North Korean military doctrine is essentially that of the Soviets of World War 2. The Red Army in that war used artillery like no one else…they’d quietly mass batteries and mobile rocket launchers in numbers not seen anywhere else in WW2 and unleash sudden and astonishingly violent barrages that would stun those under them and pretty much annihilate anything left in the open. They could do this along fronts hundreds of miles wide. There was a German general named Heinrici who became brilliant at guessing just when one of the barrages was imminent and would withdraw his army to a secondary line so that all of the barrage’s violence would fall on empty trenches. But that is not an option the South Koreans have at the moment, since the North Koreans have all their artillery trained on Seoul.
It’s a lot of artillery, too, hundreds if not thousands of very large caliber guns, dug into deeply fortified batteries–a Japanese specialty in WW2, that one, and probably also studied by the North Koreans–and each fortified battery would probably require bunker busting bombs to destroy them. My concern is that if North Korea were to respond to any US attack by opening up on Seoul as they have been promising for decades–it’s their variety of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), you attack us, we destroy Seoul–that the bombardment will be massive and incredibly violent in a way that only those who have been subjected to one would appreciate. Which limits those who have subjected to one to Germans and their Eastern Front allies, or the Japanese in Manchuria in 1945, and all them are long dead and not being interviewed on the news.
Which means that the Mutually Assured Destruction value of having hundreds or very large cannon and rocket launchers trained on the city of Seoul doesn’t really hold if people in charge on the other side cannot fathom just how incredibly destructive an old fashioned WW2 style Red Army artillery bombardment could be. We don’t have those in war anymore. For one thing, armies are much smaller now, and battlefields ar smaller, and wars much smaller. Wars aren’t even as big as they were a generation ago. In fact what makes the Syria War so destructive despite the relatively small numbers of combatants involved (maybe half a million of all sorts from regulars to occasional militia; the Iran-Iraq War involved two million full time soldiers) is the combination of a Syrian military completely steeped in classic Soviet military doctrine–hence the destructive overkill–assisted by the Russians themselves, doing to Aleppo what they did to Grozny. Not that this should have been unexpected. Back in the 1980’s the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama rebelled, and Assad’s dictator father Hafez Assad (imagine a meaner Bashar Assad) ringed the city with hundreds of the heavy artillery batteries the Soviets has given him to fight Israel and pounded it into submission for a solid month with a violence that surpassed even Aleppo, which, after all, took years to obtain the same result. (They also leveled buildings with tanks, and filled the sewers with diesel and set them aflame.) Even quashing a rebellion was sometimes done in much bigger ways a generation ago.
But we think smaller now. The US drops a non-nuclear bomb a zillionth the size of the bomb that flattened Hiroshima and social media is in hysterics thinking the end of the world is upon us. This was one big scary bomb, but not an atomic bomb. A hundred years ago they dug mines under the opposing trenches and filled them with TNT and blew enormous holes in the ground with vastly more explosive power than in Mother of All Bombs. And Britain’s giant Grand Slam bomb in WW2 might have been even heavier than the MOAB (they used it to punch holes in the twenty foot thick concrete ceilings of u-boat pens, and the explosions were so powerful it would disturb the ground underneath as well, weakening the foundations. And this was in 1945.) When we obsess and fantasize about a not exactly high tech bomb–it’s not a smart bomb, even, and the Russians have a bomb that is technologically simpler (using the air itself as explosive fuel, a technology invented by the Luftwaffe) and yet four times as powerful–we forget just how destructive an old fashioned massed artillery barrage can be. Just a bunch of big cannons that can fire a shell thirty or forty miles, and have it land within the city of Seoul, population ten million. Add in short range rocket launchers that can be fired from further distances. Admittedly Seoul’s distance from the DMZ is about the limit for heavy artillery and rocket launchers (so the north end of the city will take much more of a beating than the southern end) and we can assume that North Korea has to have their batteries closely packed together within range. So it’s not like they have all of their estimated 8,500 cannons and 5,000 mobile rocket launchers aimed on the South Korean capital. But they have a lot of them there. Yet even if the North Koreans have only 500 guns within range and they only manage twenty rounds each–an hour’s work–before being blown up themselves, that is ten thousand very large high explosive artillery shells landing on Seoul. Which is about the equivalent of a good sized bombing raid in WW2. Or a bombing raid on Pyongyang in the Korean War, for that matter, bombing raids we’ve forgotten about, but the North Koreans haven’t.
The most optimistic estimates, the ones who believe North Korea’s vaunted artillery potential is mostly bluff, say the number of shells landing on Seoul would only be in the high hundreds. Apparently that’s a good thing, only several hundred. The North Koreans themselves promise a rain of fire and brimstone (Kim Il Sung invented brimstone) and the most paranoid of disinterested estimations see hundreds of thousand of shells falling. We can safely say it will be somewhere between several hundred and several thousand shells falling on Seoul, possibly as early as this weekend if Trump is as mad as he likes to pretend he is. I say that given that the North Koreans learned the art of war, as they used to call it, from the military academy in Moscow (Kim Il Sung, like Ho Chi Minh and many of Mao’s generals, was trained there) I think it might be on the safe side to assume that the North Koreans could potentially lay down one hell of an old fashioned long distance heavy artillery barrage on Seoul, like the one the Russians unleashed on Berlin in 1945. And it’s also safe to say that there is nothing the South Koreans can do about it, if Trump really wants to nail Kim Jong-un. Because right now the fate of Seoul is in the hands of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. And you think you are having a bad day.