The Devil in the Details of a Korean War

If the devil is in the details, then war is particularly devilish because, for all its cruel drama, it’s a study in the mundane. Understanding war requires an understanding of things like supply lines, logistics, transportation, provisions, military hardware, command and control structures, and the like. Even the best and bravest soldiers in the world will have a hard time winning a war if they don’t have food or ammunition or reliable communication or any other instrument of war.

It is with that in mind that we assess North Korea. As Pyongyang, Washington and other regional players prepare for the prospect of war, North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile capabilities have received undue amounts of attention. Important though they may be, they have less bearing on how the war will be fought than does North Korea’s conventional military. It boasts a large arsenal of weapons, and a lot of soldiers available to man them, but it is old and decrepit, outmatched in nearly every respect by that of its enemies. In fact, North Korea’s inability to keep up militarily with South Korea and the United States is what prompted the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent in the first place.

We’ve written about what a first strike would look like in the event nuclear deterrence didn’t do what it was supposed to: deter an attack. This deep dive, in some respects, is an extension of that analysis. It will focus on North Korea’s military hardware, the size of its armed forces, the way it is structured and commanded, and what kind of war all these things will entail.


The next Korean war will be informed by the first, which started in 1950 and technically never ended. That war, however, was fought in a very different world. The Cold War had just begun, and Stalin encouraged Kim Il Sung to proceed with his invasion of the South. It was a low-cost maneuver for the Soviet Union to expand its sphere of influence, and North Korea didn’t believe that South Korea was important enough to the United States for Washington to intervene. It was a miscalculation by both; the United States, still formalizing its policy of containment, was unwilling to let the Soviets dominate the Korean Peninsula.

It would not be the only miscalculation made in the war. After Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed at Incheon, he pushed north toward China instead of establishing a defensive line at the neck of the peninsula, threatening China in the process.

Washington also misunderstood China’s willingness to join the fray. It had, after all, just undergone a communist revolution of its own and was trying to manage domestic unrest. But join the war Beijing did, and for reasons consistent with its geopolitical imperatives: It wanted to prevent its own encirclement, much as it had done for millennia. It was not about to let a U.S. contingent amass on its border. China caught the United States off guard when it crossed the Yalu River in October 1950, and in doing so transformed the war from a war of mobility to one of stalemate.

Both sides learned valuable lessons. North Korea came to believe that the United States was a dangerous, irrational actor whose international moves could not be predicted. The United States learned that there are lines on the Korean Peninsula that cannot be crossed because they invite Chinese involvement. Neither side is likely to make the same mistakes again.

Forcing a Hand

A war with North Korea would consist of two battles with distinct objectives. The first would be to eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. It would be the primary objective and indeed the justification for an attack. With no nuclear threat, there is no engagement.

The second objective would be to protect South Korea from North Korean retaliation. No one really knows the true status of Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but suppose for a moment it has a deliverable nuclear weapon. Striking a U.S. asset or ally with one would force Washington’s hand into retaliating in kind, thus wiping out the North Korean regime. Its leaders will therefore rely on their large arsenal of conventional weapons – namely artillery. The artillery batteries, many of which are located near the demilitarized zone, can severely damage heavily populated areas in and around Seoul. The U.S. and its allies must plan accordingly.

Either way, the United States would have to somehow assess the damage it has inflicted on North Korean nuclear facilities. Washington surely has a good sense of what North Korea has, but its intelligence is inherently imperfect. If even one facility were left somewhat intact, the United States would have started perhaps the largest military conflict in a generation without achieving its primary objective. It cannot rely on air and satellite imagery alone to assess the damage, so either it or South Korea would have to deploy special operations forces to inspect suspected locations. All the while, North Korea would be retaliating.


The primary instrument of its retaliation would be its large, diverse collection of artillery. Most was acquired from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, though some of it was designed and produced in North Korea. The problem is that much of this equipment is outdated.

As it developed its nuclear program, North Korea allocated more resources to ballistic missile technology than it did to its conventional weapons, leaving them to fall into disrepair. That they are poorly maintained and infrequently upgraded, however, doesn’t mean they’re not functional; they can still inflict a tremendous amount of damage.

And the damage would come from a variety of weapons. Data on North Korea’s military capabilities are obviously hard to come by. (In fact, all figures henceforth should be understood as estimates.) Still, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, North Korea has approximately 21,000 artillery pieces. This includes a mix of self-propelled and towed field guns, multiple rocket launchers, and mortars.

Self-Propelled and Towed Guns

In 2016, North Korea had approximately 8,500 self-propelled and towed artillery pieces (the former does not require a vehicle to transport it, the latter does). This includes guns and howitzers, which differ in their trajectory, caliber and angle of fire, but for the sake of this analysis “guns” will refer to both. The ages of the guns likewise vary, though self-propelled guns tend to be newer than towed guns, some of which predate World War II. Its newest self-propelled guns are from the 1990s.

Generally, newer artillery with larger calibers can fire their munitions farther. The 122 mm towed guns, which are a smaller caliber, have a maximum firing range of about 6-10 miles (10-15 kilometers). Larger caliber self-propelled guns such as the 170 mm M-1989s can fire up to 25 miles, placing Seoul squarely within range of those positioned on the demilitarized zone. North Korea also has 130 mm and 152 mm self-propelled and towed guns, the ranges of which vary and can be extended using rocket-assisted munitions.

There are downsides to bigger, longer-range guns, of course. They have a slower rate of fire and take longer to reload. Some of North Korea’s smaller guns can fire as many as 8-10 rounds per minute, whereas its large guns may fire only 1-2 rounds per minute. Either way, they enable the military to maintain a constant barrage on South Korea.

Multiple Rocket Launchers

Another type of conventional artillery in North Korea’s arsenal is the multiple rocket launcher. MRLs fire rockets rather than tube artillery shells. They have a greater range but are slower to load and less accurate. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that North Korea possesses 5,100 MRL pieces ranging from 107 mm to 300 mm.

The 300 mm MRL system warrants special note. First tested in March 2016, it is North Korea’s newest and largest-caliber platform. (For the military junkies, it resembles China’s SY-300, Russia’s BM-30 and Pakistan’s Hatf-9 Nasr platforms.) IISS notes that North Korea has “some” 300 mm MRLs but does not provide a quantity. 38 North, an organization that analyzes North Korea, believes the military has 18-36 of these. Their true maximum range is disputed; it is believed that a rocket traveled nearly 95 miles during the March 2016 test, though the South Korean Defense Ministry placed it closer to 110 miles.

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Some suspect that the 300 mm MRL platform is capable of carrying a nuclear weapon; Pakistan claims that it deploys small nuclear weapons on its slightly larger Hatf-9 Nasr MRL, according to 38 North. North Korea would, of course, first have to miniaturize a weapon small enough to fit it, and there is no evidence yet to suggest it can do so. 

Still, MRLs are a useful addition to North Korea’s artillery catalogue, though they don’t provide the same cadence of attack as do artillery guns. And in any case, the military has fewer rockets, so it would therefore exhaust them more quickly.


North Korea is believed to possess 7,500 mortar pieces of 82 mm, 120 mm and 160 mm calibers. Mortars are small and mobile enough to be carried in support of infantry. Since they are meant to be used much closer to enemy infantry positions, they have a much higher trajectory than artillery guns, and therefore a much shorter effective range. They can’t reach Seoul, but they would be used against advancing infantry.

Command and Flexibility

The utility of North Korean artillery depends on two related issues: the ongoing availability of ammunition and leaders’ ability to effectively issue orders. Formally, North Korea’s military command structure borrows much from the Soviet model; that is, it is highly centralized and depends heavily on orders issued directly by the supreme leader. If artillery teams cannot receive orders, they naturally become less effective.

A study by Andrew Scobell and John M. Sanford of the U.S. Army War College titled “North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles” describes the command structure as a “highly inflexible Soviet-style military doctrine which emphasizes decisions being made at the top and carefully scripted war plans (which no one outside of North Korea has seen), discouraging operational flexibility and initiative.” This suggests that North Korean war plans – plans that will almost certainly need to change, as is the case in every war – will be slow to adapt to developments on the battlefield. In a paper called “Party-Military Relations in North Korea and the Security Situation on the Korean Peninsula,” Robert Collins, a U.S. Army veteran and North Korea observer, elaborates on the implications of this highly centralized command structure: “[It] … leaves very little, if any, flexibility for the unit commander. The issue is that on the battlefield, the [North Korean army] commander will lack the initiative to adjust to battlefield conditions due to inflexibility based on orders that are subject to political approval, not subject to situational assessments.”

The problem with studies such as these is that they run the risk of underestimation. The North Koreans know that the United States has studied their military structure and that, therefore, one of Washington’s first moves would be to cut lines of communication. If it cut those lines, and if Pyongyang failed to delegate some aspects of command to those in the field, North Korea would almost certainly lose the war quickly. It’s reasonable to believe, then, that the North Koreans have a plan that accounts of this possibility.

This line of reasoning is corroborated by the existence of distributed artillery ammunition stores. While North Korea has major national-level storage facilities, it also has a number of unit-level storage depots, according to a 2000 report by the secretary of defense to the U.S. Congress. Many of these are hardened artillery sites, or HARTs, which are located at multiple spots along the DMZ. A report by the Nautilus Institute for Security & Sustainability, a defense analysis firm, describes the HARTs as heavily fortified, in the interior of caves or tunnels, with spaces that are large enough to hold artillery and ammunition. The report is notably dated – it’s from the 1980s – but that only reinforces the point: The military, already protected by the terrain, has had decades to entrench itself, overcome disruptions to lines of communication and supply, and disperse its ammunition depots. The existence of these stores suggests that isolated emplacements are expected to continue to fight. 

In gaming out a war, we need to consider the possibility that the southern emplacements are a bluff and that the regime would never delegate command for fear of rebellion. This is something that U.S. intelligence suspects. And in this scenario, command would remain centralized.

In the Air

The nature of the North Korean command structure, and the extent to which artillery punctuates the countryside, requires U.S. air power to fully neutralize. And the United States has a lot of aircraft close to theater. The B-1, B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers, for example, are located in Guam and would be deployed to take out North Korean target sites. But a bombing campaign would expose them to attack either from the North Korean air force or North Korean surface-to-air missiles.

North Korea’s air force is lackluster. It’s most modern plane is the Soviet-designed MiG-29, which was designed in the 1970s and introduced in the early 1980s. Many of its planes are even older. The U.S. aircraft carriers deployed to the region could, in theory, intercept North Korean aircraft, but if Pyongyang is relying on its planes, it’s already lost the war, since it would mean its SAMs were largely destroyed.

Indeed, SAMs, and anti-aircraft artillery, are the way in which the military compensates for its air force’s obsolescence. The country has a variety of these kinds of installations throughout the country. Some examples of them include:

  • SA-4: A mobile system designed to target high-flying bombers. The SA-4 has a range of about 34 miles and can reportedly reach altitudes of around 80,000 feet.
  • SA-5: A medium- to high-altitude system with a relatively long minimum range of about 37 miles. This limits the system to engagements against relatively large, lumbering targets at ranges up to 155 miles. 
  • SA-17 Gadfly: This system has four missiles laid abreast of each other on the launcher. The SA-17 reportedly has a range of about 19 miles and an altitude of 46,000 feet. Both the missile launcher and its radar system are mobile.

None of these individual systems would stop the U.S. Air Force. But together they create a web of good defensive capability. Their value stems from their abundance and their arrangement, a configuration the United States has yet to face. It is, therefore, not something to be taken likely. The SAM systems may not be particularly sophisticated, but scrappy and plentiful can win battles too.

Given their range and altitude, these three SAM systems are more likely to threaten U.S. strategic bombers. But North Korea has other SAMs in its arsenal. In fact, it is suspected of having a SAM battery comparable to Russia’s S-300 – a similar apparatus was seen during a 2010 military parade. The S-300 is a long-range SAM developed in the Soviet Union in 1979, but it has continually been modified and upgraded and is still used by Russia today. Depending on the specific model, the S-300 can have a range up to 190 miles.

One way to eliminate North Korea’s air defenses would be with a Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses attack. This would be carried out by aircraft equipped with radar-targeting missiles. The United States had three squadrons of F-16s configured for this kind of attack in South Korea even before it deployed a fourth in February. North Korea would have to decide whether it wanted to use its radar to detect enemy aircraft and thus reveal itself to radar-targeting systems, or turn its radar off and hope for the best.

In addition to SAM systems, North Korea is also believed to have 11,000 anti-aircraft guns, the calibers of which range from 14.5 mm to 100 mm. These are rapid-fire machine or heavy guns that often fire an explosive charge to increase the chance of damaging aircraft as they fly by. As with artillery, firing rates decrease as caliber increases. The 14.5 mm guns – the ZPU-1, ZPU-2 and ZPU-4 – can fire approximately 450-600 rounds per minute. The 100 mm KS-19, however, can fire only about 15 rounds per minute. Anti-aircraft guns are less effective at targeting and bringing down aircraft than are missile installations.

Of course, the United States could also suppress North Korean artillery with stealth bombers, which can, in theory, evade the military’s air defense systems. There is some speculation that these bombers would be in danger – Russia claims that some of its later-model S-300s are designed specifically to detect stealth planes, and over the weekend North Korea tested an anti-aircraft missile the government claims can shoot down stealth fighters. It’s very unlikely, however, that its SAMs are as advanced as Russia’s – even if the Russian claim were true – and the weekend test proves only that North Korea is acting provocatively, not that its air defense systems are so far ahead of where most experts believe they are. In fact, there are few instances of stealth fighters being shot down. In 1999, an F-117, a stealth attack bomber, was shot down over Serbia. Using modified Soviet radar systems, the Yugoslav air defense systems were able to spot the aircraft.

South Korea in the Meantime

South Korea, meanwhile, will take massive amounts of casualties as the United States tries to neutralize North Korean artillery. If air power cannot suppress the barrage or the air defenses, the government in Seoul will be in a difficult situation: It will have to decide whether it will take out artillery positions the only reliable way it can – through an infantry assault.

This is a highly unpalatable solution. It would be slow and violent, with infantry moving position by position, supported by mechanized cavalry needed to penetrate the caves and mountains the soldiers alone cannot. And all the while, Seoul would continue to be battered by artillery.

If it comes to this, the United States could use something in its arsenal that would neutralize all of North Korea’s artillery: tactical nuclear weapons. Washington would inform Pyongyang of its intention to use them, forcing North Korean leaders to make a tough decision of their own: If the U.S. had already knocked out North Korea’s nuclear facilities (Pyongyang’s primary deterrent) and threatened to take out its artillery (Pyongyang’s secondary deterrent) with tactical nukes, the Kim Jong Un regime would have to weigh the costs of sacrificing its only remaining means of survival. If the government’s objective is to survive, it seems unlikely that it would be willing to forfeit its only remaining source of leverage, so it would probably capitulate to its enemies before it surrendered its artillery.

In the Sea

North Korea knows that time isn’t on its side. Its oil reserves will quickly dwindle, leaving its vehicles and naval vessels without fuel. Some estimate that North Korea’s oil reserves would last a few weeks; others estimate closer to two months. But all the oil in the world won’t change the fact that its means of waging war are, in any case, limited.

And so North Korea could deploy just two strategies. The first and more likely is that it will hold down in a defensive position and use the threat of its artillery to exact concessions from the United States. North Korea’s army boasts 1 million soldiers. (That number climbs to about 6 million if its Red Guard – a force consisting of untrained peasants that could nevertheless be mobilized and provide some degree of resistance – is included.) The United States and South Korea have no desire to fight that many people, or the artillery batteries they helm. The risk to this strategy is that North Korea will simply run out of oil and ammunition. Still, the government would probably stop firing and try to negotiate a settlement. After all, it loses all its leverage once its ammunition runs out.

The U.S. and South Korea could, notably, try to break the stalemate by launching an amphibious assault, but doing so would incur many casualties on land and on sea. North Korea’s navy may be old and inferior, but it could lay mines that would damage U.S. vessels even after it was destroyed. Submarines, difficult as they are to detect, could also threaten U.S. aircraft carriers. The U.S. and South Korea would win the naval contest, of course, but not without cost.

The second and far less likely strategy would be a North Korean assault on the South. The DMZ is too heavily fortified to do so by land, so it would do so by sea, opening up a second front behind enemy lines with amphibious landings using its sizable special operations forces. North Korea is estimated to have 10 landing ships and about 260 landing craft that can each carry 35-50 troops ashore. According to Scobell and Sanford’s U.S. Army War College paper, North Korea can transport as many as 15,000 troops at sea at a given time, though the military would likely use smaller groups to avoid detection. The principle behind the strategy is to occupy as much of the Korean Peninsula as possible to maximize its leverage in peace negotiations. But as with the rest of the North Korean military, the equipment that would be used for such an assault is unlikely to make the strategy a success. And even if it did land its troops successfully, North Korea would still have to face South Korean and U.S. soldiers.

North Korea would be hard-pressed to win this war, if in fact it breaks out. The U.S. and South Korean militaries are strong and sophisticated, and they would likely be joined by international allies – as evidenced by the arrival of French and British naval deployments in the Pacific for joint military exercises. The North Korean military may have more bodies, but that will take it only so far. And the fact that it has few natural resources, not to mention few partners willing to trade with it in the event of a war, puts victory even further from Pyongyang’s grasp. The best that North Korea can hope for is a peace agreement that allows the regime to survive.

Still, North Korea won’t go down without a fight. The very legitimacy of the Kim regime is built on its perception of defender of the realm. If it fails to respond to an attack, it would be putting itself at risk of internal rebellion. So while it may lose the war, the chances are good that the conflict will spill over to the South, implicate a lot of countries, and inflict a lot of damage.

And this is due to the composition of the North Korean military, the analysis of which has enabled us to predict how a potential war would be fought. But war is unpredictable. Leaders can attempt to game out every possible scenario in war, but once it begins, there are so many variables that new scenarios have to be constantly examined. There are aspects to this war, then, that we have not even addressed. What if China enters the conflict? What if Japan closes off its airspace to U.S. aircraft? What if there is a coup in Pyongyang that overtakes the Kim regime? All of these are extremely unlikely to happen but need to be considered nonetheless.

On May 28, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said a war with North Korea would be catastrophic, a statement many have interpreted as an excuse not to fight. This is the wrong interpretation. Washington believes a nuclear North Korea is a direct threat to its national interests, and it does not make the kinds of preparations it has made if it isn’t serious about following through. Both sides are finding it more difficult to back down.

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