Why North Korea Can’t Flatten Seoul

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.

Kim Jong Un is not horsing around.

Kim Jong Un is not horsing around.

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.

The North Korean KOKSAN self-propelled gun. Not available on craigslist.

The North Korean KOKSAN self-propelled gun. Not available on craigslist.

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.

South Korean soldiers enjoy a relaxing spa day.

South Korean soldiers enjoy a relaxing spa day.

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.

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
This entry was posted in Urban Legends and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Why North Korea Can’t Flatten Seoul

  1. Wayne says:

    North Korean military might is vastly overrated. South Korea is where I’d place my bets.
    http://www.g2mil.com/korea.htm

  2. Anonymous says:

    >>> … meaning as many as 64,000 South Koreans could be killed on the first day of any bombardment. These numbers sound terrifying…

    “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.” –General “Buck” Turgidson, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

  3. David says:

    This sentence:

    “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.”

    kind of makes the rest of the article moot. With out that knowledge there is no way to know what is possible if North Korea attacks.

    • We may not know what is possible, but we do know what’s not possible. If that makes any sense.

      • AAAA says:

        We know that North Korea is capable of launching a nuclear weapon on Seoul. We don’t know how many. One is enough to ruin your whole day…

        • Sean says:

          Yea…See the thing is, if NK nuked Seoul, they are kinda stranded on the peninsula with them…Not to mention they would have to advance through the fall out. I spent a year stationed at Camp Casey about 13-15 miles from the DMZ if I am not mistaken. The entire area of South Korea bordering North Korea for the most part is rather mountainous. Which mean that “avenues of approach” are rather predictable. All in all, if the two sides went at it again. I would imagine it would be worse than the first war. I also believe you would see a VERY LARGE number of North Korean soldiers defecting the second they crossed the border.

  4. Innominata says:

    If N.Korea attacks Seoul, will the U.S. Attack North Korea? I assume they will attack the artillery, to stop the bombardment, but won’t go any further…due to China? How does the China situation play out in these scenarios?

    • Sean says:

      China plays a huge role in the whole thing. They are more or less a pseudo psychological big brother to NK. The real threat is the nuclear capability, I would imagine if the North Koreans had no problem nuking their own people in the south, who they wish to unify with…I would be willing to bet that Japan is next on the list. For all of you that are unaware, there has been some bad blood between the Koreans (North and South) and the Japanese for quite some time now.

  5. toby says:

    Your entire article appears to be based on a basic math error.

    “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 bombardment.”

    If 2800 people die per *minute* that is 168,000 per *hour* and 4,032,000 per *day*. If the South Korean military degrades their artillery by 1% per hour then the entire population of Seoul will be dead in less than 5 days.

    • 2,800 might die per minute in the first few hours, but after that, the number will drop substantially. There is no way the KPA can kill 4 million people per day with the firepower they have available unless they have unlimited ammunition, guns that never malfunction, superhuman crews that never make mistakes, nobody shooting back at them and the entire population of Seoul stands around in open ground waiting to be blown up. None of this will happen.

      The entire point of the piece, and the research backing it up, is that if the North began to bombard Seoul, the initial volley would be devastating, but the worst of it would be over quickly.

      • Omer Zach says:

        At that rate it would take 29 minutes to kill 64,000 people. If your “few hours” is three hours, we’re already talking 504,000 people. I have no idea how long they could keep it up but you’ve clearly contradicted yourself here.

        • Hi Omer – thank you for engaging on the perennial subject. Exercises are due to start at the end of February. The tension is starting from a lower level, but newly-established and re-drawn ADIZ complicate the issue.

          To answer your basic question, there’s no contradiction. KPA artillery rates of fires are not a straight line equation, they will rapidly plateau and then fall off. Population density is also not a constant factor. People in general are fairly adaptable and South Koreans certainly fall into that category so shortly after the first few shells fall, they will no longer stand out in the open – they’re going to start moving (at a rapid pace) into fortified bombshelters which are plentiful in the Seoul conurbation. The shelters have a declared capacity of 20 million spots available. I don’t know the exact number, but most folks in Seoul are within a few kilometers of a subway station. Every subway station is a designated shelter. Almost all apartments constructed since the 80s also have designated shelters.

          The reason I mention ADIZ as a new factor is that the U.S. Navy and Air Force will generally form a shield around South Korea. When that happens, North Korea is forced to engage in a ground war. North Korea runs out fuel and/or bullets in 30 days or less using stockpiles on peninsula. They can’t achieve their strategic objective of reunifying the peninsula before they run out of everything necessary to wage war. U.S. Navy aircraft (e.g. carrier-based or rotary wing ship based) will almost certainly transit part of every country’s declared ADIZ in the region. The difference is only one country claims to enforce their ADIZ using military methods and even more disruptive is that only one country forces aircraft TRANSITING the ADIZ, even if they’re not bound for territorial water to file.

          That factor complicates the operational or campaign plan, but likely doesn’t change the strategic outcome.

          I cover the issue more extensively (while not going into all the legal arguments) in ADIZ: A Four Letter Word http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-policy-forum/adiz-a-four-letter-word/

  6. Roger says:

    Mike – thank you. You’ve been doing wonderful things helping to keep a wildly speculative press from repeating North Korea’s lines…

    I wanted you to be one of the very first ones to know, I should have something out analyzing this video the North Koreans just released.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9VQ7NjGeIRw

    Quick preview: they make some wild claims that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. like dropping 8,333 rounds a minute. We already know most of those can’t reach Seoul.

    They also claim they’ll have all the services working in Seoul on the third day of a war. It’s possible North Korea has learned how to properly operate the kind of infrastructure needed to run a metropolis with about as many people as there are in all of North Korea, but I’m not betting on it.

    But they also make some claims that are mildly believable. Especially if those claims are delivered by a medal-bedizened septugenarian to a 30 year old wunderkind.

    Will let you know as soon as it’s done in a few days. Time to consume some medical grade caffeine and get past that godawful soundtrack.

    Keep questioning.

    • Wow. That’s one of the best videos of things exploding and people running I’ve ever seen. Looking forward to your analysis.

    • windsun33 says:

      Interesting and informative article and posts. Though I had never really accepted the “sea of fire” and 12,000 working artillery, I never really checked into it until very recently. Aside from what is mentioned here, also came across a few statements by ex-military defectors that noted that much of the ammunition was faulty – not only just duds, but in many cases wide variations in powder loads (or perhaps deteriorated powder), making accuracy pretty much a crap shoot.

  7. KnowEnough says:

    Mike you haven’t fully answered your math error. Regardless if you think that NK cannot effectively employ hundreds year old technology of artillery, you didn’t mention how quickly the 2,700 hits per hour will erode. If we say 10% degradation per hour, that’s still almost 30,000 casualties in the first day. Hardly a small number, but small in proportion to 20 million residents I suppose.

    Also, you apparently don’t consider chemical weapons delivered by artillery (a WW1 technology), which is potentially a force multiplier.

    I’ll also point out that you cite globalsecurity.org as your source, yet globalsecurity.org estimates 10,000 rounds per hour.

    Also, other analysts provide higher estimates, all the way up to 500,000 rounds per hour (Foreign Policy Magazine, (March 25 2013)

    The assumption that each round of artillery would hurt only one person per shot is also extremely suspect. Seoul is a high density urban population, double that of Manhattan and seventh highest in the world!

    The vast majority of combat casulties in theaters having artillery have been due to artillery. It’s extremely effective at hurting people.

    You also assume that only artillery in the DMZ would be able to hit Seoul, when the majority of artillery in the entire country is within a 2 hour drive of the DMZ. Obviously they would have the capability to move that artillery into striking range when the time comes.

    It’s also not clear that SK’s artillery would be able to significantly degrade NK artillery quickly, and air power while effective, would be limited to high flying stealth aircraft and cruise missiles initially due to NK antiaircraft guns and artillery, meaning initially significant limitations on supressing airpower.

    In the 1991 US Gulf War with a far larger deployment, the US capacity to take out vehicles and artillery at peak was in the low hundreds per day. In the Korean terrain with tremendous opportunity for cover and concealment instead of wide open desert spaces, we can assume it would be no greater than that.

    Also we should assume that NK can deploy chemical weapons in artillery, which would multiply

    the casulties per ‘hit’ greatly.

    If we take more middle of the road reasonable estimates, we arrive at below estimates for casualties:

    Assuming your assumptions but including globalsecurity.org estimate of 10K rounds per hour that results in 92,000 casulties in the first day.

    If we include mobilization of additional artillery near the DMZ, that’s 16,000 artillery pieces rather than your 700, resulting in a rate 23x what you say, for a rate of 62,100 shots for the first hour, 571,465 shots in the first 24 hrs and over 600k casualties.

    If we assume more than one person hurt per artillery shell fired, obviously the numbers go higher still.

    • Hi all – I’m crashing on another project right now, but here’s the paper in it’s entirety so you can see all the assumptions, caveats and constructs. Pages 30-39 contain the bulk of the number crunching.

      There are some key assumptions such as whether everyone is standing out in the open spaced evenly (unlikely) or whether everyone is in a bunker or sheltered location (closer to likely a few hours after shelling starts)

      You raise some good points and I think most of them are addressed here in some way. http://nautilus.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Cavazos—-3rd-VERSION-11-Nov-Nautilus-Confernce-KJNWFZ-Oct26-2011.pdf

      For chemical weapons, it’s possible, but it also signals folks in The Hague to put the band together for a war crimes tribunal and in North Korea, the systematic regime process begins to be implemented from the outside.

      I welcome your thoughts and appreciate Mike hosting a civic discourse forum – after all this about thinking independently and taking off the blinders.

    • It’s not a math error. It might be a case of unclear writing, but it’s not an error. There’s just no way NK will be able to keep up whatever their initial rate of fire is, and the vast majority of Seoul’s residents will get underground and out of danger quickly.

      You’re right, I don’t consider chemical weapons in the piece, because nobody knows what NK’s capabilities are in that regard. Well, Kim Jong Un knows. But he didn’t answer my email. I’m also taking it as a given that Kim knows any chemical or nuclear attack on SK (or Japan, Guam or Austin, Texas) will be answered many times over, so even if NK has them, I doubt they’ll use them.

      Without a nuclear weapon, it takes a sustained strategic bombing campaign to significantly damage a city as large as Seoul. An artillery barrage from 30 kilometers away using decades-old guns, unreliable shells and conscript soldiers isn’t going to get it done – especially when your enemy starts shooting back.

  8. KnowEnough says:

    Roger I was not able to access that link.

    Re the math error question, it’s really hard to say because you didn’t disclose your math entirely, but ok.

    Re chemical weapons, everyone knows NK has chemical weapons. There is no reason why they would not. Here’s a citation from the Federation of American Scientists, hardly a right wing organization: http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/cw/index.html

    It does not take a strategic bombing campaign to damage a city that can be hit with artillery. I don’t know why you think otherwise. 30km is well within the range of NK artillery, not to mention their rockets. Even Hamas in the Gaza strip is firing rockets with a longer range than 30km.

    Re turning Seoul into a “sea of fire”, it’s entirely plausible that NK could do just that. Most urban damage and fatalities in wars are in fact due to fire. In a bombardment to the scale even you admit to, it’s very likely there would be extremely large scale fires.

    Let’s do some paper napkin maths here, speculating that NK would prefer to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” and actually set it aflame.

    If we can agree to use Dresdon as a prototype example of a “sea of fire”, it was bombed by about 3900 tonnes of HE and white phosphorous through an air bombing campaign.

    NK artillery, using your low estimates and assuming a 150lb payload per projectile (would be much higher than that if you include long range artillery rockets which have double that payload size), would be able to deliver around 1700 tonnes of explosives in the first 24 hrs.

    Dresden had a city core area of 15 sq mi. The ratio of explosive to area of devastation therefore is 260 tonnes to 1 sq mile. On the low end of estimates, 22k killed in that 15 sq mi. Dresden currently has a population density of about 2600 people per sq mile which should be close enough to the waretime figure based on current population and sq miles figures. Seoul has a population density of about 27k per sq mile. If it takes 260 tons of explosive to incinerate 1 sq mile of urban city, that means:

    Hour 1: 19000 casualties
    Hour 2: 36000 casualties
    Hour 3: 52000 casualties

    By Hour 24, 176k casualties.

    I agree with your friend Roger that this should be about thinking independently.

  9. Military think tanks and strategist that come together every few years to develop op plans for the whitehouse all agree that North Korea will not dedicate all their guns on Seoul. They estimate that Seoul casualties will be more then manageable. In an event of an invasion majority of North Korean guns will be supporting their conventional forces at the DMZ. DPRK objective is to quickly insert control on Seoul and the DMZ. Shelling of Seoul does not fit their primary objective. Ground troops is their word of the day.

  10. jake C says:

    Let’s not forget the thousands of ballistic missiles the north has that can fire with impunity from counter-battery fire. All we can do is hope we can shoot them all out of the sky and hope enough of our tomahawks make it through the North’s air defense.

Leave a Reply