WASHINGTON – Renewed conflict on the Korean Peninsula could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the first few days alone even if no nuclear weapons are involved, according to a new report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
Given population densities on the peninsula, military conflict “could affect upwards of 25 million people on either side of the border, including at least 100,000 U.S. citizens,” according to a 62-page assessment sent to U.S. lawmakers Friday and obtained by Bloomberg News.
The grim report comes after tensions between the U.S. and North Korea peaked over accelerated missile and nuclear weapons tests by Kim Jong Un’s regime, exacerbated by a war of words between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.
On Saturday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a stark warning to North Korea but noted that the U.S. is continuing to pursue diplomacy as the preferred choice to resolve the crisis.
Yet with the U.S. also saying that all military options are on the table, the report laid out in sharp detail the consequences of a conflict. North Korea can rely on hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds within striking distance of Seoul, making it difficult for even a pre-emptive strike to prevent mass casualties.
Even if North Korea “uses only its conventional munitions, estimates range from between 30,000 and 300,000 dead in the first days of fighting,” the report said, citing North Korea’s ability to fire 10,000 rounds per minute.
Moreover, the conflict could quickly spread to involve forces from the neighboring nations of China, Japan and Russia.
“Such a conflict could also involve a massive mobilization of U.S. forces onto the Korean Peninsula, and high military casualty rates,” the report said. “Complicating matters, should China choose to join the conflict, those casualty rates could grow further, and could potentially lead to military conflict beyond the peninsula.”
Still, the report noted that some analysts say that allowing Kim’s regime to acquire the ability to develop a missile capable of delivering nuclear warheads to the continental U.S. would be of even greater risk than the outbreak of regional war.
Trump is scheduled to visit South Korea as part of a tour through several Asian nations starting this week.
Mattis, in a speech delivered at the Defense Ministry in Seoul on Saturday, said that he could not imagine the United States ever accepting a nuclear North Korea, warning that its rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs would undermine, not strengthen, its security.
Mattis has been at pains during his weeklong trip to Asia to stress that diplomacy is America’s preferred course, a message he returned to after top-level military talks in Seoul on Saturday and at the tense border area with North Korea on Friday.
Still, he warned Pyongyang that its military was no match for the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and that diplomacy was most effective “when backed by credible military force.”
“Make no mistake — any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated.
“And any use of nuclear weapons by the North will be met with a massive military response that is both effective and overwhelming,” Mattis said.
Mattis’ South Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Song Young-moo, told a news conference that he and Mattis agreed to further cooperation on strengthening Seoul’s defense capabilities, including lifting warhead payload limits on South Korean conventional missiles and supporting the country’s acquisition of “most advanced military assets.” He offered no specifics and refused to answer when asked whether the discussions included nuclear-powered submarines.
Some South Korean government officials have endorsed the nation getting nuclear-powered submarines amid calls for more military strength. There is a growing concern among the South Korean public that North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons arsenal, which may soon include an intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the U.S. mainland, would undermine Seoul’s decadeslong alliance with Washington.
South Korea’s conservative politicians have also called for the United States to bring back tactical nuclear weapons that were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula in the 1990s, which they say would make clearer the U.S. intent to use nukes in a crisis.
But Mattis and Song were strongly dismissive of the idea on Saturday.
Former senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon underscored the dangers of U.S. military strikes in August when he said in an interview with The American Prospect that “until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
The report doesn’t go as far as Bannon, but its assessment presents lawmakers with a sobering view of what conflict could look like if the United States takes pre-emptive action against North Korea with the “fire and fury” Trump has threatened to rain on Kim.
“Few analysts believe that North Korea would launch an unprovoked attack on U.S. territory,” but as the crisis continues to evolve “Congress could confront significant questions regarding its role in shaping U.S. policy in the region,” it said.
At the same time, U.S. sanctions, diplomacy, and military shows of force “have arguably slowed” but “not halted the advance of North Korea’s” weapons of mass destruction programs, the report said.
The assessment acknowledges that the pressure facing the Trump administration has been heightened by the view of intelligence and military advisers that by next year North Korea is likely to have mastered all of the technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the mainland United States.
“This assessment implies that the timeframe for conducting military action without the risk of a North Korean nuclear attack against U.S. territory is narrowing” and “may increase the urgency of efforts to restart multilateral diplomatic efforts,” it said.
Some analysts maintain that the road to negotiations “could be strengthened and accelerated if both North Korea and China believe that a U.S. military strike” is “becoming more likely,” the report said.
White House chief of staff John Kelly said as much at an Oct. 12 news conference. Citing North Korea’s ICBM threat, he said, “Right now, we think the threat is manageable, but over time it — if it grows beyond where it is today — well, let’s — let’s hope diplomacy works.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this month that diplomatic effort will continue “until the first bomb drops.”
The report also explored the possibility that a war between the U.S. and North Korea would quickly turn into a wider conflagration.
“A protracted conflict — particularly one in which North Korea uses its nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons — could cause enormous casualties on a greater scale, and might expand to include Japan and U.S. territories in the region,” the report said. “Such a conflict could also involve a massive mobilization of U.S. forces onto the Korean Peninsula, and high military casualty rates.”
The U.S. also “runs the risk of a direct military clash with China,” as occurred during the Korean War of 1950-1953, the report said. It called China’s reaction “perhaps the most significant geopolitical question arising from a military conflict.”
Pre-emptive American strikes “could risk a major rupture in its relationship with China,” which is America’s top trading partner and holds as much as $1.15 trillion in U.S. bonds as of June, the report said.
The Trump administration has pressed China to cut off trade and exert other pressure North Korea to stop its nuclear program.
In addition to the horrific human toll of dead and wounded war on the Korean Peninsula, the report said, a war “could lead to massive flow of refugees into northeastern China, where large numbers of ethnic Koreans reside.”
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