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News Analysis: In North Korea, ‘Surgical Strike’ Could Spin Into ‘Worst Kind of Fighting’

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North and South Korea, separated by the world’s most heavily armed border, have had more than half a century to prepare for a resumption of the war that was suspended in 1953. While the North’s weaponry is less advanced, the South suffers a distinct geographical disadvantage: Nearly half its population lives within 50 miles of the Demilitarized Zone, including the 10 million people in Seoul, its capital.

“You have this massive agglomeration of everything that is important in South Korea — government, business and the huge population — and all of it is in this gigantic megalopolis that starts 30 miles from the border and ends 70 miles from the border,” said Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea. “In terms of national security, it’s just nuts.”

North Korea has positioned as many as 8,000 artillery cannons and rocket launchers on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, analysts say, an arsenal capable of raining up to 300,000 rounds on the South in the first hour of a counterattack. That means it can inflict tremendous damage without resorting to weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Kim could order a limited response, by hitting a base near the Demilitarized Zone, for example, and then pausing before doing more. But most analysts expect the North would escalate quickly if attacked, to inflict as much damage as possible in case the United States and South Korea were preparing an invasion.

“North Korea knows it is the end game and will not go down without a fight,” said Jeffrey W. Hornung of the RAND Corporation, adding, “I think it is going to be a barrage.”

The North has often threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” but the vast majority of its artillery has a range of three to six miles and cannot reach the city, analysts say.

The North has deployed at least three systems, though, that can reach the Seoul metropolitan area: Koksan 170-millimeter guns and 240-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers capable of hitting the northern suburbs and parts of the city, and 300-millimeter multiple-rocket launchers, which may be able to hit targets beyond Seoul.

There are perhaps 1,000 such weapons near the Demilitarized Zone, many hidden in caves, tunnels and bunkers. But under a traditional artillery strategy, the North would not fire them all at once. Instead, it would hold some in reserve to avoid giving their positions away and to conserve munitions.

How much damage an initial attack would inflict depends on how many are used and on how much of the ordnance explodes. In 2010, North Korean forces fired about 170 shells at an island in the South, killing two civilians and two soldiers. Analysts later concluded that about 25 percent of the North’s shells failed to detonate.

A study published by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in 2012 accounting for these and other factors such as population density concluded that the initial hours of an artillery barrage by the North focused on military targets would result in nearly 3,000 fatalities, while one targeting civilians would kill nearly 30,000 people.

The North could compound the damage by also firing ballistic missiles at Seoul. But Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a North Korea expert at AllSource Analysis, a defense intelligence consultancy, said it was more likely to use missiles to target military installations, including American bases in Japan.

Source: NYT > World

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