President Trump has hinted at the possibility of military action against North Korea, but any U.S. strike is likely to rapidly escalate into an all-out war.
A full-scale conflict with North Korea would cause mass casualties, even in the best-case scenario.
A U.S.-North Korean war could lead to millions of deaths, a refugee crisis and long-term instability.
A picture released on Dec. 13, 2017 by North Korea’s state news agency shows Kim Jong Un at a conference in Pyongyang. (AFP/Getty Images)
First, A Rapid Escalation
Analysts have looked at a number of possible scenarios for how a war between the U.S. and North Korea would play out.
Most likely, hostilities would start small, but quickly become difficult to rein in. For example,North Korea could retaliate after the U.S. shoots down a missile test or because of some kind of misunderstanding around a perceived American military move.
Experts say that if the U.S. were to launch an initial strike ― say, targeting a North Korean missile site ― Pyongyang could easily interpret it as the start of something larger.
“More likely a limited strike would not stay limited and would quickly escalate. Everything I’ve read about North Korean military doctrine and way of thinking indicates they would fight back fiercely and would regard even a so-called limited strike as the first salvo of the invasion that they’ve been predicting for years,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme.
A national meeting at North Korea’s People’s Palace of Culture, released by North Korea’s state news agency on Dec. 25, 2017. (KCNA KCNA / Reuters)
Threats To U.S. Cities
North Korea could also potentially launch intercontinental ballistic missiles against the U.S. mainland, either in an immediate strike or after threatening cities like New York and Washington with a strike to prevent further American military action.
Analysts’ current assessments of North Korea’s missile and nuclear capability is that the country could reach most of the mainland United States with its intercontinental ballistic missiles and potentially be able to target major American cities.
Although there is debate among missile experts over how accurately North Korea could deliver a nuclear warhead to the U.S. and whether such a weapon would survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the North Korean military has shown itself to be increasingly proficient at conducting successful tests and is continually advancing its missile technology. It’s possible that Pyongyang could already hit cities like New York, Washington and Los Angeles with nuclear weapons.
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.’ data-reactid=”89″>“It’s so horrible that people don’t really ever want to deal with what it would really look like. We pretend that there’s a flash and everyone’s dead, but that’s not what happens,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear policy expert at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
“There would be survivors for days trying to make their way out of the rubble and back home, dying of radiation poisoning,” he said.
To try and defend against missile attacks, the U.S. has spent decades investing billions into developing and testing missile defense systems that could knock missiles out of the sky before they reach populated areas. But missile defense is an extremely difficult endeavor that experts liken to hitting a bullet with a bullet, and tests so far have proven it’s not guaranteed to work.
“People think it ought to work, because it exists and we spent tens of billions of dollars on it, but it hasn’t been shown to be reliable or to work in real-world conditions,” said Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“I would not count on it being a good defense, that’s not the way you should think about it,” she added.