Ever since Donald Trump ordered the surprise missile attack on Syria last week things have felt a little tense to say the least.
If nothing else, the strike in retaliation to a chemical attack that killed dozens made clear that the US President was prepared to cross that fictitious red line and risk international relations to flex some military muscle.
For many the attack also made the prospect of a military intervention in North Korea a distinct possibility – if the US is prepared to attack a Russia-backed Assad would they risk the same with Kim Jong-un’s secretive state?
Well, the events of the last few days seem to have confirmed that America’s billionaire leader is at least prepared to stare down his rival with a show of strength.
The US now has an armada of battleships off the Korean Peninsula which North Korea has called an act of provocation that could have ‘catastrophic consequences’.
If then we do find ourselves in a situation where the US and North Korea go to war, what would happen? We decided to find out.
Can the US or North Korea just start a war?
Technically, of course either the US or North Korea – or North Korea and South Korea – could just attack each other without warning at any point.
However, if either nation was keen to avoid being in breach of the UN Charter they would need to be able to satisfy the requirements of Article 51 – that it was acting in self-defence.
Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence.if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.
It is fair to say that satisfying this requirement is likely to matter a lot more to the US Government than Pyongyang, which has shown scant regard for rules surrounding the testing of nuclear weapons, and faced sanctions as a result.
UN sanctions on North Korea since 2013
- March 2013 Imposed sanctions after North Korea’s 2013 nuclear test
- March 2016 Imposed further sanctions including inspection of all passing cargo to and from North Korea, prohibition of all weapons trade with the country, additional restrictions on North Korean imports of luxury goods, and expulsion of certain North Korean diplomats suspected of illicit activities
- November 2016 The Security Council strengthens its sanctions regime in response to that country’s September nuclear test
What would happen if North Korea attacked South Korea first?
Tensions in the region are obviously very high and all parties concerned will be closely monitoring military intelligence for even the slightest suggestion that things could get messy.
However, if North Korea was somehow able to fire the first punch on the sly it might be able to cause significant early damage, US military website We Are The Mighty predicts.
It quotes retired army general James Marks who estimates Pyongyang would gain the upper hand for four days at best.
As the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two countries is now heavily defended an assault across there is unlikely.
Instead the North Korean military is likely to strike with artillery and rocket fire from positions on the north slopes og a mountain just cross the border.
The target for much of its 10,000-strong arsenal would probably be Seoul – which is just 35 miles away – and as the artillery positions would be hard to penetrate because of anti-aircraft guns it would take a barrage to stop.
North Korea could also invade with ground troops transported on submarines and could mobilise thousands of ‘sleeper’ agents who are already beyond the South Korean border.
However, despite having a larger military (around 5 million to 3.5 million) the North with a GDP 50 times smaller than its neighbour is able to spend far less on defence and military technology.
As a consequence, many experts believe they will use unconventional military means such as chemical or nuclear weapons.
But what chances do they have of actually succeeding?
Well, even if North Korea get the upper hand, the chances of them ultimately succeeding when up against both South Korean and American military forces is slim.
If no nukes were fired the sheer weight of the forces against them would eventually overwhelm Kim Jong-un’s army.
The US would quickly establish air superiority and once North Korea’s artillery and missile batteries are destroyed it would only take a matter of time with the advanced technology likely proving too much – even for a massive army.
Attacks from the air would also work to cut off key supply routes, allowing military units to make valuable headway and close in on suspected nuclear sites.
However, if nukes are fired, the conflict could be very different.
Ok, so what would happen if North Korea fired nukes?
Despite claims that its missile testing has been to advance its space program, it is widely believed that Kim is developing a nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is thought to have nuclear warheads already, but not more than 10 and in March last year, the dictator announced the country had developed a warhead small enough to fit missiles.
In the event of a rocket being fired it is difficult to know exactly what launch capability Pyongyang has.
For instance, North Koreans have demonstrated they could fire an inter-continental ballistic missile into space and ground tests suggest a warhead could survive re-entry.
But a straightforward, rocket launch would be far easier to prevent than say a multiple-warhead weapon which could fire on multiple locations at once, potentially with dummies to fool air defences.
As for targets, a few years ago, NK News analysed a map seen in the background of a propaganda photo that seemed to show San Diego, Washington D.C, Hawaii and Austin would be primary target,.
Would they make it?
The chances are slim. For starters, the US and others would probably know well in advance that a nuclear strike was happening due to the limited strike options North Korea has at its disposal.
It is not believed that North Korean submarines could get within striking distance of the US mainland meaning the secretive state would have to use a slow-to-assemble stationary launch tower or transporter erector launcher (TEL).
The TEL – basically a mobile truck – would enable North Korea to launch in an hour at best, giving the US and others time to prepare, Rodger Baker, lead North Korea analyst at Stratfor told Vice.
There is also the possibility of whether the US or an ally launches a pre-emptive strike to disable the weapon.
However, even if it doesn’t the missile would have to navigate Japanese Aegis navy ships with defensive missiles before they get anywhere near America..
Once close, the US has some 30-ground-based interceptor missiles at Greely in Alaska and others at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, reports Richmond.
While not fool proof they would provide a significant barrier to any missile ever making it to the US,
What damage would they do?
If the warhead did make it all the way to the US, and exploded over Washington DC for instance, then by 2013 estimates the damage would be catastrophic.
A well-aimed hit could take out most of the important administrative buildings in the US capital, although not go as far as impacting on all residential areas away from it, according to NUKEMAP.
Buildings across a 5km radius would collapse, injuries would be universal and fatalities widespread. Those withign 3km would be severely impacted.
Would the US nuke North Korea?
Donald Trump has his finger on the big red button but whether he actually launches a nuclear strike is another matter altogether.
The US President has signaled he would be prepared to launch a nuclear strike against ISIS but many feels it is extremely unlikely he would do the same against Kim Jong-un.
‘I think that’s highly unlikely because the number of weapons the North Koreans have is extremely limited, and the size of the Korean Peninsula is extremely tiny, and the implications of dropping nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula are fairly large for the long-term reconstruction effort at bare minimum, but also for South Korea,’ Mr Baker told Vice.
What would China do?
One clear indicator of a Chinese reaction to an attack is the 150,000 troops it has moved to the North Korean border to handle any mass exodus of refugees.
In terms of any involvement beyond that it is difficult to say. Trump has said is ready to act with or without China but Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has said the nation would need some time to act.
Last year, the New York Times wrote that it is unlikely China – which is North Korea’s biggest trade partner – will change policy any time soon.
But Mr Baker told Vice that it is possible China may move into the northern part of North Korea ad not provide any additional support to the regime.
If a war does happen and, as many predict, North Korea suffers a damaging defeat, then the research work will only just have begun.
According to a study by the Rand Corporation, a collapse would have very serious consequences and cost potentially trillions to clear up.
‘The immediate objectives of intervention would be to deliver humanitarian aid, stop conflict, demilitarize the military and security services, secure and eliminate WMD, and liberate political prisons before guards execute the prisoners,’ wrote author Bruce Bennett.
‘The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States need to overcome ingrained North Korean propaganda painting them as the enemy and blaming them for all ills in North Korea.
‘The ROK and the United States must change how North Koreans think about unification and their individual prospects after unification.’