Why neither North Korea nor the United States want all-out war

Updated 3:32 AM EDT, Fri June 23, 2017
North Korean soldiers salute while the national anthem is played during a military parade on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Wong Maye-E/AP
North Korean soldiers salute while the national anthem is played during a military parade on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
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Things have been tense on the Korean Peninsula and many North Korea watchers believe the situation is dangerous.

But it hasn’t reached the brink yet, and that’s likely because US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and their respective advisers are aware of the immense cost of the Korean War, which started June 25, 1950.

“If this goes to a military solution, it is going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said at a news conference in May.

The Korean War, which technically never ended, led to the deaths of about 600,000 North Korean and 1 million South Korean civilians, along with hundreds of thousands of troops.

The legacy of the war lives on in North Korea, where it’s still used as a key piece of propaganda for the Kim regime. American fighter jets blanketed the country with about 625,000 tons of bombs on North Korea, killing 20% of the country’s population, according to one estimate.

If the conflict reignited, it could be even more cataclysmic this time around with the specter of nuclear weapons looming.

“The threat of war on the peninsula – major war or a limited war – has been present off and on since the end of the Korean War,” Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told CNN. “Both the United States historically and also North Korea have proved that they can demonstrate restraint, de-escalate a crisis (and) step back from the brink of war … They’re both interested in avoiding a war that would be in nobody’s interest.”

The heart of Seoul

While the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula could escalate quickly, there are a handful of scenarios that could play out, ranging from something as calamitous as nuclear strike to small-scale artillery attacks that do not devolve into all-out war, which happened in 2010.

“Part of the difficulty of discussing something like this is there’s a wide range of possible contingencies that vary widely in terms of the outlook in terms of how damaging they are,” Mount said. “The challenge is to try to control escalation.”

The biggest danger is in densely-populated cities, places like Seoul (urban area population around 9.7 million) or Tokyo (urban area population around 38 million).

Nuclear strikes on those capitals would be catastrophic in terms of loss of life, but an attack using conventional weapons could kill tens of thousands of people too.

“Combat in another Korean War would take place in Seoul’s crowded suburbs. While our war planners estimated that US and South Korean forces would contain the North Korean advance north of Seoul, the price of defense would be heavy,” Ash Carter and William Perry, two former US defense secretaries, wrote in a 2002 op-ed in the Washington Post.

“Thousands of US troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops would be killed, and millions of refugees would crowd the highways. North Korean losses would be even higher. The intensity of combat would be greater than any the world has witnessed since the last Korean War,” the op-ed said.