Scenarios for a 2nd Korean War Grim for U.S., South


For years, American and South Korean military planners have studied what they sometimes call the Second Korean War. They have played out the war games and the scenarios aren’t pretty.

“The north’s plan has two options to it,” explains Paul Godwin of the Defense Department’s National War College, an expert on Asian military affairs who has played the role of a North Korean in the war games. “One is to take Seoul quickly and sue for peace. The other is to bypass Seoul and kick us out in a blitzkrieg.

“Either way, we won’t have the buildup that we had for (the Persian Gulf War). This would be more like a Soviet invasion of Germany. The north comes over, we’ve got no more than 24 to 72 hours lead time. Once American forces die--and they would die--we’re going to go.”


That, in a nutshell, is the daunting military problem that would confront U.S. armed forces in a second Korean war. Top military officials insist that the United States and its allies would win such a war, but some defense experts are not so sure. And even if the allies were victorious, their casualties would be enormous.

These war scenarios explain why the United States has gone to such extraordinary lengths to negotiate with and conciliate a Pyongyang regime that has repeatedly flouted international law and stalled on living up to its agreements.

The most recent sign of these conciliatory policies came last Tuesday, when the International Atomic Energy Agency reached a deal with North Korea for the inspection of seven of its nuclear installations.

But Clinton Administration officials acknowledged that even on these inspections, North Korea got special treatment. The inspections, one official admitted, will be “more limited than the routine, ad hoc inspections the IAEA has in other countries.” And the agreement merely puts Pyongyang back to where it was exactly a year ago, when the international agency first sought the right to make special inspections of two nuclear waste dumps in North Korea.

If North Korea goes along with the inspections, the Administration has promised to cancel this year’s annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises. And if the Pyongyang regime goes along with other inspections and gives up its nuclear weapons program, the Administration has promised other rewards, even economic help and diplomatic recognition.

Why does the United States tolerate North Korea’s continuing defiance in a way that it did not with Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein? Why doesn’t the world’s leading military power rely more heavily on threats to use force? Or why not employ economic sanctions, which North Korea has said it would consider an act of war?


Some answers can be traced to the Pentagon strategy in a Korean war, contained in a highly secret Pentagon document labeled U.S. Forces Korea OpPlan 5027. The war plan was revamped in the early 1990s by Gen. Robert W. RisCassi when he was commander in chief of American and South Korean forces in the Korean theater.

Only a few people know the plan’s details, but its general outlines are clear. According to interviews with present and former U.S. defense officials, military commanders and diplomats, a Korean war would be an extremely bloody conflict in which South Korean ground forces, especially, might suffer heavy casualties at the outset.

“We would rely on the South Koreans in the initial stages of a war for the ground defense and the ground combat capability,” Adm. Charles R. Larson, commander in chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific, told The Times in a recent interview.

“The United States would provide a lot of things that we do very well--such as indications and warning, intelligence, sophisticated systems, air power . . . Navy and Marine Corps power--as we are then mobilizing and shipping heavier forces and ground forces.”

U.S. jet fighters, including F-15s and F-16s, would be brought in from bases in the Pacific Rim and the United States. The United States would deploy aircraft carriers and surface ships carrying Tomahawk missiles. And it would send in a rapid-deployment corps, composed mainly of light infantry, along with heavy firepower and some armor, from Hawaii and Ft. Lewis, Wash.

The purpose of a strategic air campaign “would be to try and blind them,” says Godwin. “The F-117 (Stealth aircraft) pilots are going to be busy.”


North Korea’s air force has only some substandard Soviet MIG-21s and MIG-29s. Primarily because of fuel shortages, its pilots train for an average of only 20 hours a year. In any conflict, air superiority would go very quickly to the allied forces, U.S. officials say.

U.S. military planners believe that with American reinforcements, the allies would beat back North Korean forces and drive not only toward but past the capital of Pyongyang--stopping, however, well short of the Chinese border.

“You can bet that if war breaks out, American diplomats will be in Beijing saying, ‘We’ll stay well clear of your borders, and here are the rules of pursuit,’ ” says one experienced U.S. defense official.

The American plans, of course, were drawn up with a specific history in mind: that of the first Korean War, which broke out June 25, 1950, when North Korean forces invaded the south and drove deep into South Korean territory. Gen. Douglas MacArthur soon counterattacked, landing American troops behind enemy lines at Inchon and driving toward the Yalu River border between North Korea and China.

Chinese “volunteer” troops then entered the war, pushing U.S. and South Korean forces back and into a bloody, prolonged stalemate. In all, 33,629 Americans died and another 103,284 were wounded.

Much has happened in the last four decades that might change how a new Korean war would be fought. South Korea has developed and prospered in a way that once seemed unimaginable--giving it enormous economic power and, at the same time, tremendous property interests to protect if conflict broke out.


North Korea no longer can rely on Chinese political and economic support, much less hundreds of thousands of troops. The Soviet Union, Pyongyang’s other longtime patron and supplier of cheap oil, does not even exist. And on the allied side, the end of the Cold War has given a new, tremendous war-fighting boost to the United States: Once war broke out, the best American units would go immediately to Korea.

“The deterrent value of the United States is much greater now,” says Douglas Paal, a former National Security Council official for the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations. “There is no alternative front. We don’t have to keep some of our best forces on the North German plain.”

Still, many military analysts believe that a new Korean war could prove just as difficult for American and South Korean forces as the first one.

North Korea has an active force of 1.3 million men, including 1.1 million ground forces, American officials say.

“When you’re talking about ground troops, North Korea is a very formidable force,” says one U.S. official. “They are not Iraqis. They are trained, tough, disciplined and well led.”

Over the last decade, the North Koreans have deployed 60% to 70% of these troops near the Demilitarized Zone and border with South Korea. Only 25% of those forces were in forward locations in the late 1970s. The troops are frequently on alert status. These deployments are the result of a North Korean effort in the late 1970s to shift the balance of its defensive power to the border region and to make it more mechanized.


In recent years, Pyongyang has also substantially changed the kinds of forces and armaments that it maintains in the border area. Military analysts say that the picture is particularly worrisome because the North Koreans have massive artillery emplacements in hardened sites and because they have an estimated 100,000 “commando rangers”--the largest contingent of special forces in the world--ready to knock out South Korean communications, supply and transport networks and the airports and harbors at which American reinforcements would be landed.

Strategists believe that North Korea would launch massive artillery barrages as cover--and then rush across the border with its vastly superior number of ground troops, trying to move enough units around to break through the South Korean lines at some key points and then encircle the defenders.

Once the northern troops broke through the southern lines, they say, the war might be all but over. The north could break up supply lines in the south, take over Seoul and push on through the rest of South Korea. Except for the area around the border, the rest of South Korea is not heavily defended.

The North Korean strategy, says Ronald N. Montaperto of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, “would be to drive far south and wreak heavy destruction and then look for a political settlement.”

“They would try to go farther and faster than last time because they know they aren’t going to get help from the Russians or Chinese. They would hope that the costs of another Inchon invasion would be so heavy that we would sue for peace.”

U.S. analysts say that the South Korean army of about 500,000 men is not in tiptop shape and is badly deployed. The main part of it--12 forward divisions and 30 divisions and a support brigade behind--is laid out in a thin line of defense along the border.


Some U.S. analysts say another crucial factor is that South Korean troops are not trained in the tactic of massing to defend a specific point or, in other cases, falling back to trade space for time, which is critical in this situation. South Korea has few units in reserve to launch any kind of counterattack.

With those weaknesses in mind, these analysts worry, the South Korean army might not be able to hold out for the two full months needed before U.S. reinforcements would finish arriving.

American officials contend that those deficiencies stem from the South Korean belief that the United States provides a strong deterrent to North Korean aggression and that, in the end, U.S. forces would provide enough power to defeat North Korea in a war.

South Korea also has limited supplies of ammunition. It has built few military storage facilities, because its politically powerful farmers have demanded all available flatlands for growing rice. And evacuation would be difficult because a war would cause massive traffic jams.

If war breaks out, says Godwin, “those on the forward edge of the battle area are going to get chewed up. Very badly. The reinforcements will have to come in to take care of absolutely incredible casualties.”

The United States maintains just over 37,000 troops in South Korea. These troops function as a tripwire, to show North Korea that any invasion of South Korea would touch off a war with the United States.


The combined American and South Korean war plan has been updated roughly every 10 years--most recently by RisCassi, who served as the commander of allied forces in Korea until last year.

“RisCassi redid the war plan, and it’s very realistic now,” says one U.S. source who has seen it. “It’s no longer hey-diddle-diddle, we push them back across the border and that’s that. It’s got a lot of blood and gore to it.”

The aim would be initially to contain North Korean forces north of Seoul, and then eventually launch a counterattack to defeat them there and overrun the rest of North Korea. Yet some critics say that this strategy is unrealistic. They fear that the North Korean forces could break through the South Korean lines within a week to 10 days.

Don Snider, chief military analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that the strategy for defending South Korea “is considered to be one of the toughest war plans to execute.”

“It’s the cavalry-to-the-rescue strategy,” says Robert W. Gaskin, a former Pentagon planner. “But the cavalry can’t get there as fast as they think.”

Like its air force, however, North Korea’s army is limited by shortages of fuel.

“Do they have enough petrol, oil and lubricants to drive to Pusan?” Godwin asks. “Or are they stuck with trying to take Seoul and sue for peace?”


North Korea’s economic plight means that as time goes on in a war and American reinforcements arrive, the advantage would increasingly shift to the allies--provided South Korean forces could hold their defensive lines.

By some worst-case scenarios, in even a short war of several weeks, American forces could suffer enormous casualties of up to 20,000 soldiers killed and wounded. The losses of North and South Koreans would be much higher.

“There will be a lot of significant loss of life on both sides,” says Larson. “But certainly our alliance is very capable of winning that war.”