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What Might a Conflict with North Korea Look Like?


By Troy Stangarone

In recent weeks tensions have risen on the Korean peninsula as North Korea becomes increasingly bold in its missile tests. In July it tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and recently conducted an intermediate range ballistic missile test over Japan,the first North Korean missile to fly over Japan since 2009. At the same time, President Donald Trump has suggested that North Korea could see “fire and fury” for its actions and recently suggested that “talking is not the answer” for dealing with North Korea. The rise in rhetoric on both sides and the increasing daring of North Korea’s missile tests, and the possibility of North Korea deploying an ICBM, have raised concerns that the United States might engage in preventative actions against North Korea. But what would a conflict between the United States and North Korea look like?

If the United States were to engage in a preventative attack rather than a preemptive attack, the goal would to destroy or at least severely degrade North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. What would be unknown in any operation is how North Korea would respond. While North Korea’s actions cannot be known, we can break down the possibilities.

North Korea Doesn’t Respond to a U.S. Attack

If the United States attacks North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities, there is the possibility that the regime may not respond. If North Korea’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems were successfully taken out by the U.S. attack, North Korea would find itself at a significant strategic disadvantage in regard to the United States and South Korea. Despite China’s suggestion that it would support North Korea if the United States attacked, the regime could judge that China’s support is unreliable and that retaliation could lead to a wider conflict that ends the regime. In this scenario, there would be no response by North Korea. While the likelihood of outcome is very low, it is one potential outcome of a U.S. preventative attack on North Korea.  North Korea would never admit a defeat, of course, but could spin its lack of retaliation by saying, “We’ve withstood the worst the United States could do to us and we have not been defeated.”

North Korea Conducts a Cyberattack

Similar to the prior scenario, the leadership in Pyongyang calculates that the risks of engaging in a kinetic response are too great to risk the regime’s survival and decides to seek asymmetrical methods for retaliation. Having previously engaged in cyberattacks on Sony Pictures, South Korean private and governmental entities, and on the international financial system, responding in the cyber domain may be appealing to the regime. North Korea could attack infrastructure, financial, or other institutions in the United States and South Korea. Attribution can be difficult in the cyber domain, and even with a general consensus that North Korea was behind any attacks, it might be difficult for the United States to respond kinetically since cyberattacks might be viewed as a proportional response to a U.S. strike.  We do not know the extent of North Korea’s cyber capabilities, but it would be prudent to assume that they could cause a major disruption.

North Korea Responds with a Limited Attack on South Korea

In the event of an attack, North Korea may decide that it needs to respond with a kinetic attack. With concerns weighing on the regime about China’s reliability and about the regime’s ability to withstand escalation in any conflict, it could choose a limited attack on South Korea. The northern end of Seoul is well within North Korean artillery range and other parts of South Korea are within the range of North Korean ballistic missiles. Since it is unlikely that a preventive U.S. attack would take out all of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, North Korea would most likely be able to select targets from around South Korea. North Korean might attack ROK naval vessels, invade one of ROK’s nearby islands, or attack ROK forces close to the DMZ.  Pyongyang’s rhetoric in this case might be to claim that their victorious forces have halted an attack on North Korea.

North Korea Responds with a Limited Attack on South Korea and Japan

In previous North Korean rhetoric, Japan has often been a potential target for North Korean retaliation. With U.S. and UN rear forces for any conflict on the Korean peninsula based in Japan, responding with missile strikes on both South Korea and Japan is another possibility. North Korea may choose to include Japan in any response to try and divide the allies in the future by reminding the Japanese public that they could be caught up in a wider war with North Korea.  Another North Korean approach towards Japan might be to threaten Japan with a nuclear attack unless Japan declares neutrality.

North Korea Responds with a Nuclear Weapon

One of the dangers of a preventative attack on North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites is that imperfect intelligence could preclude the United States from being able to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear warheads or delivery systems. If the regime in Pyongyang feels that it must respond and that any conventional escalation could endanger the regime, it could launch a nuclear strike on either Japan or South Korea coupled with the threat of additional nuclear strikes with the hope that the uncertainty of North Korea’s remaining nuclear capacity could deter additional U.S. strikes and be able to declare victory in the confrontation.

China is Drawn into the Conflict

During the recent tensions, China has suggested that if North Korea attacked the United States it would not support Pyongyang, but that should the United States attack, it would defend North Korea.. China could support North Korea in any conflict with the United States in two ways. If Beijing was determined to try and stay out of any fighting should escalation occur, it could decide to supply Pyongyang with the supplies it would need for any sustained conflict. Alternatively, it could choose to provide troops, naval, and air support, though both the United States and China would likely try to avoid any direct conflict. China might attempt to deter the U.S. from further attacking North Korea by placing Chinese assets in the way of U.S. attacks, assuming that the U.S. would not attack them to try and avoid a direct confrontation.

Once the United States engaged in a preventative attack on North Korea, there is a risk that North Korea would be able to choose its means of retaliation, perhaps counting on China’s support and that any retaliation could lead to a wider conflict in Northeast Asia. In a best case scenario, North Korea would choose to not respond to U.S. attacks, but would likely try to reconstitute its nuclear program in secret. Should a conflict break out, it would likely consist of a combination of conventional and cyber weapons.  However, in a worst case scenario, all of the major powers in the region – the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China, as well as perhaps Russia – could be drawn into a conflagration.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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