The intensifying war of words between North Korea, the US and ally South Korea could ignite a major conflict. The likely trigger would be a small clash at sea, in the air, or along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas.
What would a war in Korea look like?
First, nuclear conflict is unlikely. North Korea is not believed to have any long or medium-ranged nuclear weapons; certainly, none that could hit North America. It might be able to strike South Korea with a nuclear device. But then the US nuclear weapons would wipe North Korea off the map.
North Korea’s military strategy would be to launch a surprise attack on the south to occupy Seoul and Inchon. The vital US Air Force bases at Osan and Kunsan, and eight South Korean air bases, would be primary targets.
North Korea’s elite 88,000 special forces units are tasked to attack and neutralise these air bases as well as headquarters, communication nodes, and munitions depots of the US and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces.
Barrages of North Korean conventional missiles would hit these bases and command hubs, possibly with chemical warheads.
Special North Korean amphibious units would land and strike these targets from the sea. North Korea has 300 old Soviet-era AN-2 biplanes that carry 10 commandos each. Invisible to radar because they are made of fabric and hug the earth, the AN-2’s would air assault suicide squads into US and ROK airbases.
Other North Korean special forces are tasked with attacking US bases in Okinawa, Japan and as far off as Guam, where the US is installing its new Thaad anti-missile system.
North Korea has developed potent electronic warfare capability that would degrade US and South Korean communications and online targets.
Meanwhile, 14,000 North Korean heavy guns and rocket batteries dug into caves behind the DMZ could pour storms of shells or rockets per hour onto US/ROK positions south of the DMZ. North Korea’s 170mm guns and 240mm rockets have a range of 50 and 45km. Large parts of Seoul would be heavily damaged.
North Korea has about 700,000 soldiers within 150km of the DMZ, with another 400,000 in backup echelons further north. These divisions would fight their way south through South Korea’s ‘Maginot Line’, seven parallel lines of anti-tank ditches, minefields, and high earth walls surmounted by tanks (South Korea denies it exists, but I have seen it).
In spite of intense air attacks by the US and ROK, the North Korean offensive could likely reach at least as far south of Seoul, only an hour’s drive from the DMZ.
USA’s retaliation would be ferocious. The US and ROK warplanes would quickly attain air superiority over the entire peninsula. North Korea’s 70 airbases would be obliterated and its obsolescent air force quickly neutralised. The North Korean surface fleets would share a similar fate. The US warplanes would pound North Korea’s command and control, communications, rail lines, bridges and factories not buried underground.
During the 1950-53 Korean War , the US B-29 heavy bombers literally flattened North Korea. That is why North Korea reacted so furiously when US B-52 heavy bombers and B-2 Stealth bombers skirted its borders late last month, triggering off this latest crisis. The B-2 can deliver the fearsome ‘MOAB’ 30,000 lb bomb called “the Mother of All Bombs” designed to destroy deep underground command headquarter’s (read Kim Jon-un’s bunker) and underground nuclear facilities.
Since the 1950s, the North Koreans have buried much of their military-industrial complex and continue to train their ground forces in small unit, off-the-road tactics. The north also has a militia of 1.6 million to defend key targets and factories.
Unless the USA uses tactical nuclear weapons, it will be difficult to defeat North Korea. Doing so means invading North Korea, a risky operation that might invite Chinese intervention, as it did in 1950. Moreover, US ground and air forces are bogged down in Afghanistan and the Mideast, their equipment is run down, and the US treasury out of money. The Pentagon too estimated a full-scale invasion of North Korea could cost 250,000 American casualties.

The writer is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. His articles appear in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Gulf Times, Khaleej Times and other news sites in Asia. He is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Lew Rockwell and Big Eye. He appears as an expert on foreign affairs on CNN, BBC, France 2, France 24, Fox News, CTV and CBC.