North Korea: The cost of conflict
By Andrew Demaria
(CNN) -- When U.S. President George W. Bush met with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung last October, he was reportedly taken aback by a horrific scenario.
Any conflict with North Korea, Bush was warned, would wreak enormous casualties in South Korea.
North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces and hundreds of missiles within striking range of Seoul, the South Korean capital that is home to more than 10 million people and many of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.
The potential damage and casualties would be unthinkable, the U.S. president was told.
With Seoul less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea, U.S. military planners have had a difficult task in constructing a blueprint for any possible conflict with Pyongyang.
A simple looks at the numbers shows that any military campaign against North Korea would be a grim and daunting prospect.
At more than a million men under arms, North Korea's army is one of the largest in the world.
A massive seventy percent of this force is stationed within 150 km of the border, equipped with an estimated 8,000 artillery units and over 1,000 tanks.
Much of it is well-fortified, underground or bunkered down. Added to that are hundreds of rocket launchers, capable of delivering chemical payloads.
Elsewhere, it has over 500 combat aircraft, 200 helicopters and dozens of submarines among its arsenal and a total military budget expenditure of over $5 billion annually -- equal to a little over 30 percent of North Korea's gross domestic product, according to CIA figures.
But with the North Korean economy in dire straits, doubt exists over the war-worthiness of its defenses and its true military capability.
Though North Korea has made noises it has made no plans to attack the South, rather its beef is with America, analysts believe that in the event of war the North would almost certainly strike southwards.
The initial onslaught would begin with a massive barrage of artillery, missiles and rockets combined with the extensive use of Special Forces soldiers, U.S. assessments indicate.
North Korea also possesses several hundred Scud-variant missiles that can also carry chemical weapons that could easily reach South Korean targets.
It also has around 100 longer-range No Dong missiles capable of hitting Japan and is working on another missile capable of striking the continental United States.
While chemical weapons are believed to be at the forefront of any North Korean missile or artillery strike, a major fear is Pyongyang's nuclear capability and its willingness to employ it.
The CIA thinks North Korea has enough material to have constructed one or two crude nuclear bombs though a method of delivery is unknown.
Add to the equation the ruthlessness of Kim Jong Il's forces and harsh terrain, and a conflict with North Korea proves a difficult vision to entertain.
When the U.S. drew up plans for a possible military action against North Korea in 1993 -- again over its suspected nuclear weapons program -- a Pentagon estimate suggested four months of high-intensity combat would be required, using more than 600,000 South Korean troops and half a million U.S. reinforcements to the personnel already stationed in South Korea.
In 1994, advisers to then President Bill Clinton predicted 52,000 U.S. casualties in the first 90 days of combat alone, Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter, wrote in his book The Two Koreas.
To put that figure in perspective, 55,000 U.S. military personnel were killed in the 1950-53 Korean War, and about 58,000 in the 1957-75 Vietnam War.
Some estimates went as far as forecasting a million casualties, not to mention economic damages and war-related costs that ran into trillions of dollars.
Now, the casualty estimates are higher, with North Korea's massive firepower moving closer to U.S. and South Korean forces stationed on the border.
To wage a campaign against North Korea would require hundreds of thousands of extra U.S. troops.
That's a tough demand -- despite Washington's claims to be able to fight two separate conflicts simultaneously -- given the military build up in the Persian Gulf and ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
Lack of options
This lack of military options is at the forefront in Washington's pursuit of diplomatic efforts in trying to resolve the current nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.
The U.S. has categorically said it has no intentions of taking any military action against North Korea.
For its part, Pyongyang has been seeking a non-aggression treaty from Washington -- a pledge from the U.S. not to attack.
Any strike, no matter how covert or pin-point should the U.S. choose to hit one of North Korea's nuclear facilities runs the risk of pushing the standoff into a full-scale war.
On Sunday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice rejected comments from South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun who said some officials in Washington were talking about striking North Korea.
Bush decided for diplomacy over force "at the very beginning" of the confrontation with North Korea, Rice said.
Roh has since backpedaled from the remarks, saying he had been misunderstood and was referring instead to media accounts of Washington's policy towards the situation.
The president-elect added he was "well aware" the U.S. had no intentions to attack the North.
Roh, a backer of his predecessors so-called 'Sunshine Policy' of engagement with Pyongyang, is no doubt also well aware of the consequences of any conflict.
The frightening image of a smoldering Seoul, and a Korean Peninsula once again engulfed by war, will be weighing heavily on his mind.