The lives at stake if war breaks out in Korea

The order for a US war fleet to sail towards North Korea could trigger one of three scenarios by the end of next week.

In the classic novel Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the protagonist tells the tale of his steamboat voyage up the Congo River to a destination of unimaginable danger. Having to choose between unavoidable evils on his journey, he tries to pursue the lesser one, recognising that he has to be "loyal to the nightmare of (his) choice".

The US Navy's aircraft "supercarrier" - the USS Carl Vinson - and its accompanying fleet of warships that constitute Carrier Strike Group 1, currently steaming their way towards the Korean peninsula, is unnervingly resonant of that story. Having set sail from Singapore last Saturday, the American armada is sailing towards an abyss, steering the United States and North-east Asia towards a new brink that will trigger one of three possible scenarios by the end of next week.

The first scenario is the least garish and the most preferable. It sees political action leading to a halt in North Korea's nuclear weapons-related activities. In this scenario, it is down to Chinese President Xi Jinping deciding to adopt a more coercive approach in dealing with North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

About 90 per cent of North Korea's trade is with China, and Beijing has not lifted a finger in exacting sanctions that will hurt Pyongyang the most and shape its behaviour away from belligerence. For added effect, Beijing must recall its ambassador to North Korea who is resident there. It is not clear if the strongest sanctions will ultimately resolve medium-term challenges. For now, Mr Xi's decision can buy everyone a little time until the United Nations Security Council convenes in a special meeting to discuss options on the North Korean issue, on April 28.

The second scenario - likely to be triggered if China fails to execute economic sanctions - sees Carrier Strike Group 1 launching a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear-weapons facilities and sites in which intermediate- range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) are located. Washington's intent would be to destroy as many (if not all) of North Korea's warheads, the facilities that produce them, and also the missiles that are necessary to deliver these warheads to their intended targets.

Here lies the crux of the matter, currently glossed over in general coverage of the North Korean quagmire that tends to focus on the likelihood of missiles hitting America's west coast. There are approximately 80,000 US military personnel and army, air force and naval assets sited at bases in Japan and South Korea. These help the Republic of Korea's armed forces tip the scales against North Korea's military. The clear and present danger posed by the North Korean nuclear threat is against these US assets, not against the US homeland.


The USS Carl Vinson and other US warships with Japanese destroyers in an exercise last month. The decision to divert the US fleet from its original destination of Australia to the Korean peninsula is no light matter, says the writer. It is conceivable that the rerouting may be driven by new intelligence on North Korea's nuclear threat. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In the light of its inferior military, Pyongyang's intent would be to use the devastating power of its nuclear weapons as the only means to erase the overwhelming military firepower that the US can bring to bear against North Korea to defeat it.

There have been claims by numerous media that North Korea has not yet created nuclear warheads small enough to fit in a missile. But there have been other expert-based reports suggesting that North Korea already has miniaturised warheads, with some estimates capping this number at around 20. Then there is also the Rodong-1 IRBM, which has been successfully tested many times, and of which North Korea may have as many as 90, according to the latest estimate by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.

The accompanying destruction of North Korea's civilian infrastructure and a significant death toll of its citizens in this scenario would be unavoidable and dreadful. Yet, that would not be the nightmare. The bigger terror would be Pyongyang's reprisal against Seoul - in the context of two countries still technically at war with each other - by unleashing a barrage of conventional artillery shells onto South Korea's main capital of about 10 million people.

The decision to divert Carrier Strike Group 1 from its original destination of Australia - from Singapore - to its new destination is no light matter. It is conceivable that the rerouting of Vinson may be driven by new intelligence on North Korea's intermediate-range nuclear threat. In any case, to have the armada leave the Korean peninsula with no real strategic dividend will weaken US President Donald Trump's credibility.

It is also conceivable that any new intelligence may have been received prior to the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian government for its chemical weapons attack on the country's civilians. The missile strike carries the message that the United States will counter the threat (or the use) of weapons of mass destruction, especially those that threaten its national security, with overwhelming force.

The accompanying destruction of North Korea's civilian infrastructure and a significant death toll of its citizens in this scenario would be unavoidable and dreadful. Yet, that would not be the nightmare. The bigger terror would be Pyongyang's reprisal against Seoul - in the context of two countries still technically at war with each other - by unleashing a barrage of conventional artillery shells onto South Korea's main capital of about 10 million people.

The North Korean regime has been aiming a sizeable number of its 21,000 artillery pieces at Seoul (and other parts of South Korea) for decades, like a coiled snake. It is impossible for the US and regional allies to neutralise this threat; not even the roughly 700 pieces that can only be expected to really be trained on Seoul - for tactical reasons - and which according to one estimate, would exact a death toll of about 64,000 South Koreans in one day.

This being so, Pyongyang has established a deterrence mechanism that has kept the prospect of any significant military action against it in check. Using the estimated numbers for the purposes of scale, the question now is whether a unilateralist US President will go so far as to put the lives of 80,000 Americans ahead of 64,000 South Koreans.

Lastly, the third scenario would see North Korea doing the pre-emption, either as Vinson steams intolerably close to the Korean theatre of operations or while it is loitering around the peninsula at the Trump administration's behest. Assuming that Mr Kim is convinced in his mind that Mr Trump is going to authorise a pre-emptive attack of his own, once again, this scenario must meet the condition of Pyongyang already having the requisite number of nuclear-tipped IRBMs.

We cannot exclude the possibility of a punitive nuclear response by Mr Trump, and it is reasonable to assume that Vinson is being accompanied by submarines that carry sea-launched nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of levelling Pyongyang itself. In this scenario, 144,000 Americans and South Koreans would have died and so would up to 2.5 million North Koreans.

This is the ugly business of nuclear war and why astute strategic thinkers and public intellectuals have long argued it should never be fought. It also explains why Mr Xi called his US counterpart on the telephone - both sides are clear that the humanitarian, environmental, economic and political fallout will set back the entire region.

The Trump administration has likely gamed that the Xi administration knows the implications and it is now up to Beijing to turn the available screws on Pyongyang in order to have Washington divert Vinson away. The Trump administration has given Mr Xi and Mr Kim a clock to work with in this game of chicken. US Vice-President Mike Pence will be touring Seoul and Tokyo for five days from the moment he arrives this Easter Sunday - the same day Vinson is expected to also arrive - before he leaves for Jakarta.

A week for many to be kept up at night.


  • The writer is research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
  • Correction note: The population of South Korea's capital Seoul has been corrected to 10 million.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'The lives at stake if war breaks out in Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe