Once again, North Korea is threatening to reduce South Korea “to ashes” – what’s more, “by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.” A tense and nervous world is wondering what to do.
I mentioned this when I spoke tonight with Adam Johnson, author The Orphan Master’s Son, an acclaimed novel about North Korea.
He exploded into easy laughter. “They do that all the time!” The usual claim is that they can level Seoul in 30 minutes, he said.
“The scary thing is, they can actually do that,” he said. “Everybody talks about the nuclear dimension, but there’s no way they can get a bomb anywhere. All modern missiles depend on power” – and power is one thing North Korea hasn’t got. It can’t even supply its citizens with electricity at night.
What they do have, however, is 1950s and 1960s artillery – outdated, pokey, but lots of it. Big barrels jutting up from the ground and pointing into the air, all along the border. “It can’t be stopped, and it’s presently aimed toward Seoul,” he said. Seoul is within easy firing range.
I wondered if what he said was really true – so I did a little online poking around, and found this article from Popular Mechanics in 2010 – I know, I know, it’s two years old. But what do two years matter when you are dealing with weaponry from the 1950s and 1960s?
First, there’s the unfortunate geography—the opponents’ capitals are just 120 miles apart, with Seoul within 35 miles of the border. The numbers only get worse, with estimates of as many as 13,000 artillery pieces positioned along that border, many of them within range and presumably aimed directly at Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities. Factor in the rate of fire of all those suspected artillery batteries, and throw in the potential launch of hundreds of missiles, and it’s easy to conclude that if North Korea is pushed hard enough, the result could be, as the New York Times put it yesterday, “the destruction of Seoul.”
The more common term for the potential fate of the South Korean capital, casually dropped on recent radio and television news reports, as well as in two separate AOL news op-eds from earlier this year, is that it would be “flattened.” Analysis from Time magazine in 2003 went so far as to gauge how long this would take: “Its conventional artillery capability would allow North Korea to flatten Seoul in the first half-hour of any confrontation.”
However, actually flattening a city is not as easy as it sounds:
“Artillery is not that lethal,” says Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is a national security analyst for ABC News. “It takes a long time for it to produce the densities of fire to go beyond terrorism and harassment.” Even in a worst-case scenario, where both U.S. and South Korean forces are somehow paralyzed or otherwise engaged, and North Korea fires its 170mm artillery batteries and 240mm rocket launchers with total impunity, the grim reality wouldn’t live up to the hype. Buildings would be perforated, fires would inevitably rage and an unknown number of people would die. Seoul would be under siege—but it wouldn’t be flattened, destroyed or leveled.
Here’s the kicker:
If this sounds like squabbling over semantics, it is. But semantics and language matter [italics mine]. The casual, and largely unsupported references to Seoul’s potential flattening punctuates the notion that [the now-deceased] Kim Jong Il is holding a city hostage. It recasts a complex strategic vulnerability as a cartoon: an entire city facing a perpetual firing squad. It also ignores physical laws, and the realities of modern warfare.
Last month, Adam told me, “In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it’s a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it’s just a message.” So what’s the message here?
“Who knows what it means?” he said, but added, “It’s a message to bolster the regime of Kim Jong Un. It’s sending a message to millions in North Korea.”