Ever since the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula has been a hot spot for military and ideological conflict. Now, with the deployment of U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Group 1 to the South China Sea and the ongoing development of the North Korean nuclear program, tensions have escalated to levels not seen since the Korean War, which poses an interesting question:
What if the U.S. went to war with North Korea?
What must first be understood is how unlikely it would be for an actual war to occur between the U.S. and North Korea.
This is largely due North Korea’s largest trade partner and the owner of the second most powerful military on the planet: China. North Korea is a vital strategic asset to the Chinese, as it provides a buffer state between their own borders and the American military presence in South Korea. An American invasion of North Korea would put their strategic rival and the world’s largest military on their doorstep. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that China would stay neutral in a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea. However, it is equally unlikely that China would back North Korea militarily as it did during the Korean War in the 1950s, as a direct war with the United States would lead to massive bloodshed and potentially, a nuclear war between the two countries
As China cannot afford either of these scenarios, a possible course of action would be to launch a decapitation strike against the North Korean regime, eliminating Kim Jong-Un and key government officials before the U.S. could begin its invasion. From there, North Korea would likely become a satellite state of China, and further military aggression by the United States would be very unlikely. North Korea currently exists because it is the most convenient solution for China, but if its risks began to outweigh its benefits, there is little doubt that China would terminate the regime for its own national security.
However, this would be a rather anticlimactic resolution to such an interesting thought experiment, so for the remainder of this hypothetical, we will assume that, for whatever reason, China does not enter the conflict, leaving the U.S. free to begin a direct war with North Korea.
North Korea’s trump card is the threat of a nuclear strike on South Korea, likely targeting Seoul. The regime has claimed that it is willing and able to launch such an attack “if a single bullet is fired.”
In an attempt to prove their ability, North Korea releases massive photo-dumps supposedly showing successful missile launches.
However, while they may be willing, their ability to do so is another question. On May 19th, North Korea successfully tested a reentry vehicle for a nuclear missile. However, the nature of the vehicle means that, even if it is proved to work reliably, the warhead would be wildly inaccurate on reentry, making a precise nuclear attack very difficult. In addition, the THAAD anti-missile system, recently implemented on the South Korean border, makes the already slim chance of a missile strike nigh-impossible. North Korea would be left with only the possibility of a plane-dropped nuclear weapon, which would be destroyed by surface-to-air missiles or American aircraft long before reaching its target.
With North Korea’s inability to successfully launch a nuclear strike, the two nations would likely engage in conventional warfare. The U.S. and North Korea both field an active military of just over one million service personnel. However, due to mandatory conscription in the event of war, North Korea would be able to field a paramilitary force of an additional 6 million, putting them at a significant numerical advantage. This, however, is the extent of North Korea’s superiority.
The majority of North Korea’s military technology is leftover from the Soviet era. This is most evident in air power, where this war would be won or lost. North Korea’s primary aircraft are the MiG-21 and MiG-23, both of which are outdated by today’s standards and massively out-gunned by America’s favorite fighters, the F-16 and F-22. North Korea does have a large number of anti-aircraft weapons, but these are equally outdated and the majority are manually aimed rather than radar guided, and would have very little chance of hitting the supersonic American aircraft.
North Korea’s lack of sufficient aerial defenses means the U.S. would have complete air superiority over them. Artillery, weapons depots and fuel reserves could be destroyed immediately, and critical infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) would only exist as long as they benefited the advancing American forces.
North Korea’s armored units are equally outdated, with the majority of North Korean tanks being variants of Soviet T-55s and T-62s. These same tanks were used by the Iraqi army during the Persian Gulf War and proved to be far inferior to the American main battle tank, the M1 Abrams. Without reliable mechanized units and under constant air strikes from American attack aircraft, even the numerically superior Korean People’s Army would have little chance of fending off an American invasion.