Despite threats, risks temper Korea war tensions

Associated Press
FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2013 file photo, an unidentified U.S. Marine from 3-Marine Expeditionary Force 1st Battalion from Kaneho Bay, Hawaii, aims his gun during a joint military winter exercise with their South Korean counterparts in Pyeongchang, east of Seoul, South Korea. As tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, one thing remains certain: All sides have good reason to avoid an all-out war. The last one, six decades ago, killed an estimated 4 million people.  (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File)
.

View gallery

TOKYO (AP) — As tensions rise on the Korean Peninsula, one thing remains certain: All sides have good reason to avoid an all-out war. The last one, six decades ago, killed an estimated 4 million people.

A war would be suicidal for North Korea, which cannot expect to defeat the United States and successfully overrun South Korea. War would be horrific for the other side as well. South Korea could suffer staggering casualties. The U.S. would face a destabilized major ally, possible but unlikely nuclear or chemical weapons attacks on its forward-positioned bases, and dramatically increased tensions with North Korea's neighbor and Korean War ally, China.

Here's a look at the precarious balance of power that has kept the Korean Peninsula so close to conflict since the three-year war ended in 1953, and some of the strategic calculus behind why, despite the shrill rhetoric and seemingly reckless saber-rattling, leaders on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone have carefully avoided going back over the brink.

___

THE SEA OF FIRE

Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea has an ace in the hole. Most experts believe its claims to have enough conventional firepower from its artillery units to devastate the greater Seoul area, South Korea's bustling capital of 24 million. Such an attack would cause severe casualties — often estimated in the hundreds of thousands — in a very short period of time.

Many of these artillery batteries are already in place, dug in and very effectively camouflaged, which means that U.S. and South Korean forces cannot count on being able to take them out before they strike. Experts believe about 60 percent of North Korea's military assets are positioned relatively close to the Demilitarized Zone separating the countries.

North Korea's most threatening weapons are its 170 mm Koksan artillery guns, which are 14 meters long and can shoot conventional mortar ammunition 40 kilometers (25 miles). That's not quite enough to reach Seoul, which is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the DMZ. But if they use rocket-assisted projectiles, the range increases to about 60 kilometers (37 miles). Chemical weapons fired from these guns could cause even greater mayhem.

North Korea experts Victor Cha and David Kang posted on the website of Foreign Policy magazine late last month that the North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict.

Even so, not everyone believes North Korea could make good on its "sea of fire" threats. Security expert Roger Cavazos, a former U.S. Army officer, wrote in a report for the Nautilus Institute last year that, among other things, North Korea's big guns have a high rate of firing duds, pose more of a threat to Seoul's less populated outer suburbs, and would be vulnerable to counterattack as soon as they start firing and reveal their location.

"North Korea occasionally threatens to "turn Seoul into a Sea of Fire," he wrote. "But can North Korea really do this? ... The short answer is they can't; but they can kill many tens of thousands of people, start a larger war and cause a tremendous amount of damage before ultimately losing their regime."

___

FIRST STRIKES, PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKES

This is what both sides say concerns them the most.

North Korea says it is developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as a deterrent to keep the United States or South Korea from attacking it first. The reasoning is that Washington will not launch a pre-emptive strike if North Korea has a good chance of getting off an immediate — and devastating — response of its own.

Along with its artillery aimed at Seoul and other targets in South Korea, North Korea is developing the capacity to deploy missiles that are mobile, thus easier to move or hide. North Korea already has Rodong missiles that have — on paper at least — a range of about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles), enough to reach several U.S. military bases in Japan. Along with 28,000 troops in South Korea, the U.S. has 50,000 troops based in Japan.

North Korea is not believed to be capable of making a nuclear weapon small enough to fit on a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States. But physicist David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, believes it may be capable of mounting nuclear warheads on Rodongs. In any case, Pyongyang is continuing to pursue advancements, apparently out of the belief that it needs nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the U.S. to have a credible deterrent.

The United States rejects the North's claim that such a deterrent is necessary, saying it does not intend to launch pre-emptive strikes against North Korea. At the same time, Washington has made it clear that it could.

During ongoing Foal Eagle military maneuvers in South Korea, two U.S. B-2 strategic stealth bombers, flying from their base in Missouri, conducted a mock bombing run on a South Korean range. The B-2 is capable of carrying nuclear weapons, precision bombs that could take out specific targets such as North Korean government buildings, and massive conventional bombs designed to penetrate deep into the ground to destroy North Korean tunnels and dug-in military positions. One big problem, however, is determining where the targets are.

Amid heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program in 1994, President Bill Clinton reportedly considered a pre-emptive strike, but decided the risks were too high.

___

CHINA'S DILEMMA

Without China, North Korea wouldn't exist. The Chinese fought alongside the North Koreans in the Korean War and have propped up Pyongyang with economic aid ever since.

Beijing has grown frustrated with Pyongyang, especially over its nuclear program. China and the U.S. worked together in drafting a U.N. resolution punishing the North for its Feb. 12 nuclear test.

But China still has valid reasons not to want the regime to suddenly collapse.

War in Korea would likely spark a massive exodus of North Korean civilians along its porous 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border, which in turn could lead to a humanitarian crisis or unrest that the Chinese government would have to deal with. The fall of North Korea could pave the way for the United States to establish military bases closer to Chinese territory, or the creation of a unified Korea over which Beijing might have less influence.

China, the world's second-largest economy, also has significant trade with South Korea and the United States. Turmoil on the Korean Peninsula would harm the economies of all three countries.

Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security and a senior State Department official during the George W. Bush administration, said Beijing is helping set up back-channel negotiations with North Korea to ease the tensions. But he warned that the U.S. isn't likely to win China over as a reliable partner against North Korea beyond the current flare-up.

"There are limits to how far China and the U.S. have coincidental interests with regard to North Korea," he said.

View Comments (428)

Recommended for You

  • Luggage piece found on French island near possible MH370 debris

    Part of a bag was found Thursday on the French Indian Ocean island of La Reunion not far from plane debris which has fuelled speculation it may be from missing flight MH370. "The piece of luggage was here since yesterday but nobody really paid attention," said Johnny Begue, a member of a local…

    AFP
  • Chicago man cleared after 17 years in prison shot dead

    CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago man who served 17 years in prison for murder before being cleared of the crime has been shot and killed almost three years after being released from prison, police said Wednesday.

    Associated Press
  • Turkey onslaught on Kurds, after IS attack, fuels anger

    DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (AP) — Just when it seemed Turkey was getting serious about the fight against IS, it has turned its military focus to pounding its old foe: the Kurdish rebels.

    Associated Press55 mins ago
  • Family Pet-Sitter Helps Herself To Homeowner's Possessions

    DEAR ABBY: A trusted and beloved family member who takes care of my cats -- and therefore has a key to my house -- has been stealing things like cleaning supplies, knickknacks, family pictures, etc. Most of them have little monetary value. But imagine my surprise when I spotted some of my missing…

    Dear Abby
  • Eight family members decapitated in north Mexico

    Eight people from the same family, including two minors, were kidnapped by masked gunmen and their decapitated bodies were found days later in northern Mexico, authorities said Wednesday. The bodies were found after a ninth member of the Martinez family escaped Sunday's abduction near Casa Quemada,…

    AFP
  • Play

    Body cam footage from Cincinnati shooting contradicts official story

    A University of Cincinnati police officer has been indicted for murder after body camera footage contradicted his official story outlining the events that led to the shooting death of unarmed Cincinnati driver Samuel Dubose.

    Reuters Videos
  • Russia reassures Israel over Iran nuclear deal

    Russian President Vladimir Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday that the deal on Iran's nuclear program would improve security in the Middle East and guaranteed that Tehran would not acquire nuclear arms. Israel plans to lobby the U.S. Congress not to approve the…

    Reuters
  • Dashcam catches off-duty cop threatening to put 'hole in head' of driver

    Technically Incorrect: A Massachusetts driver makes a wrong turn. What happens next, all filmed on his dashcam, has led to an investigation. And yes, it's now on YouTube.

    CNET
  • Hidden Security Cameras Are Shocking Surprise For Daughter

    DEAR ABBY: I'm a 19-year-old woman in college who still lives with my parents. I found out something several weeks ago that's bothering me, and I need advice badly. Years ago, after a robbery, my parents installed security cameras outside our house. I knew about them because they were visible. But…

    Dear Abby
  • Jon Stewart signing off 'Daily Show' fake newscast for real

    NEW YORK (AP) — After more than 16 years and nearly 2,600 telecasts, Jon Stewart can feel proud of his scads of Emmys and his pair of Peabody Awards, his cultural gravitas (he hung with the Prez, both on and off the air!), even his reprobate status at Fox News.

    Associated Press44 mins ago
  • View

    Creeping vines, abandoned village (20 photos)

    Just a handful of people still live in a village on Shengshan Island east of Shanghai that was once home to more than 2,000 fishermen. Every day hundreds of tourists visit Houtouwan, making their way on narrow footpaths past tumbledown houses overtaken by vegetation. The remote village, on one of…

    Yahoo News
  • Colorado theater shooter's dad saw wide-eyed smirk before

    CENTENNIAL, Colo. (AP) — James Holmes came home on winter break from graduate school looking haggard and making odd facial expressions, but his father didn't suspect at the time that he was descending into mental illness.

    Associated Press
  • Taliban disavows Afghan peace talks after leader declared dead

    By Kay Johnson KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban's official spokesman disavowed peace talks with the Afghan government on Thursday, throwing fledgling efforts to negotiate an end to 14 years of war into disarray. The statement came a day after the Afghan government said that Mullah Omar, the elusive…

    Reuters
  • Police Officer Involved in Deadly Cincinnati Shooting of Samuel DuBose Indicted for Murder, Dismissed from Force

    "I'm treating him like a murderer," prosecutor Joseph Deters said during a news conference when describing the warrant out for a police officer who killed Samuel DuBose, 43, earlier this month. Footage released today from a police officer's body cam lasts about 10 minutes and shows the shooting.…

    ABC News
  • Killer deal: Amazon will pay you $10 to buy a $30 Google Chromecast

    Google’s little Chromecast dongle is pretty awesome. The device plugs into the HDMI port on any HDTV or monitor and instantly gives users access to movies, TV shows, videos, music, photos and more that can be streamed from any Android device. Best of all, perhaps, the Chromecast is wonderfully…

    BGR News
  • Internet mauls dentist accused of illegal kill of popular lion

    Technically Incorrect: Walter Palmer, a dentist in Minnesota, has his Yelp entry attacked by those not fond of his allegedly illegal killing of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe.

    CNET
  • Goat's head nearly severed in brutal knife attack in Idaho

    A small goat was nearly decapitated and another goat died from a "heinous" knife attack on the animals in a fenced and locked site where they had been placed to graze on weeds in northern Idaho, a police spokeswoman said on Wednesday. A third goat is being treated for a knife wound in its back from…

    Reuters
  • Teens' 6 days adrift verge on limits for survival at sea

    TEQUESTA, Fla. (AP) — Crews pushed the limits of an ever-expanding search zone Wednesday for two teens missing at sea and potentially nearing the boundaries of human survival.

    Associated Press