North Korea’s Artillery Could Inflict 200,000 Casualties In Just One Hour
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Think 200,000 casualties in one hour. That’s 3,333 people killed or wounded per minute, or about 55 people per second.
That’s not body count from a nuclear bomb or the butcher’s bill from a massive clash of armies. It’s the potential human toll if North Korea’s immense arsenal of artillery were fired at South Korea, according to a new study by U.S. think tank RAND Corp.
Instead of assuming that North Korea would launch a massive barrage as part of an all-out war between North Korea and the combined Republic of Korea (ROK) and U.S. forces, RAND examined various scenarios in which Pyongyang used artillery as a psychological tool.
“We assessed how North Korea might use their artillery as terror weapons,” RAND researcher Timothy Bonds tells me.
Should hostilities escalate on the Korean peninsula, the North has a problem. “The truth is that the North Korean military is not adequate for invading South Korea,” says Bonds. “They cannot maintain an offensive for very long and their forces would be very vulnerable to an air and ground attack.”
However, North Korea has another option: the 5,700 long- and medium-range howitzers and multiple rocket launchers along the 160-mile Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. These weapons are heavily fortified, including tunnels that allow the guns to emerge to shoot a few quick rounds and then duck inside before enemy aircraft and artillery can destroy them.
Equally worrying is that many North Korean guns are within range of Seoul, the densely populated South Korean capital with almost 10 million residents in the city and 25 million with the greater metropolitan area. North Korea has famously threatened to use its artillery to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” since the 1990s, should war erupt between with South Korea and its ally the United States.
What if North Korea did use its artillery arsenal to send a bloody message to its enemies during a crisis? RAND modeled five different cases, each varying in scale and intensity.
Scenario 1. A focused strike against a key economic target – manufacturer LG’s giant P10 electronics manufacturing plant. Just 12 medium-range guns and multiple rocket launchers firing 210 rounds in five minutes would inflict 8,550 killed and wounded, plus nearly that number in psychologically traumatized victims.
Scenario 2. A one-minute artillery barrage by 864 guns across the entire DMZ 4,500 casualties, plus 41,000 traumatized victims.
Scenario 3. North Korea uses 54 240-millimeter multiple rocket launchers – which can fire multiple rockets simultaneously – to fire a one-minute barrage on downtown Seoul. Those 1,188 rockets inflict 18,350 killed and wounded, and another 169,000 traumatized.
Scenario 4. A massive artillery barrage from 5,700 artillery pieces, firing 385,000 rounds in one hour. The estimated toll would be 205,600 physical casualties, and 1.9 million victims traumatized.
Scenario 5. The “Sea of Fire” scenario simulates North Korea’s threat to turn Seoul into a flaming ruin. Some 324 heavy howitzers and rocket launchers plaster Seoul with 14,000 rounds in one hour. The toll would be 130,000 casualties, plus 1.2 million people traumatized.
Evacuating millions of people to escape the bombardment would be difficult. “Because DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] shelling could kill many thousands in just an hour, with little warning, it would be difficult for the ROK and the United States, once the bombardment had begun, to halt it, or otherwise protect the ROK population, before it could do very serious harm,” RAND warns.
While there has been no shortage of studies regarding North Korea’s artillery firepower, RAND examined artillery as a tool of psychological coercion. “Past analyses have mostly looked at North Korea using artillery as part of a military campaign,” Bonds says. “To be effective against military targets, the North Koreans would need to mass fires, which makes their artillery pieces vulnerable to South Korean or U.S. airstrikes. They would also need to aim their fires to be effective, which takes time and multiple volleys.”
But using artillery as a terror weapon, rather than a purely military instrument, offers North Korea more flexibility. “Given the increasing South Korean population density close to the DMZ and aiming would be easy: point south and short-range artillery would hit a South Korean factory, town or city along the DMZ,” says Bonds. “Long-range artillery pointed south would eventually hit somewhere in the Seoul metropolitan area. And the artillery would only need to be exposed long enough to fire a shell or two or launch a volley of rockets. After they fire, they can return to their hardened underground bunker and shut the blast doors.”
This would put South Korea and America in a terrible bind. Air and artillery strikes would not be sufficient to destroy the North Korean artillery. A ground invasion of North Korea would be a nightmare, and would also raise the specter that a desperate North Korean regime would resort to nuclear weapons. “While the casualties such an [artillery] attack could cause would be terrible, they would still pale in comparison with the casualties that could result from a nuclear attack against Seoul or other ROK cities, should the conflict continue to escalate,” the RAND study notes.
So what’s the best solution? Avoid getting into a war in the first place. “It is in the interests of all actors concerned to deescalate as quickly as possible once a provocation cycle starts and avoid the conditions that would lead to a military exchange in firepower from any of the sides,” RAND concludes. “If such an exchange occurs, the results will be highly costly and bloody.”
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