In the past few weeks, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has been on a run of lunacy nearly unrivaled in the history of the division of Korea. He’s made the news by threatening the US with preemptive nuclear attack, releasing a series of bizarre videos depicting various people and places being engulfed in atomic fire, hanging out with Dennis Rodman and most recently, tearing up the armistice between North and South Korea.
One thing missing from this latest stream of belligerence and provocation is North Korea’s usual blustering about destroying Seoul in a “sea of fire.” This wild claim, a fixture of Kim family ranting for two decades, has become an accepted part of Korean military lore, and is often reprinted by both legitimate and fringe news outlets. It portrays the South Korean capital as held hostage by thousands of North Korean guns and missile batteries (some sources claim as many as 13,000) stationed in the Demilitarized Zone, all of which could open fire at any moment for any reason, unleashing a barrage of death that will flatten the entire city, killing millions in the process.
However, a cursory glance at the facts and figures hiding behind the bombast reveal that not only is this claim wildly overstated, it’s not even possible from a logistical standpoint. Yes, the North could do considerable damage to Seoul, killing thousands of civilians and wrecking buildings all across the city. But it’s a major exaggeration to say they could simply wipe Seoul off the map using conventional artillery and rockets. Why it’s not true is worth taking a closer look at. Please note that the following scenario doesn’t take into account any kind of attack with nuclear or chemical weapons, as there’s just not enough information to guess what North Korea’s true capacity is in those areas, assuming it has any.
A fantastic analysis of North Korea’s military capability when it comes to attacking Seoul was done last year by security expert and consultant Roger Cavazos. It’s a long and striking piece, written with authoritative expertise and great detail, or as great detail as it’s possible to go into, given we’re talking about a country nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom.
As Cavazos writes, North Korea probably has about 20,000 total artillery pieces, rocket launchers and heavy mortars. But Seoul, 30 kilometers from the DMZ, is out of the range of most of these weapons. The two pieces that would be able to hit Seoul, and which are the cause of such concern, are the M-1978 KOKSAN 170 millimeter self-propelled gun and the MRL240 M-1985 rocket launcher. As with every gun, rocket and spoon in the Korean People’s Army (KPA), there’s no telling how many they really have, where they are and whether or not they work.
Cavazos’ best guess, backed up by data from globalsecurity.org, is that the KPA has around 500 KOKSAN guns and 200 rocket launchers deployed in the DMZ and targeting the South Korean capital. There are probably many more scattered around the country or attached to military units, but the more guns North Korea points at Seoul, the fewer they have to defend the rest of the border. So the total of around 700 “tubes” of artillery ranged on Seoul seems right. And a far cry from “13,000.”
Not all of those guns will be able to fire at the same time, as some will have to be reserved for defensive purposes and others will malfunction. Cavazos estimates that the best case for the KPA is 2/3 of them available for firing at one time. The KOKSAN can fire about four shells per minute in an opening burst, with the MRL being able to launch between 12 and 22 rockets per minute, though these rates of fire wouldn’t be sustainable during a prolonged battle. Assuming optimal function and maximum efficiency, North Korea will be able to drop about 3,600 shells and rockets per minute on Seoul during the opening stage of a bombardment.
Of course, in large-scale military operations, optimal function is rarely attained. Witness the number of duds that will be fired. During North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, on the west coast of South Korea, the KPA fired over 100 rounds, 25% of which failed to go off. This is an astronomically high number, and not at all in keeping with modern artillery technology. If North Korean artillery fails to explode at the same rate it did in 2010, that would reduce the number of hits on Seoul to about 2,700 per minute, leading to Cavazos estimating about 2,800 fatalities for each minute at that rate of fire, assuming the majority of the population of the city is standing in open ground – meaning as many as 64,000 South Koreans could be killed on the first day of any attack.
These numbers sound terrifying, and nobody should take that kind of death and destruction lightly. But this is the worst case scenario, and probably not at all attainable for North Korea. For one thing, many of those guns will have to move in anticipation of an attack across the DMZ. It assumes unlimited ammunition and transportation, which the KPA doesn’t have. Some of the guns will misfire or malfunction, others will be blocked by dud shells. Crews will become fatigued and sloppy, missing their targets and hitting unpopulated areas. And finally, artillery duels aren’t like a game of scratch golf. The KPA won’t get a mulligan, as US and South Korean guns and aircraft will strike back with counter-battery fire within minutes of the first shells falling. As many as 1% of the KPA’s artillery pieces and rocket launchers will be silenced per hour by a South Korean military that’s had 50 years to plan their response. That number of 2,700 hits will decline with each passing minute, until it trickles down to almost nothing.
The most likely scenario of a surprise North Korean attack on Seoul, based on our available knowledge and some basic math, is a couple of hours of sheer terror and confusion as KPA shells rain down, then a gradual slackening of fire as batteries are eliminated or moved and North Korean forces approach the city as part of an invasion. Seoul is an enormous city and has underground shelter space for 20 million people, so the great majority of the population will be protected and out of harm’s way quickly. And North Korean forces will soon be on the wrong end of a massive counterattack by a force that has better training and newer equipment. Seoul will be shaken, casualties will be high at first, but the city will be far from the “sea of fire” that North Korean propaganda has declared. What’s far more likely from this scenario is a pitched ground battle north of the city to decide its fate, and this is a battle North Korea probably can’t win.
Given the relative ease with which it’s debunked, how did this claim become so widely accepted?
The phrase ”sea of fire” first turned up in a 1994 remark by a North Korean negotiator following the breakdown of nuclear disarmament talks, and sent the people of Seoul into panic, based on memories from the Korean War, when Seoul suffered terribly. A TIME Magazine article from 2003 casually tossed off the idea of Seoul “flattened” by North Korean guns, and the claim has gone mainstream since then, with near constant repetition by a media struck dumb by the idea of epic annihilation. Given the size of the North’s military and the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ, it didn’t seem so unlikely to the untrained eye.
But it’s not only unlikely, it’s basically impossible. Even if North Korea trained every applicable gun and rocket on Seoul, which they won’t, they couldn’t do it. Even the most lethal conventional bombings of cities in World War II didn’t “flatten” them, and North Korea doesn’t have anywhere near the destructive power of either side in that war. Yes, the threat to Seoul is real and must be respected. But it shouldn’t be exaggerated by hyperbole and misinformation.