In the aftermath of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided into two sides: the North and the South. With backing from China and the USSR, communist North Korea invaded US-backed South Korea in 1950, triggering the Korean War. After three years of intense combat, an armistice was declared, with the 38th Parallel serving (roughly) as the border between the two sides. A 2.5-mile-wide strip of land, known as the demilitarized zone (DMZ), serves as a neutral buffer zone. On either side of this DMZ, both North and South Korea have a massive force ready to respond to any provocations — the DMZ is the world’s most heavily militarized and dangerous border. Since the armistice was not a peace agreement, the two Koreas are still technically at war, and every once in a while a brief clash breaks out.
Ever since the mid-1970s, the economy of South Korea has vastly outperformed that of the North. While South Korea is now a capitalist economic powerhouse, North Korea has retained its staggeringly inefficient centrally-planned economy, which has stagnated for decades. Furthermore, China’s transition to a more liberal form of governance combined with the collapse of the USSR has deprived North Korea of strong allies, so the North has difficulties exporting its few products and importing vital goods. Furthermore, the repressive Kim regime retains strict control over the country, regulating the movement of people, the content of media, and even citizens’ private conversations. Arbitrary executions, famines, and extreme poverty are just a few of the ills endured by many North Korean citizens.
Since the Northern regime is so brutal and ineffective, many wonder why the United States and South Korea have not simply finished the war and invaded the North. After all, the US has been able to overthrow numerous regimes in the past, most recently the Iraqi government in 2001, without too many issues (at least until insurgents began to undermine the American forces post-invasion). Plus, every year Kim is in power, the North Korean government expands its nuclear capabilities and thus its ability to terrorize other countries. Because of this, some have argued that the time to strike North Korea is now rather than later.
When considering this argument, one should know that a war with North Korea would be extremely costly, both materially and in terms of lives. Here are the reasons why.
North Korea is a nuclear state
One of the most worrying aspects of the North Korean regime is its nuclear weapons program. Despite its backwards economy, North Korea has managed to make significant advances in nuclear technology by diverting a huge percentage of its economic output to weapons programs. North Korea is believed to be in possession of a number of operational warheads — estimated by many to be around 10-20 — and it likely has the technology to mount them on short and medium-range ballistic missiles. Even though North Korea’s nukes are crude, even one of them could cause millions of casualties if it were to reach Seoul or Tokyo. The US, South Korea, and Japan do have missile defense systems such as THAAD, Aegis, and Patriot, which could destroy North Korean missiles before they reach their targets. It is also true that American and South Korean cruise missiles could eliminate many of the North Korean nuclear weapons before they could be launched. However, the possibility of even a few nukes slipping through the cracks is so ghastly that any attack on North Korea would be highly risky.
North Korea has biological and chemical weapons
Even if the US and South Korean militaries were able to eliminate all of North Korea’s nukes, South Korean and Japanese civilians would still face an onslaught of deadly chemical and biological weapons. Unlike their nuclear stockpile, which is small, North Korea has 2,500-5,000 tons of chemical agents and is thought to possess weaponized anthrax and smallpox. South Korean cities, especially those near the border, would likely be showered with these substances in the case of war, inflicting serious casualties. When mounted to a ballistic missile, chemical warheads could even reach Japan.
North Korea has massive conventional firepower
In addition to the aforementioned weapons of mass destruction, North Korea also boasts an extensive arsenal of conventional (explosive-based) weapons. While conventional shells and warheads may not inspire the same fear that nuclear and chemical weapons do, they can be just as deadly when deployed in numbers. North Korea has tens of thousands of artillery pieces and thousands of ballistic missiles, which could bombard South Korea and inflict considerable destruction. After all, Seoul is only 35 miles from the border, and many other large cities such as Paju (400,000+ inhabitants) are a stone’s throw from the North. These cities would be easy targets for a Northern barrage of conventional and chemical weapons in the opening stages of a war. Of course, there are limitations: North Korean missiles and artillery are old, prone to malfunction, and their munitions stockpile is limited. Nevertheless, the prospect of a hundred or so ballistic missiles striking Seoul and thousands of artillery shells raining on border cities is enough to keep American and South Korean strategists up at night.
The North Korean military is huge
There is certainly no doubt that North Korea’s military is acutely inferior to the American and South Korean forces. However, American and South Korean forces would still take heavy casualties in a battle with North Korea. Even though the North is poorly equipped, its army is massive, with over one million men in active duty and 600,000 more in reserve. Plus, the terrain in Korea is mountainous, making a rapid mechanized assault difficult. Even if the Americans and South Koreans were able to inflict ten Northern casualties for every one of their own, there would still be hundreds of thousands of casualties on the American side. A similar scenario played out during the Vietnam War: despite the Americans and their allies taking far fewer losses than the North Vietnamese side, the American public turned sour on the war after seeing the costs pile up. Quite simply, North Korea could “lose” the war in a tactical sense but still force the US to withdraw by causing enough damage to sway public opinion. This is even moreso true for the South Koreans, many of whom have family in the North and who still feel a sense of ethnic connection despite the geopolitical circumstances.
Nobody wants the North to completely implode
Despite all stakeholders recognizing the failures of Kim’s regime, nobody wants to see the North fall apart completely, which would occur if it was invaded. First of all, there would be a humanitarian catastrophe: many of the North’s citizens are already unhealthy and/or under-nourished. In a war scenario, with bombs falling and the North directing all its resources to the military, many would simply starve or die from lack of medical care. Further, after the war’s end, there would be tens of millions of impoverished, under-educated North Koreans in need of medical care, homes, and jobs. Absorbing these refugees would place extreme strain on the economies of China and South Korea and could potentially spark issues similar to those experienced during the relocation of Syrian refugees in Europe. Plus, North Korea itself would need a new government, new infrastructure, etc., which nobody wants to shoulder the bill for. Plus, as mentioned before, many in the South would hate to fight against the Northerners, who they view as their countrymen. The South, like China, would far prefer a peaceful resolution which saves North Korean lives and avoids unnecessary conflict.
China would raise hell
If North Korea had been invaded a few decades ago, China probably would have come to its defense militarily. Now, whether that would occur is less clear. China is clearly fed up with Kim’s regime, as it has frequently criticized the North and placed restrictions on imports and exports. Nevertheless, China would still hate to see the whole Korean Peninsula being an American-aligned state. China would much prefer to quietly reform North Korea from the inside and retain it as a counterweight on the Peninsula.
Of course, this is just a shortlist of the numerous reasons why an invasion of North Korea would be perilous and thus why it has not been attempted. While getting rid of the Kim regime is a goal of most policymakers and military officials, doing so through military action would result in massive civilian casualties on the South Korean side and would drag the US into another costly and deadly war. Unless the North Korean state crumbles from within or a coup occurs, do not expect a change to the Korean Peninsula’s status quo anytime soon.