[Column] The Costs of War with North Korea

Posted on : 2017-12-17 11:50 KST Modified on : 2017-12-17 11:50 KST
John Feffer
John Feffer

The Iraq War was a tremendous foreign policy blunder by the United States. But at the time of the invasion, few Americans understood the magnitude of the mistake.

The George W. Bush administration thought that it would be a quick war that would cost around $50 billion. Based on these estimates, Congress authorized the use of military force. Roughly seven out of ten Americans supported the war.

As it turned out, the Iraq War was an extraordinarily costly mistake. It claimed the lives of over 4,500 American soldiers and at least 125,000 Iraq civilians. And the economic cost of the war exceeded $3 trillion, according to the economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes.

In part because of these costs – and the inability of the United States to build a stable, peaceful Iraq – U.S. public opinion shifted by 2008. By that time, a majority of the Senate believed the war had been a mistake, and so did a number of key intellectual supporters of the campaign, like Francis Fukuyama. Many people voted for Barack Obama for president in 2008 precisely because he opposed the Iraq War.

Today, the United States and North Korea are on a collision course. The costs of war between these two countries would vastly exceed that of the Iraq War. It is necessary to spell out these costs to ensure that the United States does not repeat its earlier mistake.

The worst-case scenario, of course, would be nuclear war between North Korea and the United States. Even a limited exchange would lead to several million dead on all sides. But the human costs of war would be extraordinary even if the conflict were limited to conventional weapons. In 1994, when Bill Clinton was considering a preemptive strike on North Korea – at a time when that country did not possess any nuclear weapons – the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea warned the president that the result would probably be a million dead.

Today, the Pentagon estimates that 20,000 people would die each day of a conventional conflict – based on the likelihood of North Korea launching retaliatory strikes on the Seoul area from its long-range artillery positions north of the DMZ. Other conservative estimates put the death toll at closer to 100,000 dead in the first 48 hours.

Those figures would be considerably higher if North Korea uses chemical weapons. The death toll would also be higher if the United States uses nuclear missiles to take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities (a distinct possibility since a U.S. preemptive strike with conventional missiles would have a much harder time taking out facilities or nuclear weapons buried deep in the ground).

These casualties would mostly be Korean, on both sides of the DMZ. But one reason that the Pentagon has so far been unenthusiastic about going to war with North Korea is the proximity to conflict of 39,000 American troops and more than 100,000 American civilians living in South Korea. American casualties would be very high.

The economic costs of war would be staggering. The cost of military operations in Iraq, including post-war reconstruction, was nearly $1 trillion from 2003 to 2015.

On paper, at least, North Korea fields a much larger and more powerful military than Iraq did in 2003. Although its army suffers from malnutrition, its weapons systems need spare parts, and lack of fuel hampers the operations of its bombers and tanks, North Korea can still put up a major fight. Even if the government collapses from a “decapitation strike,” North Koreans could still launch the kind of insurgency that Iraq experienced after 2003.

More expensive than the military operations themselves will be post-war reconstruction. South Korea is a wealthy country. The bill for the destruction of infrastructure and industry would dwarf what the United States provided to Iraq after 2003. Any major setback to the South Korean economy would also have a devastating impact on the regional and global economy.

The reconstruction of North Korea would also cost a lot of money. The bill for reunification is generally calculated to be at least $1 trillion. Add another $2 trillion to that amount if North Korea is destroyed in a war. And then there are the costs associated with refugees pouring out of North Korea. Germany alone spent over $20 billion for refugee resettlement in 2016.

If the ultimate bill for the Iraq War was $3 trillion, then it would likely be double or triple that amount in the case of a war with North Korea. The United States would fall into a deep abyss of debt, South Korea would be set back a generation or more, and North Korea would experience once again the utter devastation it went through during the Korean War.

War is not inevitable. The North Korean leadership is well aware of U.S. firepower and how it can destroy the regime and the country. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has acknowledged that any war with North Korea would be “catastrophic.” There is clearly a difference of opinion inside the Trump administration on this issue, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announcing that the United States is willing to enter negotiations “without preconditions” and President Trump dismissing diplomacy as a waste of time.

Perhaps during this holiday season, Donald Trump will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. The ghost from the past will remind him once again of the avoidable tragedies of the Iraq War. The ghost from the future will show him the ruined landscape of the Korean peninsula, the vast cemeteries of the dead, the devastated U.S. economy, and the compromised global environment.

As for the ghost of Christmas Present, the ghost who carries an empty and rusted scabbard and who represents peace on earth, that is the ghost who must prevail, aided by the international anti-war movement.

We in the United States tried and failed to prevent the Iraq War. But we still have a chance to prevent a second Korean War.

By John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy In Focus

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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