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North Korea Can't Really Turn Seoul Into a "Sea of Fire"
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South Korean army howitzers fire during a military exercise near the demilitarized zone, January 3, 2011 (AP/Lee Hae-yrong)[/caption]
For more than a decade, conventional wisdom has held that North Korea could subject the South Korean capital of Seoul to devastating artillery attack. With a greater metropolitan population of twenty-four million, Seoul has the largest population density of all the OECD countries, eight times more dense than New York City and three times more dense than Tokyo and Yokohama.
Aimed at Seoul, North Korea’s prodigious amount of artillery, particularly its 170 mm Koksan guns and 240 mm multiple rocket launchers, could kill “millions of people” in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula.
The “sea of fire” scenario first surfaced after the Clinton Administration decided not to attack North Korean nuclear facilities in 1994. Coincidence? Maybe, but since then it’s been used to trump discussion of any military action against North Korea, for whatever reason.
Uncertainty about how military action would play out, as well as the North’s unpredictability, means that virtually anything anyone proposed risked the “sea of Fire.” This haunting scenario has played a role in how policy makers and wonks view engagement with the North.
Is North Korea unpredictable? Yes. Does it have an enormous amount of artillery? Yes. Are many of the artillery pieces in cover? Yes? Could an artillery attack on Seoul kill “millions”? Probably not.
Roger Cavazos, associate analyst at the Nautilus Institute, has released a study on the actual feasibility of the “sea of fire.” As Cavazos points out, there are critical questions we should be asking about this apocalyptic scenario.
No one doubts that an artillery attack on Seoul is possible but how quickly could South Korea’s civil defense system protect its people from an artillery attack? Would North Korea execute strictly a countervalue strike against the South or a mix of counterforce and countervalue? Would North Korea risk killing thousands of Chinese citizens living in South Korea? Can North Korea logistically support such an artillery attack? How quickly would the North’s artillery force be attrited by American and South Korean forces? How many artillery pieces are actually within range of Seoul?
The answers make it clear that the “sea of fire” is just not a realistic scenario. As Roger explains:
If the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA) were to start a doctrinal, conventional artillery barrage focused on South Korean forces, we could expect to see around three thousand casualties in the first few minutes but the casualty rate would quickly drop as the surprise wears off and counterbattery fires slow down the North Korean rates of fire.
If the KPA were to engage Seoul in a primarily countervalue fashion by firing into Seoul instead of primarily aiming at military targets, there would likely be around thirty thousand casualties in a short amount of time. Statistically speaking, almost eight hundred of those casualties would be foreigners given Seoul’s international demographic. Chinese make up almost 70 percent of foreigners in Seoul and its northern environs which means KPA might also kill six hundred Chinese diplomats, multinational corporation leaders and ranking cadre children who are students in Seoul. Horrible, but nothing approaching “millions.”
Regarding the infamous Koksan guns and 240 mm “Juche 100” multiple rocket launchers:
In a worst case scenario, there are seven hundred artillery pieces capable of ranging most of Seoul. Not all the rockets or shells will explode. The most recent dud rate available from any DPRK artillery piece comes from DPRK attack on Yeonpyong Do and yields a dud rate of 25 percent. The source of such a large dud rate is unclear at this time but again it is the only recent indicator available—-to the North Koreans—-as well as the rest of the world. If we see KPA suddenly testing all different types of Artillery tubes and shell fuze combinations, it might indicate they lack confidence in their dud rates.
The power of those seven hundred artillery pieces is whittled down considerably in a wartime scenario. As the author points out, doctrinally 25 percent of the guns would be held back in reserve. The guns that are firing must be resupplied and the North’s logistics system is… not that great. American and South Korean forces will be hunting those guns and historically 1 percent of them will be taken out every hour. And one out of every four shells would likely be a dud.
Cavazos makes it clear that while a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul would be a tragedy, common assertions about such an attack do not stand up to scrutiny.
This article originally appeared at Asia Security Watch, June 27, 2012.
South Korea Strengthens Defense Ties With Saudi Arabia
[caption id=”attachment_16301” align=”alignright” width=”300” caption=”King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea attend the Janadriya festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, February 8 (Reuters/Ali Abdullatif)”]
With South Korea having cut ties to Iranian petrochemical and oil imports after US pressure, it was a forgone conclusion that Seoul would be looking for new suppliers to fill the resulting void.
South Korean president Lee Myung-bak toured the Middle East last week, including stops in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in hope of brokering agreements to alleviate that recent loss of Iranian crude oil and petrochemical exports, as well as to increase South Korean defense exports to the region.
The trip shapep up to be a successful one for President Lee.
South Korea and Saudi Arabia agreed Wednesday to significantly bolster their defense cooperation to elevate relations in noneconomic sectors to match those of their prospering business ties, an official said Wednesday.
A defense cooperation pact could be signed if and when the Saudi minister visits Seoul, Choe said. If Salman is unable to pay a visit to Seoul, South Korea’s defense minister Kim Kwan-jin will visit Riyadh for talks, the official said.
“The focus of this visit is to lift cooperation in noneconomic areas to the level of the economic sector,” the press secretary said. “What is important is that the two sides agreed to elevate defense cooperation as well to match such a level.”
Choe declined to offer specifics on cooperation in the defense industry but sources said the two sides have been in talks on weapons projects, such as exporting ammunition and howitzers to the Middle Eastern nation.
While howitzers and ammunition aren’t big ticket items in the grand scheme of the $3 billion dollars in arms sales that South Korea is hoping to export in 2012, President Lee headed home with both a pledge from the Saudi Government of a secure oil supply and a foot in the door to new venues for South Korean arms exports. His visit has to be considered something of a great success.
It will be interesting to watch South Korea venture further into the region, how they handle the many layered politics of the Middle East, and their ability to balance their growing relationship with Israel and their blossoming ties with other surrounding Middle Eastern nations. It will also be worth noting how far Seoul dives into the region with or without the assistance of the United States, though one can imagine that the ROK won’t be selling arms to states that lack American approval.
Worth watching will also be how these international deals affect President Lee’s popularity in Seoul during his final year in office and the ramifications these developments will have for his party in the coming 2012 elections.
This article originally appeared at Asia Security Watch, February 9, 2012.
North Korea Ready for Third Nuclear Test
[caption id=”attachment_17913” align=”alignright” width=”300” caption=”Flag of North Korea (Dion Gillard)”]
North Korea has finished preparations for their third nuclear test at the Punggye-ri test site and is awaiting the political decision to commence detonation.
Setting off a third nuclear device is a widely expected move for the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea but it’s not one that will do them any favors.
Having already faced condemnation from the West in going ahead with their rocket test in April and rumored to have taken a massive lashing from China during high level meetings in Beijing last week, there seems to be little that North Korea can gain by proceeding with the test.
Losing foreign aide from non-Chinese powers is problematic but probably survivable. However, the DPRK’s recent rocket launch went ahead without properly warning Beijing and China is equally vexed by Pyongyang’s plans for their nuclear device. There have already been insinuations of China ceasing repatriation of North Korean defectors (this won’t actually happen, China doesn’t want to give a green light to a sudden humanitarian crisis on its soil) but a nuclear test may force China to act more concretely on their threats toward the DPRK.
China’s arrangement with North Korea rests on keeping the country afloat as long as it pays China a modicum of respect. This respect involves proper warning of North Korea’s missile and nuclear test whims, economic zone and trade privileges and covertly bowing to China when Beijing disagrees on certain issues.
In Kim Jong-un’s first few months as ruler of North Korea, he’s sought to give the North Korean military every bell and whistle to keep them in his pocket but he’s utterly failed to pay Beijing the proper reverence it has become accustomed to.
The DPRK would come to a complete halt without Chinese assistance. China still supplies much of what makes North Korea tick, Pyongyangites are becoming more and more infatuated with Chinese goods and trade with China is finally seeing some small export success. The testing of a nuclear device against China’s wishes would seriously damage North Korea’s forward momentum in these areas.
During Kim Jong-il’s lifetime, his main contribution toward North Korea was to weaken the Korean Workers’ Party’s control and its ability to overthrow his rule by putting the military above all state and party organizations. He was smart and savvy enough to keep them under his thumb.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un finds himself the heir to a Songun (“military first”) state that believes foreign relations are best achieved with missiles, artillery and nuclear weapons, without the ability to properly keep his military in check.
Kim Jong-un’s grandfather proved himself as a leader though a nationalistic war (and Soviet support). Kim Jong-un may feel the need to continue feeding his military to prove legitimacy of his own. But fueling his domestic military at the cost of international relations is isolating his regime at a time when it is most in need of foreign assistance.
The young Kim may be walking a fine line between proving his merit as a leader via military strength and avoiding actual war but by giving into the DPRK military’s every whim, he may be slowly sinking his regime.
If the nuclear test occurs, Kim Jong-un will be squarely in the pocket of the North Korean military and not vice versa.
This article originally appeared at Asia Security Watch, May 2, 2012.