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Madman Across the Water

TAKING OUT NORTH KOREA’S NUCLEAR WEAPONS WON’T BE QUICK, AND IT WON’T BE EASY

THE BATTERIES OF North Korean artillery lie on just the other side of the divided peninsula’s demilitarized zone. There are thousands of them—some hidden, others out in the open. Artillery shells are stored in an elaborate network of tunnels; and though much of the weaponry and ammunition is old, U.S. forces stationed in South Korea have no doubt they would be effective.

Less than 40 miles to the south is the sprawling city of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with a metropolitan area of 24 million inhabitants. Ever since a cease-ire ended hostilities between North and South Korea in 1953, the residents of Seoul have lived with the knowledge that a war with their brethren in the north could break out again; it is a notion not often acknowledged but embedded in their DNA.

And now, again, the fraught Korean Peninsula seems a single miscalculation away from calamity. Since his election, President Donald Trump and his foreign policy team have escalated their rhetoric about the North, insisting that U.S. patience with North Korea’s nuclear and missile program has run out. Pyongyang has responded with rhetoric even more bellicose than usual. On April 20, a state-owned newspaper threatened that Pyongyang would deliver a “super-mighty pre-emptive strike” against the U.S., whose forces were in the midst of massive military exercises with their South Korean ally.

No one in Seoul is heading for the bomb shelters yet. Pragmatism, and an abiding assumption that nothing terribly bad will actually happen, prevails. “No matter how much tensions increase, we just go about our lives,” says Park Chung Hee, a 40-year-old businessman whose grandfather was killed in the Korean War. “What else can we do?”

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ONE MILLION DEAD: WHAT WAR WITH NORTH KOREA WOULD LOOK LIKE What would another armed conflict on the peninsula look like? During the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953, some 2.7 million Koreans died, along with 33,000 Americans and 800,000 Chinese. In any pre-emption scenario now, the U.S. would try to keep the strike limited to the task at hand; at the same time, Washington would signal in any way it could, probably via the North’s ally in Beijing, that it did not seek a wider war.
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