so late last September, ns moderated a discussion around North Korea v retired marine Adm. James Stavridis, whose 37-year army career contained a stint to run NATO, and Michèle Flournoy, the No. 3 official at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, who has helped shape US plan toward phibìc Korea since 1993.

It was a chilling conversation. Stavridis said there was at least a 10 percent chance of a atom war in between the US and also North Korea, and also a 20 to 30 percent opportunity of a conventional problem that could kill a million civilization or more. Flournoy said President Trump’s difficult talk about North Korea — i m sorry has had deriding Kim Jong Un together “Little Rocket Man” and threatening to rain “fire and fury” down on his country — made that “much much more likely now that one side or the other will misread what to be intended as a show of appointment or a present of force.”

The trump administration, for its part, seems much more confident in its ability to control North Korea through precision. Nationwide Security torture H.R. McMaster is advertise something known inside the White residence as a “bloody nose” strategy the responding come a North oriental provocation v a collection of minimal US military strikes. McMaster seems to believe that Kim would passively absorb the attack without hitting ago and risking all-out war.

You are watching: Can the us win a war with north korea

Millions — many — would die

I extended the Iraq war from Baghdad. I witnessed the results of a conflict developed atop sunny scenarios and also rosy thinking. I’ve watched the price of battles that the American human being were not all set for and did not fully understand. The rhetoric around North Korea is increasing those same alarm bells because that me. For every the speak of atom exchanges and also giant buttons, there has actually been tiny realistic discussion of what a war on the oriental Peninsula might mean, just how it can escalate, what commitments would certainly be required, and what sacrifices would certainly be demanded.

So I’ve invested the previous month posing those concerns to much more than a dozen previous Pentagon officials, CIA analysts, US army officers, and also think tank experts, and to a retired southern Korean basic who invested his entire professional life preparing to struggle the North. They’ve all said variants the the same thing: over there is a actual risk that a war on the korean Peninsula that would certainly involve the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Several estimated that millions — many — would die.

Even much more frightening, many of the people I spoke to claimed they thought Kim would usage nuclear weapons versus South Korea in the initial stages the the fighting — not just as a desperate critical resort.

Danush Parvaneh/; AP photos “This would be nothing prefer Iraq,” Flournoy called me. “It’s not that the North korean military is for this reason good. It’s the North Korea has actually nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction — and is now in a instance where they could have actual incentives to use them.”

The professionals I speak to all stressed the Kim could devastate Seoul without even needing to use his tools of mass destruction. The North oriental military has actually an enormous variety of rocket launchers and artillery piece within range of Seoul. The nonpartisan congressional Research company estimates the Kim might hammer the southern Korean capital with an astonishing 10,000 rockets per minute — and also that such a barrage could kill more than 300,000 southern Koreans in the opened days the the conflict. That’s every without making use of a single nuclear, chemical, or organic weapon.

And retired South oriental Gen. In-Bum Chun, who spent 40 years in uniform thinking about a confrontation with North Korea, underscored that Kim likewise has a different kind the weapon: 25 million human being — including 1.2 million active-duty troops and also several million reservists — who have been “indoctrinated since childhood v the id that Kim and also his family are literal god whose government must be safeguarded at every costs.”

“You’re talking around people who have basically been brainwashed their entire lives,” Chun said. “It would be favor what you saw on Okinawa during civilization War II, whereby Japanese civilians and also soldiers were all willing come fight come the death. This would certainly be a hard and bloody war.”

What adheres to is a guide to what a dispute with north Korea can look like. Battle is naturally unpredictable: It’s feasible Kim would use every kind of weapon that mass damage he possesses, and also it’s possible he wouldn’t use any type of of them.

But countless leading specialists fear the worst. And also if all of this sound frightening, that should. A brand-new war top top the korean Peninsula i will not ~ be as bad as you think. It would certainly be much, much worse.

Destroying Kim’s nuclear arsenal would require a soil invasion and also facing Kim’s chemical and biological weapons

The official position that the trump administration, choose that of its predecessors, is that North Korea’s nuclear program is unacceptable and that Pyongyang has to offer up all its nuclear weapons. If the US and South Korea went to war through the North, their key strategic goal would certainly be to capture or destroy all of Pyongyang’s nuclear sites, and the bases that residence its long-range missiles.

In a startlingly dull letter come Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) critical October, rear Adm. Michael Dumont, speaking on behalf of the share Chiefs the Staff, stated the “only way to ‘locate and destroy — with finish certainty — all components of phibìc Korea’s nuclear tools programs’ is through a ground invasion.”

Danush Parvaneh/; AP images approximates of the exact numbers of united state troops that would take component in a press north vary widely, however current and also former army planners uniformly think it would require vastly much more forces 보다 took component in the invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan.

A South korean military white document from 2016, because that instance, stated the us would need to deploy 690,000 soil troops to south Korea if war broke out. Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher in ~ the rand Corporation who has actually spent decades studying phibìc Korea generally and the Kim family members specifically, believes those numbers space on the high side, however he thinks the us would need to send at the very least 200,000 troops into North Korea. By means of comparison, that would certainly be significantly more troops than the US had actually in either Iraq or Afghanistan at the peaks the those two lengthy wars.

The 2016 assessment states the Pentagon would additionally need to send 2,000 warplanes and also other aircraft to southern Korea. The united state hasn’t had that much airpower deployed to a solitary conflict because Vietnam.

The professionals I spoke to believe Kim and his generals understand that us ground forces are far better trained and also equipped 보다 North oriental troops, and also that phibìc Korea’s aging fleet of 1,300 Soviet-era warplanes is no complement for Washington’s advanced stealth fighters and other jets. Therefore what would occur if US and South korean troops began pouring into North Korea when American planes released wave after tide of airstrikes?

The consensus view is the Kim would try to level the playing ar by making use of his large arsenal of chemistry weapons, i beg your pardon is thought to it is in the biggest and also most technologically progressed in the world. (Kim is estimated to have in between 2,500 and also 5,000 metric tons of deadly nerve agents favor sarin, i m sorry can cause paralysis and, ultimately, death.)

With so many artillery pieces and also rocket launchers trained ~ above Seoul, Kim has actually the capacity to quickly blanket the densely packed city with vast amounts the nerve agents. The human being toll would certainly be staggeringly high: The military chronicler Reid Kirby approximated last June the a sustained sarin strike could kill as much as 2.5 million civilization in Seoul alone, when injuring virtually 7 million more. Men, women, and also children would really literally choking to death in the roads of among the world’s wealthiest and also most colorful cities. It would be mass killing on a scale hardly ever seen in human being history.

Kim also has large quantities of VX, an even deadlier chemical weapon, and also has currently shown a willingness, and ability, to usage it against civilian targets abroad. Critical February, 2 women trained by north Korean knowledge agents walked up to Kim’s estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam, while the 45-year-old walked v an airplane in Malaysia, and smeared his confront with VX. Authorities there claimed he suffered a “very painful” fatality from his exposure to the nerve agent.

Retired Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, the Pentagon’s peak Asia main from 2009 come 2011, states the strike was a lively illustration of the North oriental chemical tools program’s technological sophistication — and also of what may face US and also South korean troops if war were to break out.

“VX is the worst the the worst,” Gregson said me. “It’s a group killer. That odorless, colorless, and also doesn’t dissipate quickly. The fact that they were able to use it so exactly — come kill only one person and also not even injure the 2 handlers — indicates a high degree of technological skill and a clean willingness to usage a weapon of fixed destruction against civilian targets. That needs to be factored right into the equation when we think around what Kim would carry out to preempt an strike or retaliate because that one.”

The Pentagon already assumes the its airbases in and also around southern Korea would be among the first places Kim tried come hit v chemical weapons favor sarin. US armed forces officials don’t think phibìc Korea would certainly necessarily succeed in killing plenty of of the pilots and other troops stationed there, every one of whom room equipped with gas masks and other protective gear. But they issue an strike could however make it significantly harder because that the us to launch wait raids against the north by resulting in panic and also chaos on the bases that residence the American warplanes, bombers, and also troops.

Retired Air pressure Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, the previous deputy command of US forces in southern Korea, said the early stage phases of any offensive versus North Korea count on American and also South korean planes gift able to hit Kim’s nuclear facilities, armed forces bases, chemical and biological weapons caches, radar systems, and missile defense arrays.

The air project — which would dwarf the “shock and awe” the the Iraq war in size and also scope — would be designed come decimate phibìc Korea’s ground forces and also destroy the hundreds of artillery piece trained top top the South korean capital prior to they might be provided to level Seoul.

Danush Parvaneh/; AP pictures Washington would also shot to kill an elderly North oriental military commanders and government officials, consisting of Kim. (So-called “decapitation” strikes are part of the existing US and South korean war plan for a conflict with phibìc Korea, OPLAN 5015, which clearly talks around targeting the country’s height leadership.)

“Air power is dependence on the variety of sorties that have the right to be flown,” Jouas told me, using the military’s term for an separation, personal, instance air combat mission. “And that a lot harder to generate sorties if her airfield is under attack.”

Jouas stated Air force personnel command chemical tools drills wherein they practice doing their jobs in gas masks and also other tools they’d stay if the bases to be under really attack. They shot to video game out every the various means North Korea might hit the facilities, and also to prepare accordingly. It no easy.

“We anticipate conventional attacks, we anticipate chemistry attacks, us anticipate cyberattacks, and also we anticipate North korean special operations forces being placed into the bases,” the told me. “We’d still have the ability to fly — and to ultimately defeat phibìc Korea — but there would be one unquestionable impact on our operations.”

Gregson thinks Kim wouldn’t just use his chemistry weapons versus military targets in southern Korea. The Pentagon has a sizable armed forces presence in bordering Japan, and the island of Guam is a US region that is house to an ext than 163,000 American citizens. Both room well within variety of Kim’s missiles and rockets — and Gregson expects both would certainly be hit.

Andrew Weber, previously the assistant secretary the defense because that nuclear, chemical, and also biological defense programs, called me the the US and also South Korea would also need to be all set for Kim to use organic weapons against both military and civilian targets.

North Korea’s arsenal is believed to incorporate smallpox, yellow fever, anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, and even plague. They are few of the most frightening building materials on earth, and Weber expects few of them to be used against South korean ports, airfields, and cities as a means of killing large numbers the civilians and also troops while leading to terror on a nationwide scale.

“We would mean to see cocktails the fast-acting organic agents designed to stop troops in their tracks and also regular contagious agents that would certainly take more time to death people,” he told me. “There would be a significant military impact, and also a significant psychological one. It’s tough to overstate just how frightening these types of tools are.”

In an October 2017 report, researchers from harvard Belfer Center listed that minute amounts of anthrax “equivalent to a few bottles of wine” could kill increase to fifty percent the populace of a densely lived in city favor Seoul. North Korea can theoretically fire missiles through payloads the anthrax or other biological weapons into South Korea, or use drones come disperse the lethal substances indigenous the air.

The researchers wrote that Kim could likewise have few of his citizen secretly bring the weapons into the South:

North Korea has actually 200,000 distinct forces; also a grasp of those one-of-a-kind forces armed with BW would be enough to devastate south Korea. What is alarming around human vectors is that they carry out not need innovative training or technology to spread out BW amongst the targets, and they are difficult to recognize in development of one attack. It is theoretically feasible that North oriental sleeper agents disguised together cleaning and also disinfection personnel might disperse BW agents v backpack sprayers. One more possibility is the North oriental agents will introduce BW right into water supplies for significant metropolitan areas.

In 2011, Weber helped style a war game focused on a simulated north Korean biological weapons assault on the South. The exercise, may be Response, brought together hundreds of military and civilian officials native the US and South Korea. The objectives were to number out the best ways come detect one attack, identify what substance had actually been used, border the spread out of the virus, and then rush vaccines and also other medical care to the infected to conserve as plenty of lives together possible.

The exercises resulted in concrete policy changes, consisting of closer coordination between the South korean military and the country’s public wellness system. United state bases in south Korea received new environmental surveillance systems designed to easily detect the existence of a biological agent. All us troops in south Korea room vaccinated versus anthrax and smallpox (South korean troops aren’t, to the consternation that Weber and other us officials).

Still, Weber stated his main takeaway was the close to impossibility of preventing biological tools from death an astonishing number of people. The fatality toll in each year’s exercise was often close to a million. In some cases, it to be significantly higher because the infection spread to Japan or other adjacent countries.

“It just takes one or two people to deliver bioweapons, and tiny amounts of a bacteria or virus can reason a massive number of casualties,” the told me. “You wouldn’t need a missile. You’d need a backpack.”

Joe Wilson because that

The scary logic behind a North korean nuclear attack

There’s a giant question the looms over any discussion of phibìc Korea’s cultivation arsenal of atom weapons: would certainly Kim in reality be willing to usage one?

North Korea is thought to have about 50 nukes. The US, through contrast, has an astonishing 6,800 nuclear weapons (surpassed just by Russia, which has an estimated 7,000 weapons). Trump card — or among his followers — could respond come a North korean nuclear strike by ruining every major North korean city in a issue of hours.

experts inside and also outside the US federal government who research North Korea say that Kim is a rational leader v a singular emphasis on maintaining manage of his country. They don’t think he is stupid, or suicidal. And also for a lengthy time, they thought that Kim would only use his nuclear weapons if the were dealing with military defeat and also the imminent collapse the his government. It would certainly be the last gasp that a dice regime, one determined to death as countless of its opponents as feasible before the finish came.

Those assessments have now changed. Most of the professionals I spoke to believe North Korea would usage nuclear tools at the beginning of a war — not at the end. And most of them think Kim would certainly be do a reasonable decision, not a crazy or suicidal one, if he offered the launch order.

One of the ideal explanations for why come from Bennett, the edge researcher. He is made more than 100 trips come the korean Peninsula and interviewed selection of North oriental defectors. He also jokes the he’s “kinda, sorta” make it into North Korea itself, including once walking v a newly found tunnel that North korean troops had dug in ~ the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. The remembers the the wall surfaces were spanned with graffiti praising Kim.

Bennett started his job at RAND during the height of the Cold War and believes it’s impossible to know why Kim would certainly go nuclear without also understanding why Soviet leader were prepared to do so.

“In the Cold War, we specifically talked about a logic referred to as ‘use them or shed them,’ which referred to the fact that the Soviet Union taken that the very first goal of one American preemptive strike would it is in to knock the end their nuclear weapons before they can be fired at the US,” Bennett told me. “Now think around how Kim is looking at the world. He knows that any type of US and South korean strike would be designed to damage or catch his atom weapons. That means he’d have to either usage them early or risk losing them altogether.”

There’s another big-picture factor Kim could decide to walk nuclear: a Cold War-era ide known together “decoupling.”

In the 1950s, the Soviet Union was lot stronger militarily than Germany, France, or the other nations of west Europe. The US had actually formally cursed to protecting those countries from a Soviet invasion, and also Bennett told me that American armed forces planners were all set to usage small-scale tactical atom weapons against the progressing Russian troops to protect against the assault.

That whole calculus began to adjust once the Soviet Union arisen long-range nuclear missiles qualified of getting to the continental US. European leaders openly wonder how much Washington would be ready to go to protect their countries from the Soviet Union provided the new risks to the American homeland.

“By the moment you get to the late ’50s, the French in certain are saying, ‘Wait a minute, if the US offers nuclear weapons versus Soviet ground forces in Europe, the Soviets space going come fire nuclear tools at the US. Is the US ready to trade new York City because that Paris?’” Bennett said me.

That’s why phibìc Korea’s new generation the long-range missiles qualified of hitting the mainland us is together a game changer.

The North oriental constitution claims the country’s ultimate aim is the reunification the the entire Korean Peninsula under the Kim family’s control, which would be impossible to traction off through US troops already deployed to south Korea and Washington formally committed to going to war on the South’s behalf.

So if Kim actually desires to shot to reunify the 2 Koreas, he needs to somehow rest up the US-South Korea alliance. If the us were no longer willing to protect Seoul, then southern Korea — which has actually no nuclear tools of its very own — would certainly be a lot simpler to invade and also defeat. Yet how perform you rest up that alliance? how do you to convince the us not to pertained to South Korea’s defense in situation of war?

Being able come credibly threaten to destroy new York or Washington certainly helps. Kim have the right to now pressure American leader to stop and also think whether it’s yes, really worth risking a possible nuclear assault on the united state mainland simply to defend South Korea native a North oriental attack. North Korea has actually missiles qualified of reaching the West Coast and is assumed to have nuclear warheads that would fit on optimal of them. They could destroy a significant nuclear city. To modify a phrase from the Cold War, would certainly Trump be prepared to trade San Francisco because that Seoul?

If Kim decides the prize is no, utilizing a atom weapon versus South Korea no much longer seems stunner or suicidal. That starts come seem rational. And one details South oriental city starts come seem like the likeliest target.

In July 2016, Kim test-fired three missiles as component of what a North korean state-run news agency described as mock “pre-emptive strikes in ~ ports and also airfields in the operational theatre in southern Korea, where the U.S. Imperialists nuclear war hardware is to be hurled” in situation of a future conflict between the two sides.

That to be widely viewed as an implicit hazard to usage nuclear weapons versus the South korean port city the Busan, which would play a crucial role in any type of Pentagon effort to develop a force big enough to protect the south or to lead a preemptive to win on the North.

The US at this time has around 28,500 troops stationed in southern Korea and would need to deploy numerous thousands much more if war broke out v the North. The us would also have to send in thousands of added tanks, armored personnel carriers, bombers, fighter jets, helicopters, and artillery pieces.

The difficulty is the the Pentagon’s cargo planes have the right to only ferry in a few hundred troops or a couple of tanks in ~ a time. That way the huge bulk that the us troops and equipment would need to come by boat, a laborious process that might take 6 weeks or much longer to complete. The American ships would certainly unload at Busan, and the best way for Kim to ruin those port — and significantly sluggish US efforts to send in sufficient troops to make a difference in the struggle — would certainly be to nuke the city.

Jouas, the retirement Air pressure general, called me the North Korea’s thinking around whether to use a atom weapon early in a conflict has likely changed as the country has built much more of the weapons and developed missiles and rockets capable of hitting an ext distant targets.

“In the past, when North Korea had a minimal number of nuclear weapons, the assessment was the they’d marshal them come use only as a last resort,” that told me. “Now that their inventory has actually grown, it’s less complicated to imagine castle using several of the weapons at the beginning of hostilities to shot to shape the method the rest of the battle would unfold.”

Bruce Klingner, a 20-year veteran of the CIA who spent years studying North Korea, told me the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had stood through in 2002 as the us methodically gathered the forces it provided to attack the country — and oust Hussein — the complying with year. He stated there was tiny chance that Kim would certainly follow in Hussein’s footsteps and patiently enable the Pentagon to deploy the troops and also equipment it would require for a full-on war with North Korea.

“The typical wisdom used to be that North Korea would use only nuclear weapons as component of a critical gasp, twilight that the gods, pull the holy place down upon themselves kind of move,” claimed Klingner, who currently works for the conservative legacy Foundation. “But we have to prepare because that the real opportunity that Kim would use nuclear tools in the early on stages of a conflict, not the last ones.”

We also have to prepare because that the reality that if the US and North Korea execute actually come to blows, China will certainly get associated — and not in the means that either Washington or Pyongyang can expect.

The China problem

In a recent essay in foreign Affairs, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a north Korea professional at Georgetown University, suggests persuasively that the US basically misunderstands China’s partnership with the Kim government. United state officials have long believed that Beijing is committed to north Korea’s survival and might take procedures to ensure that Kim’s routine doesn’t collapse and send millions of starving refugees flowing into China. The line that thinking, she writes, is “dangerously the end of date.”

Mastro continues:

Today, China is no much longer wedded to north Korea’s survival. In the event of a conflict or the regime’s collapse, Chinese pressures would intervene to a level not formerly expected — not to defend Beijing’s supposed ally yet to secure its own interests.

More special, she and also several that the other professionals I speak to think that China would easily send hundreds of thousands the troops into North Korea come seize manage of the country’s nuclear sites and prevent Kim from using the weapons. Chinese and also North oriental troops wouldn’t be functioning together versus a usual enemy; they’d be trying to kill each other.

“China would have to fight its method into phibìc Korea,” Mastro called me in one interview. “For the north Koreans, enemy No. 1 is obviously the unified States, but enemy No. 2 is China. They recognize they’d need to potentially struggle both countries.”

Things would get really complicated, and also really dangerous, as soon as Chinese troops do their method to the nuclear facilities. The Pentagon has actually spent year practicing exactly how to send united state special operations forces into phibìc Korea to seize Pyongyang’s nuclear tools if over there were indicators that Kim’s government was collapsing. The problem is that Chinese troops would virtually certainly be sent right into North Korea at the exact same time, and also with the exact same goal, together the us forces.

Mastro notes that Chinese troops would certainly only require to advance 60 miles into North Korea come take regulate of all of the country’s highest-priority atom sites and also two-thirds the its highest-priority missile sites. Given that massive geographic advantage, Beijing’s troops would virtually certainly arrive prior to the united state ones do.

“When our special pressures run right into the Chinese unique forces, what carry out we do? are we going come shoot at each other or shake hands?” Bennett called me. “That’s an incredibly risky decision to make on the fly.”

There’s no factor to think the countries would necessarily pertained to blows. The US can live through the North korean nuclear weapons finishing up in China’s hands, due to the fact that Beijing already has a sizable atom arsenal and fairly stable relationships with both Washington and also many that its neighbors in the region.

See more: Alice Walker: By The Book New York Times, By The Book

But Beijing would certainly be intervening to safeguard its very own interests, no those of the US. A war between North and also South Korea would almost certainly end with the creation of a reunified nation led by the pro-US government in Seoul; China would want to make certain it wasn’t left out in the cold.

In this, and this alone, a war with North Korea would certainly bear part similarities to the battle in Iraq. Once the Bush management ousted the Saddam Hussein routine in 2003, the wasn’t all set for what ended up being a concerted and also years-long Iranian press to ensure that Iraq’s political system was dominated by Shia politics parties v close ties come Tehran. Iran has largely acquired its way: number of of Iraq’s postwar leader have enabled Iranian militias to run within the country, and Baghdad has actually noticeably it will be cold relationships v Saudi Arabia and Iran’s other local rivals.

All of i m sorry is to say that China, like Iran, would certainly be trying come stabilize postwar Korea on its very own terms, no those of the US. And also it would be law so versus a Trump administration that is significantly hostile and fearful that China’s rising an international influence.