By Dominic Oto


North Korea is believed to have 20 nuclear warheads. Kim’s military has tested a variety of missiles. According to some intelligence sources, NK is close to developing an intercontinental missile capable of reaching North America and a nuclear warhead that can ride on it.

In 2016, NK scientists conducted a 10 kiloton underground nuclear test.  That is almost as powerful as the U.S. 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945. In 2017, the Hermit Kingdom increased its intercontinental ballistic missile testing. Some of those test-launched missiles ended up in the Sea of Japan.

What would a war with North Korea look like?

There are thousands of North Korean artillery pieces just over the border from South Korea. Some are hidden in an elaborate network of tunnels underground. Other pieces are out in the open. Much of the ammunition and weaponry of North Korea is old. But it doesn’t need to be new to be effective.

Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is less than 40 miles from the border of North Korea. Seoul has over 20 million citizens living there. 

How will the attack start?

The U.S. could launch a pre-emptive surgical strike. Kim will likely respond. The attack will start with a devastating artillery barrage- thousands of rounds per hour. Without moving one soldier in its 900,000 man army, the North could attack Seoul leaving the city devastated.

North Korean Propaganda Posters

A medium-range NK missile can deliver a nuclear payload to Seoul in under 60 seconds from the time of launch.  Hundreds of chemically armed Scud missiles would be fired on key South Korean train stations, airports, and seaports. This would make it impossible for South Korean civilians to escape. The North’s arsenal of medium-range missiles can also be fitted with chemical warheads and launched at Japan. The goal would be to delay the flow of U.S. reinforcements. These reinforcements would be needed in a hurry on the Korean Peninsula. 

North Korean forces would try to overrun South Korea’s defenses. Their goal would be to capture Seoul before the U.S., and South Korea could respond with overwhelming force.  Imagine over 2 million soldiers with tanks, airplanes and infantry fighting in a space the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

How will the U.S. respond?

The U.S. and South Korea have a new war plan since 2015 (Powell, 2017). The strategy is called OPLAN 5015. It centers on attacks on the NK’s nuclear and missile facilities. The plan also calls for “decapitation attacks” on Kim Jong Un and the surviving North Korean leadership (Powell, 2017).

Who is Kim Jong-un

In April 2017, the U.S has beefed up the defense of Seoul with an elaborate defense system. The U.S. put in a terminal high altitude defense system. The defense system shoots down incoming missiles in the final phase of descent (Powell, 2017).

The U.S. has 28,000 troops in South Korea. Seoul’s armed forces, is far better trained and equipped than the North’s, has 660,000 men, over 80% of them are conscripts. The South Korean forces are 300,000 smaller than NK’s military.

If NK attacked, the U.S. would send four to six ground combat divisions of up to 20,000 soldiers each (Powell, 2017). The U.S. troops in South Korea would only be a speed bump to the attacking tank and infantry divisions of the North Korean horde. On the sea, four to five aircraft carriers would be sent to the Sea of Japan. Almost immediately 10 Air Force wings of 20 fighters each would begin a relentless air campaign against NK.

What is Kim’s goal?

Kim’s primary goal is the reunification of the two Koreas under Pyongyang’s rule (Powell, 2017). It was something his grandfather and father were not able to do. NK has seen hard times recently. A bad famine in the late 1990s killed tens of thousands of North Koreans. Relentless poverty followed. Over 80% of NK is fed with U.N. aid and food. Looking at the satellite images of Seoul and Pyongyang at night, you see one is blazingly lit and the other dark. Half of Korea is strong, and the other is weak.


In Korean culture, each negotiation is a long haggling process. Giving into concessions too early is seen as a sign of weakness, something to take advantage of. Koreans, both North, and South, aren’t afraid to wait patiently until a frustrated “opponent” gives in. Kim’s regime is dying because his country is starving. Kim a desperate man and a clever poker player. His last card is his nuclear arsenal.

In April 2017, President Trump started working with China to deter Pyongyang from developing more nuclear weapons. That same month the U.S. installed a missile defense in South Korea. The Chinese hate having the system’s capabilities in their backyard.

China is NK’s only significant trade partner. China has suspended its coal purchases from NK. China is reluctant to push too hard because it doesn’t want a collapse of the NK government. Meanwhile both South and North Korea have hundreds of thousands of troops on either side of the border.

NK has a long history of escalating and de-escalating tensions over the last 60 years. NK does this game of cat and mouse to broker deals of economic and concessions of U.N. sanctions.

Why does North Korea hate America?

This leaves the U.S. and its allies in a tricky position. Most diplomatic situations call for a carrot or stick approach. Unfortunately for NK, neither the aid in the form of a carrot or stick in the form of sanctions has worked in the last decade.

What are the options?

Ever stronger sanctions. The downfall of the Kim regime or military confrontation that risks enormous casualties.  Doing nothing is dangerous especially considering Kim’s erratic behavior. Kim has executed top advisors including his uncle. As long as Kim is in power, NK will never give up its nuclear weapons (Powell, 2017).

What is the outcome?

Even following an artillery barrage and push into the South, there is no question, America, and South Korea will win in a second Korean War. The U.S. and South Korea can annihilate NK militarily but at great cost.

What about Pre-Emptive Strikes?

If the U.S. acts early, it must get all six of the known nuclear and ballistic missile tests sites in NK. There will be no second chances. The real dilemma is something “asymmetric retaliation.” This means that the NK can get a decisive punch off with its short to medium- range missiles (Sherman, 2017).

The war could result in over a million dead and $1 trillion in economic damage to South Korea, an important ally in the Pacific. A war with North Korea would mean the end of Kim’s regime, even if he doesn’t know it. This is diplomatic chess with global consequences.

DMZ Train
May 21, 2014
From Seoul Station to Dorasan Station
Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism
Korean Culture and Information Service (
Official Photographer: Jeon Han
평화열차 DMZ Train

About the author:

Oto holds a BS in History from Oregon State University and a MMA in Military History from American Public University. He served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Company Commander and Staff Trainer to the Afghan National Army. He was wounded once and decorated three times. Oto is an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve.


Powell, B. (2017, April 25). What a War with North Korea Looks LIke . Newsweek.

Sherman, W. (2017, February 17). How To Stop Kim Jong Un. Time Magazine.