as its missile and nuclear facilities. But any sign that this was being considered – a build-up of US firepower, mobilisation of the South Korean military – could prompt the North into a pre-emptive strike, with the possibility that Russia and China could be sucked in.

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This sort of strike from the North has long been considered the most likely of the feared scenarios. One of the best analyses of such an eventuality is on the US Military Academy website, written by Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Farrell, an officer in the Canadian Army and graduate of the South Korean Army Command and Staff College. He says the South and its US allies would quickly win the conflict, but with high casualties.

He describes how the Northern attack could be absorbed, before forces in the South could go onto the offensive, advance into North Korea and inflict a decisive defeat.

'The main factor that will determine the later outcome is the potential presence of Chinese forces: If China stays out, expect a fairly quick defeat of North Korean forces, and presumably the regime,' he writes. 'But Chinese intervention would probably result in the war becoming stalemated just as the first conflict did. The terrain in Korea favours defence and limits the forces which can be employed, so that with Chinese forces committed, neither side could be expected to achieve a decisive advantage.'

He also outlines a possible scenario where China indicates a willingness to intervene or a show of support, to prevent the complete collapse of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Assuming China did not get involved, he says, a North Korean attack has only a small chance of victory, within a narrow time window. South Korean and US forces will swiftly mobilise their land forces and their initial air superiority (unless China intervenes) will become air supremacy within days. Any chance of Northern success must be via a quick strike, before the South has a chance to fully mobilise and US reinforcements to arrive.

The DPRK will attempt to achieve this by using its intelligence and special operations capability to obscure plans for an offensive and slow the response from the South. This will include efforts to influence the South Korean democratic decision-making process, through deception, cyber attacks and 'false flag' provocations by special forces.

Once the main assault comes, the North will use its initial advantage in numbers and artillery to break through the demilitarized zone at the border, with longer range strikes on Seoul, to cause fear and choke routes with panicked civilians.

Lt Col Farrell points out the limited space for mechanised manoeuvre in central Korea, the eastern half of which is most mountainous, with roads running along valley floors. This will push DPRK forces southwest, towards Seoul. However, although the western half of the peninsula, around the capital, is slightly flatter, it is now so built up, that once it comes under fire, it will make for slow going for both sides.

This means the North are likely to concentrate on infiltration and local penetration by specially-trained elite units, rather than lightning advances by heavy forces. Their battle plan is also expected to feature an extensive battle, across all of the South, using 100,000 special operations forces. As Lt Col Farrell writes: 'An interesting feature of this war is that since both sides look and speak more or less alike, covert insertion and operation is easier for each side – but especially so for North Korean agents who may move freely within South Korea's open society.'

Some of these will have been put in position. Others will be inserted deep into South Korean territory by sea or air shortly before the main attack. Their presence will further confuse the South's civilian and military response, both in the lead-up and after the main assault.

Once this gets under way, the rest of the DPRK's special forces will surge south, by sea and air, with the intention of overwhelming defences at strategic targets – including political leadership, mobilisation centres, airfields, ports and naval bases, and choke points on major routes. In this way, the DPRK planners hope to have their main forces entering Seoul within a week. From here, they can switch to defence and negotiate from a position of strength or, if possible, push on to inflict a decisive defeat.

Lt Col Farrell argues the plan, though, is very optimistic and well understood by forces in the South, who have prepared to counter it. He does identify other variables though: the combat performance of both sides, and particularly the morale of those in the North; the possible use of WMDS by Pyongyang – finding and destroying these resources swiftly is a priority for the South and their US allies, but some may survive and risk escalating the conflict further; finally, and related to both – what would the DPRK regime do in the face of defeat?

Ultimately, Lt Col Farrell's assessment of a return of hostilities is sobering. With 'just' conventional weapons involved, tens or hundreds of thousands could become casualties and, in defeat, the North would become a 25-million strong humanitarian catastrophe. Were WMDs to be deployed, the consequences, he writes, are 'almost too awful to contemplate'.

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