The Buzz

The 1 Picture That Terrifies South Korea: North Korea's 'Big Guns' That Could Attack Seoul

On November 23, the island was hit by two barrages totally 170 rounds of 122-millimeter rockets—and possibly some rounds from nearby 76.2-millimeter coastal artillery units. Republic of Korea (ROK) return fire was limited by an inoperative counter battery radar, which was repaired in time to direct a strike on North Korean rocket launcher units. Two civilians and two ROK Marines were killed in the attacks. Curiously, the rocket battalion should have been able to fire a total of about 288 rockets, but only 170 actually landed near the island. Of those 170 rockets, only 80 landed on the island itself, the rest in surrounding waters.

North Korea has also managed to turn its heavy artillery, particularly corps level 170-millimeter Koksan guns, 240-millimeter heavy rockets and new 300-millimeter MRLs into weapons of mass destruction. Since the 1990s, right about the time the Clinton administration decided not to undertake military action against North Korea’s nuclear program, the general consensus has been that Pyongyang had enough artillery to turn nearby Seoul, home to approximately 25 million South Koreans, into a “sea of fire” that could see up to one million civilians killed. This apocalyptic scenario has been a trump card against strong military action against Pyongyang, with fears it could order a bombardment of the city as an act of retaliation.

A 2011 study by the Nautilus Institute throws a considerable amount of cold water on this scenario. While the sheer number of artillery tubes could theoretically kill a large number of civilians, operational issues complicate matters and push the number of civilian casualties greatly downward. Despite the thousands of artillery pieces, only 700 heavier guns and rocket launchers, plus the newer 300-millimeter MRLs, have the range to strike Seoul. Only a third would normally be fired at once, and notional rates of fire would be slowed tremendously by the need to withdraw guns into their hardened artillery sites (HARTS) to shelter them from counter battery fire.

Other factors reduce the projected loss of life in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. The city has extensive air raid shelters for civilians that will quickly reduce the exposed population density. The North will struggle to keep these heavy artillery units supplied with shells, particularly with its aging supply system. Finally, U.S. and ROK forces will quickly begin hunting down units participating in the bombardment, causing their numbers to drop almost immediately.

Finally, the North would face a strategic dilemma. Artillery used to bomb Seoul could not be used to soften up border defenses for a general invasion, and in wartime it would be critical to capture the enemy capital quickly as possible. An all-out bombardment of the South Korean capital might very well leave Pyongyang without the ability to actually capture it, while at the same time ensuring a U.S./South Korean counteroffensive that would spell the end of the regime of Kim Jong-un. Even if a million civilians were killed in Seoul it would ensure Kim’s untimely demise, and from his perspective that is still almost certainly a very bad trade.

North Korean artillery will undoubtedly play a very large role in any future conflict. While the Korean People’s Army certainly has a large amount of cannon and rocket artillery, recent experience suggests that it falls short of its actual potential. Furthermore, while an artillery attack on Seoul would undoubtedly cause a great deal of civilian casualties, there are numerous factors involved that would give the North pause before unleashing such a scenario. This should not necessarily embolden hawks to use force against North Korea; the ideal future is still one in which the country’s plentiful artillery is not used at all.

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the DiplomatForeign PolicyWar is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.

This first appeared in April of last year.