Although North Korea has openly defied the United Nations' weapons inspectors and has admitting having a secret nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration has made it clear it has no intention of subjecting the communist nation to the kind of military action it is considering against Iraq.
Critics have asked why war against North Korea is not an option for the United States. A Nightline "war game" — in which teams of experts took sides, one team playing the United States, the other North Korea — found that military action on the Korean peninsula could quickly escalate into a full-blown war, with North Korean shells and missiles inflicting massive damage on South Korea and the American troops there, possibly forcing the United States to respond with tactical nuclear weapons.
One of the experts predicted a "symphony of death," with hundreds of thousands or even millions of casualties.
Nightline asked two experts to represent the United States military: retired Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, who commanded the Army's 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea in the early 1990s; and Kurt Campbell, who managed the U.S. military's relationship with North and South Korea during the Clinton administration, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs.
Taking the role of the North Korean regime were two professors at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service: retired Col. Bill Taylor, one of the few Americans to have met with former North Korean President Kim Il-Sung; and Victor Cha, a specialist in Asian affairs who is also an independent consultant to the Department of Defense.
The war game was a simplified exercise intended to sketch out possible scenarios. It did not take into account numerous potentially important factors, including for instance the views of the United States' South Korean or Japanese allies.
U.S. Options: Pinpoint Attacks, Then All-Out War
Nightline first asked Scott and Campbell to present the best military options the United States could use against North Korea.
Campbell recommended moving "initial forces" into the region, then launching pinpoint attacks on specific targets — such as plants where North Korea could turn plutonium into nuclear weapons — and immediately turning to North Korea and the international community for a diplomatic resolution that would prevent further hostilities. The U.S. military, he said, should be prepared to respond if the North Koreans chose to escalate hostilities. "It's a high-risk strategy, but among a lot of bad options, it's probably the best military option," he said.
Gen. Scott was less confident of the possibility of a diplomatic solution. "I recommend you prepare for all-out war, because that is what you're probably going to get," he said. An all-out strike on North Korea would have the following priorities, he said:
1. Eliminating North Korean weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — nuclear, chemical and biological — so they could not be used in retaliation against U.S. and South Korea forces. 2. Doing as much damage as possible to North Korea's conventional military machine, especially its artillery, to reduce the damage it could do to the South Korean capital, Seoul, and the surrounding area. 3. "Decapitating" the regime by stopping North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il from communicating with his forces in the field (WMD and conventional).
Preparing for such an attack would entail amassing naval carrier groups in the area — which would take a minimum of 30 days — and transferring land-based aircraft to bases in South Korea and Japan, according to Scott.
Campbell cautioned that even after a large-scale attack, "the North Koreans will still possess tremendous capabilities to respond and destroy Seoul." Scott said the best thing would be if the North Koreans moved first, "because then they move out of their positions and we have configured our military for years to fight a defensive battle for South Korea."
North Korea Response: Diplomacy or Provocation
Next, Nightline asked Taylor and Cha how North Korea might respond to a massive buildup of U.S. ships and war planes in the region, and the threat of attack in the event of any suspicious plutonium movements.
Taylor said the North Korean regime's first reaction would be diplomatic: to ask its historical allies China and Russia to put pressure on the United States to back off from unilateral military action. He suggested China could heighten its military readiness across the sea from Taiwan.
Cha said the North Koreans would likely match the U.S. mobilization, saying they were doing so in response to the Americans. Then, he said, judging from "North Korean negotiating behavior" in the past, the North would call the Americans' bluff and move some plutonium to escalate tension and "put the ball back in the United States' court."
Attack Across the DMZ
Assuming that the United States responded to the plutonium movement with pinpoint attacks on one or more of its nuclear facilities, Taylor said North Korea would respond with "overwhelming strikes," using long-range artillery and multiple-rocket launchers armed with chemical and biological weapons to turn Seoul into what the official North Korean media have been calling "a sea of fire."
Taylor said the North Koreans, believing the Americans would not tolerate high losses, would aim to immediately "give them large numbers of casualties like they've never seen before."
Cha agreed that North Korea, if attacked by U.S. strikes, would respond with a massive artillery attack on Seoul. "The way the balance of forces are on the Korean peninsula, the North Koreans are in a 'use or lose' situation. In other words, they have to use them first or they're going to lose them in battle," he said. He also said the North Koreans might try to stop the flow of U.S. reinforcements by using long-range missiles to knock out U.S. facilities in Japan.
Possibility of U.S. Nuclear Attack Seen
If North Korea waged an all-out attack on the South, Scott said it would be "a war the likes of which we haven't seen since World War II, if then." North Korea has a substantial air force and an army of more than one million men, with reserves of about four and a half million.
If the North Koreans used biological and chemical weapons against U.S. troops or South Korean targets, Scott said he would advise the U.S. president to respond with tactical nuclear weapons, provided there were suitable targets. Campbell said he would recommend a last-minute diplomatic appeal to China and Russia before using nuclear weapons.
Would the North Back Down?
Faced with the prospect of a U.S. tactical nuclear attack, Taylor predicted that the North Korean regime would realize it was facing its demise and ask Russia and China to help negotiate a cease-fire. "I think there would be another armistice of some sort to end what would look like a holocaust, for crying out loud," he said.
All of the experts predicted that the United States and its allies would defeat North Korea militarily. "We will win the war, but it will not be an easy war to fight," said Campbell. He said the first couple of weeks of war could be "a horrific symphony of death," with hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of casualties.
Taylor estimated that around 500,000 South Korean troops and civilians would die in the event of an all-out war with the North, as well as tens of thousands of U.S. troops. On the North Korean side, he said the casualties could be as high as a million and half dead.
Nightline asked a fifth expert, a former analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, with 20 years' experience on the Korean peninsula, to comment on the outcome of the war game. He firmly believed that China would not stand by, but enter the conflict on the North Korean side. And he said the casualties from a North Korean attack over the DMZ would be much higher, with closer to five million South Koreans and Americans dead in the first few days.
This report originally aired on Nightline Jan. 10, 2003.