Steve Bannon made waves when he pointed out the conventional wisdom on a Second Korean War: a pyrrhic victory that would result in hundreds of thousands or millions of civilian deaths. Less noticed were some counter-comments by Trump administration officials, including Secretary Mattis and General McMaster.
An old Army friend of mine has now suggested to me what they might be referring to. He heard the analysis in an unclassified setting, but one which reminded him a little bit of the run-up to the Second Gulf War. So here goes the scenario, stripped of any incriminating details.
Seoul is within range of North Korean artillery. The North Koreans, however, have to defend their entire border. The DPRK has about 21,000 artillery pieces. The claim now circulating, however, is that only around 1,000 of those have the range to hit Seoul. Moreover, the bigger pieces have a relatively low rate of fire, and thus would be rapidly taken out of commission by U.S. forces. (This is true even of self-propelled artillery, which does not move that quickly and can be easily tracked from the air.) Multiple rocket launchers could fire much more rapidly, but their rounds are susceptible to anti-rocket defenses like the Israeli Iron Dome system.
In addition, goes the argument, the DPRK would want to target military installations and civilian infrastructure more than random apartment buildings. They know the literature on the inefficacy of terror bombing — no country has ever withdrawn from a war because the enemy was killing too many civilians — and are not about to repeat the same error the U.S. made against North Vietnam.
Add that all up, and the civilian casualties drop to 30,000 if the North Koreans fire all their artillery at civilians and less than 3,000 if they target more intelligently.
The report that birthed this analysis appears to be on-line here. The source is the Nautilus Institute, a reputable operation based in Berkeley.
Of course, the analysis should not make me breathe any easier. First, who knows if the planners in Pyongyang have read the literature on the inefficacy of terror bombing? Maybe they would target civilians regardless. Second, the DPRK has lots of chemical weapons. Maybe they would use them only for operational purposes ... or maybe they would try to attack civilians. And finally there are those nuclear weapons.
What worries me is not the analysis itself, it is that such analysis seems to be surfacing again right now as our current President continues to amp up his war of words with the DPRK. I do not think we are going to be at war with North Korea anytime soon, but the probability keeps rising ... and this information has caused me to ratchet my estimate up another few notches.