It has been several months now since the possibility of actual conflict with North Korea re-entered the public consciousness. Provocative displays of force by the North Korean regime, including ballistic missile tests have drawn serious responses by policymakers and the administration.
Of course, the fiery rhetoric of the president has likely not helped to quell the tensions. Statements such as his intent to “totally destroy” the country, and taunts directed at its leader Kim Jong-un, are just a few sharp examples from the past several weeks.
But the exchange between the US and North Korea has not stopped at name calling. American officials have made overt references to plans to actually execute an attack on North Korea should the need arise. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told top military officials less than a week ago that the United States urged that military leaders should “be ready" with military options for President Donald Trump to deal with North Korea.
With all this build up, one might start to ponder what a kinetic conflict between the US, its allies, and North Korea might look like, what the effects of such a scenario might be, and who would be most affected.
That’s exactly what a recent trip to the Korean Peninsula by Democratic Senator Jack Reed sought to ascertain. Reed is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He visited South Korea last week to speak to top officials of the country and toured the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.
In a statement to reporters following his recent return, Reed related that South Koreans are “confused” and “a little bit shaken” by President Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea.
While the US certainly has an interest in the security situation on the Korean Peninsula - not just for South Korea’s sake, but for that of other allies in the region such as Japan - the US will almost certainly not be the most affected by war if one should erupt.
To put things into a bit of context, the connection the United States maintains with the region is essentially a layover from the Korean War, at the conclusion of which it invested heavily to keep communist infringement at bay in the North. After six decades of gradual build-up, the US military maintains a small army of nearly 30,000 personnel in South Korea, under the command of United States Forces Korea (USFK), a subunit of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM). These men and women made up of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are stationed on a network of a dozen bases scattered throughout the country’s north. This force is meant to be both a security guarantor and a deterrent against North Korean aggression in one of the most tense border regions in the world.
With all of this in mind, it should be understood that the most likely flashpoint of the current feud would be the South Korean border or other targets in the country. This makes sense both from a strategic and logistical perspective. Just because North Korea possess ballistic missiles that could reach other countries does not mean they would jump to use them without some type of initial escalation. Furthermore, it would be infinitely easier for North Korea to initiate some sort of attack across the border along South Korea’s coast in a raid style assault, methods that have been implemented by the North for years.
Trump and other officials may understand the gravity of what's at stake, however, in the eyes of their South Korean allies, talk is cheap. It is South Korea that will likely be the first one to feel the brunt of any consequences that emerge from escalating tensions.
As Senator Reed concluded in his press statement: “I think they [South Korea] are confused, and I think they’re a little bit shaken because they understand that they would be in the line of fire if there’s any contact between the United States and North Korea in terms of a kinetic military operation.”