Christmas or no Christmas, the Korean Peninsula is boiling once again, with threats flying thicker than the winter snow along North Korea's icy Yalu River.
Last week, North Korea threatened a nuclear "holy war" against South Korea. The North Korean "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, has repeatedly vowed to "liberate" South Korea, which he calls an American colony.
Korean tempers are as hot as their beloved national pickled cabbage dish, kimchi.
In South Korea, there is open talk of "liberating" the North.
While a majority of South Koreans favor negotiations and patience in dealing with their difficult northern brothers, many conservatives in South Korea, and particularly so Evangelical Christians, advocate military action against the North.
Military forces in both Koreas, China's northeast, Japan, and Russia's Far East are on high alert. So are US forces in the region.
Chances still are against full scale conflict because both sides have so much to lose. War would be a disaster for all 73 million Koreans. The last Korean War, in the 1950's, killed over two million Korean civilians and left the nation's cities in ruins.
North Korea (DPRK) has a highly disciplined 950,000-man army with millions of trained reservists. The North's strongest arm is artillery: 18,000 heavy guns, mortars, and rocket batteries. Its powerful artillery and large numbers of anti-aircraft guns in part compensates for its lack of air power.
The DPRK's 170mm long-ranged guns and 240mm rocket launchers dug into caves in the steep hills of the Demilitarized Zone could destroy the northern third of South Korea's capitol, Seoul, which is only about 24 miles away.
Another important military asset of North Korea is its formidable special forces of 88,000-men that are tasked with deep penetration attacks and suicide raids into South Korea.
By contrast, North Korea's 3,500 Soviet and Chinese-made 1960's technology tanks are totally obsolete and would be quickly torn to pieces by South Korea's modern tanks and anti-tank helicopter gunships.
The North's air force is even weaker, with only 35 modern MiG-29 fighters and some six hundred 1960's vintage Soviet warplanes, many of them in poor condition. In any war, the North's air force and air bases would soon be destroyed by air and missile strikes from South Korean and US forces.
The North's weakness in the air and in armor, and chronic lack of fuel, mean its ability to move south is limited. Such movement would also expose the flanks, rear and supply lines of an advancing North Korean army to amphibious attack like the brilliant US landing at Inchon during the 1950's Korean War.
Advancing North Korean troops would come under intense air attack from South Korean(ROK) and US warplanes and be forced to fight their way across seven successive lines of coast-to-coast South Korean fortifications. Anchored on the Sea of Japan and Yellow Sea, these defense lines cannot be outflanked.
The only way for the North Korean Army to move south is by an inevitably bloody frontal attack. The Syrians had to fight their way across Israeli fortifications, mine fields, and anti-tank ditches on the Golan Heights in 1973, and suffering very heavy losses from hull-down, dug-in Israeli tanks.
The existence of South Korea's defense works is officially denied by Seoul, but this writer, who specializes in fortifications, has seen them: high earth walls surmounted by platforms for tanks to fire hull down (showing just their turrets); machine gun bunkers with interlocking fire, dense belts of barbed wire, and broad minefields, backed by heavy artillery and rocket batteries.
South Korea's tough army numbers 687,000 with 4 million reservists. I've been on the DMZ with the ROK 2nd Division. As an old soldier and war correspondent, I can say that South Korea's troops are second to none: tough, disciplined, highly trained and well equipped.
South Korea has nearly 1,000 state-of-the-art tanks as well as 1,300 older American ones, and 10,000 guns and mortars. The ROK air force has 491 combat aircraft including 165 modern F-16 fighters and 39 F-15 interceptors, and a large combat helicopter force. The South also has a modern navy that should be able to fight off DPRK naval attacks.
Any war would be joined by the 28,500 US military personnel based in South Korea, US Stealth bombers, F-15's and F-16's from Japan, Okinawa, Guam, Diego Garcia, Hawaii and Alaska. The US 7th Fleet with one or two carrier battle groups would join battle. Follow-on reinforcements would come from the United States.
North Korea's only chance of winning a conflict would be to launch a surprise attack against the two most important US air bases in South Korea, Osan and Kunsan, as well as major South Korean air bases, using its special forces and barrages of missiles, possibly with chemical warheads. The DPRK's commandos are trained to assault enemy airfields from the sea and from elderly AN-2 biplanes that are largely invisible to radar and will crash land on runways, disgorging troops. North Korean commandos are not expected to survive such attacks.
US and South Korean headquarters, communications, and political offices in Seoul and further south will be key targets of commando raids. This writer has been in North Korean tunnels dug deep under the Demilitarized Zone through which a 12,000-man DPRK division can pass in an hour and emerge behind the first ROK defense line behind the DMZ.
North Korea can only win if it swiftly knocks out US air bases on the peninsula and in Japan and Okinawa. Japan would very likely become a major North Korean target as it serves as a major US air and naval base, a logistical hub, and would be the base for incoming US reinforcements.
Pyongyang has even threatened to use nuclear weapons against Japan. The DPRK has some one hundred medium-ranged missiles pointed at Japan, some of which may be nuclear or chemical capable.
The US has repeatedly hinted it is ready to employ tactical nuclear weapons against North Korea, particularly if DPRK forces threaten to break deep into South Korea, or the North uses nuclear weapons against Japan or Okinawa.
Given the North's lack of air power, fuel shortages, and logistical vulnerability, it appears unlikely DPRK forces could advance more than 100 miles south before grinding to a halt.
A US air blitz would devastate North Korea's industry, ports, transport and political targets. But a US ground offensive into North Korea appears unlikely: Pentagon studies estimated a major US ground invasion of the North could cost 250,000 American casualties.
There is a growing danger that US naval and air forces could accidentally clash with Chinese units in the strategic, highly sensitive Yellow Sea to Korea's west, or with Russian air or naval forces just to the north near Vladivostok. China's province of Manchuria, which borders on North Korea and the Yellow Sea, is a highly strategic military zone and has major military industries. China has warned the US to stay out of the Yellow Sea.
If North Korea were defeated in a war and crumbling, Chinese armies might cross the Yalu River and intervene as they did in the 1950's. As this column has long been saying, it is most unlikely China would allow North Korea to fall under South Korean and/or US control.
So the stakes are very high in this Korean Christmas-New Year crisis.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010