Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked recently that a war with North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” No kidding. “Tragic” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors that would flow from such a conflict.
The Korean peninsula, all 85,270 square miles of it, is about the size of Idaho. It contains more soldiers (2.8 million, not counting reserves) and armaments (nearly 6,000 tanks, 31,000 artillery pieces, and 1,134 combat aircraft) than any other place on the planet. The armies of North and South Korea face each other across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, and Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a mere 35 miles away as the artillery shell flies. More than 25 million people inhabit that city’s greater metropolitan area, home to about half of South Korea’s population. Unsurprisingly, untold numbers of North Korean missiles and artillery pieces are trained on that city. Once the guns started firing, thousands of its denizens would undoubtedly die within hours. Of course, North Koreans, too, would be caught in an almost instant maelstrom of death.
And the war wouldn’t be a bilateral affair. South Korea hosts 28,500 American troops. In addition, there are some 200,000 American civilians in the country, most of them in Seoul. Many in both categories could be killed by North Korean attacks and the United States would, in turn, hit multiple targets in that country. Pyongyang might retaliate by firing missiles at Japan, where 39,000 American troops are stationed, concentrating on the network of American bases and command centers there, especially the US Services Headquarters at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo.
And that’s without even considering the possible use of nuclear weapons. If anything, Mattis’s description is an understatement. And don’t assume that the danger of a Korean conflagration has passed now that President Trump has become trapped in the latest set of political scandals to plague his administration. Quite the opposite: A clash between North Korea and the United States might have become more probable precisely because the president is politically besieged.
Trump wouldn’t be the first leader, confronted with trouble at home, to trigger a crisis abroad and then appeal for unity and paint critics as unpatriotic. Keep in mind, after all, that this is the man who has already warned of “a major, major war” with North Korea.