North Korea: The Costs of War, Calculated
Even a limited war with North Korea would kill millions, devastate the environment, and bankrupt the U.S. Preventing it should be the peace movement's highest priority.
Donald Trump is contemplating wars that would dwarf anything that his immediate predecessors ever considered.
He has dropped the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, and he’s considering the mother of all wars in the Middle East. He is abetting Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen. Many evangelicals are welcoming his announcement of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as a sign that the end of days is nigh. The conflict with Iran is about to heat up early next year when Trump, in the absence of any congressional action, will decide whether to fulfill his promise to tear up the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration worked so hard to negotiate and the peace movement backed with crucial support.
But no war has acquired quite the same apparent inevitability as the conflict with North Korea. Here in Washington, pundits and policymakers are talking about a “three-month window” within which the Trump administration can stop North Korea from acquiring the capability to strike U.S. cities with nuclear weapons.
That estimate allegedly comes from the CIA, though the messenger is the ever-unreliable John Bolton, the former flame-thrower of a U.S. ambassador to the UN. Bolton has used that estimate to make the case for a preemptive attack on North Korea, a plan that Trump has also reportedly taken very seriously.
North Korea, too, has announced that war is “an established fact.” After the most recent U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang said, “The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?”
This aura of inevitability should put prevention of conflict with North Korea at the top of the urgent to-do list of all international institutions, engaged diplomats, and concerned citizens.
A warning about the costs of war may not convince people who want Kim Jong Un and his regime out regardless of consequences (and nearly half of Republicans already support a preemptive strike). But a preliminary estimate of the human, economic, and environmental costs of a war should make enough people think twice, lobby hard against military actions by all sides, and support legislative efforts to prevent Trump from launching a preemptive strike without congressional approval.
Such an estimate of the various impacts can also serve as a basis for three movements — anti-war, economic justice, and environmental — to come together in opposition to what would set back our causes, and the world at large, for generations to come.
It’s not the first time the United States has been on the verge of making an extraordinary mistake. Can the costs of the last war help us avoid the next one?
Doomed to Repeat?
If Americans had known how much the Iraq War was going to cost, perhaps they wouldn’t have gone along with the Bush administration’s march to war. Perhaps Congress would have put up more of a fight.
Invasion boosters predicted that the war would be a “cakewalk.” It wasn’t. About 25,000 Iraqi civilians died as a result of the initial invasion and about 2,000 coalition forces died up through 2005. But that was just the beginning. By 2013, another 100,000 Iraq civilians had died because of ongoing violence, according to the conservative estimates of the Iraq Body Count, along with another 2,800 coalition forces (mostly American).
Then there were the economic costs. Before it blundered into Iraq, the Bush administration projected that the war would only cost around $50 billion. That was wishful thinking. The real accounting only came later.
My colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies estimated in 2005 that the bill for the Iraq war would ultimately come in at $700 billion. In their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes provided an even higher estimate, which they later revised further upwards toward $5 trillion.
The body counts and the more accurate economic estimates had a profound impact on how Americans viewed the Iraq War. Public support for the war was around 70 percent at the time of the 2003 invasion. In 2002, the congressional resolution authorizing military force against Iraq passed the House 296 to 133 and the Senate 77-23.
By 2008, however, American voters were supporting Barack Obama’s candidacy in part because of his opposition to the invasion. Many of these people who supported the war — a majority of the Senate, former neoconservative Francis Fukuyama — were saying that if they knew in 2003 what they subsequently learned about the war, they would have taken a different position.
In 2016, not a few people supported Donald Trump for his purported skepticism about recent U.S. military campaigns. As a Republican presidential candidate, Trump declared the Iraq War a mistake and even pretended that he’d never supported the invasion. It was part of his effort to distance himself from hawks within his own party and the “globalists” in the Democratic Party. Some libertarians even supported Trump as the “anti-war” candidate.
Trump is now shaping up to be quite the opposite. He is escalating U.S. involvement in Syria, surging in Afghanistan, and expanding the use of drones in the “war on terror.”
But the looming conflict with North Korea is of an entirely different order of magnitude. The anticipated costs are so high that outside of Donald Trump himself, the most resolute of his hawkish followers, and a few overseas supporters like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, war remains an unpopular option. And yet, both North Korea and the United States are on a collision course, propelled by the logic of escalation and subject to the errors of miscalculation.
By making sure that the probable costs of a war with North Korea are well known, however, it is still possible to persuade the U.S. government to step back from the brink.
The Human Costs
A nuclear exchange between the United States and North Korea would go off the charts in terms of lives lost, economies wrecked, and the environment destroyed.
In his apocalyptic scenario in The Washington Post, arms control specialist Jeffrey Lewis imagines that, after widespread conventional U.S. bombing of the country, North Korea launches a dozen nuclear weapons at the United States. Despite some errant targeting and a half-effective missile defense system, the attack still manages to kill a million people in New York alone and another 300,000 around Washington, DC. Lewis concludes:
The Pentagon would make almost no effort to tally the enormous numbers of civilians killed in North Korea by the massive conventional air campaign. But in the end, officials concluded, nearly 2 million Americans, South Koreans, and Japanese had died in the completely avoidable nuclear war of 2019.
If North Korea uses nuclear weapons closer to home, the death toll would be much higher: over two million dead in Seoul and Tokyo alone, according to a detailed estimate at 38North.
The human costs of a conflict with North Korea would be staggering even if nuclear weapons never enter the picture and the U.S. homeland never comes under attack. Back in 1994, when Bill Clinton was contemplating a preemptive strike on North Korea, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea told the president that the result would probably be a million dead in and around the Korean peninsula.
Today, the Pentagon estimates that 20,000 people would die each day of such a conventional conflict. That’s based on the fact that 25 million people live in and around Seoul, which is within distance of North Korea’s long-range artillery pieces, 1,000 of which are located just north of the Demilitarized Zone.
The casualties would not just be Korean. There are also about 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, plus another 100,000 other Americans living in the country. So, a war just confined to the Korean peninsula would be the equivalent of putting at risk the number of Americans living in a city the size of Syracuse or Waco.
And this Pentagon estimate is cautious. The more common forecast is more than 100,000 dead in the first 48 hours. Even this latter number doesn’t factor in the use of chemical warheads, in which case the casualties would quickly rise into the millions (despite some overheated speculation, there is no evidence that North Korea has yet developed biological weapons).
In any such war scenario, North Korean civilians would also die in large numbers, just as huge numbers of Iraqi and Afghan civilians died during those conflicts. In a letter solicited by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Ruben Gallego (D-A), the Joint Chiefs of Staff made clear that a ground invasion would be necessary to locate and destroy all nuclear facilities. That would increase the number of both U.S. and North Korean casualties.
Bottom line: Even a war limited to conventional weapons and to the Korean peninsula would result in, at minimum, tens of thousands dead and more likely casualties closer to a million.
It’s somewhat more difficult to estimate the economic costs of any conflict on the Korean peninsula. Again, any war involving nuclear weapons would cause incalculable economic damage. So, let’s use the more conservative estimate associated with a conventional war that’s restricted to Korea alone.
Any estimates must take into account the economically advanced nature of South Korean society. According to GDP projections for 2017, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world, just behind Russia. Moreover, Northeast Asia is the most economically dynamic region of the world. A war on the Korean peninsula would devastate the economies of China, Japan, and Taiwan as well. The global economy would take a significant hit.
Writes Anthony Fensom in The National Interest:
A 50 percent fall in South Korea’s GDP could knock a percentage point off global GDP, while there would also be substantial disruptions to trade flows.
South Korea is heavily integrated into regional and global manufacturing supply chains, which would be severely disrupted by any major conflict. Capital Economics sees Vietnam as the worst affected, since it sources around 20 percent of its intermediate goods from South Korea, but China sources over 10 percent, while a number of other Asian neighbors would be affected.
Also consider the additional costs of the refugee flow. Germany alone spent over $20 billion for refugee resettlement in 2016. The outflow from North Korea, a country somewhat more populous than Syria was in 2011, could be likewise in the millions if a civil war erupts, a famine ensues, or the state collapses. China is already building refugee camps on its border with North Korea — just in case. Both China and South Korea have had difficulty accommodating the defector outflow as it is — and that’s only around 30,000 in the South and something similar in China.
Now let’s look at the specific costs to the United States. The cost of military operations in Iraq — Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn — was $815 billion from 2003 though 2015, which includes military operations, reconstruction, training, foreign aid, and veterans’ health benefits.
In terms of military operations, the United States is up against, on paper, a North Korean army three times what Saddam Hussein fielded in 2003. Again, on paper, North Korea has more sophisticated weaponry as well. The soldiers, however, are malnourished, there’s a shortage of fuel for the bombers and tanks, and many systems lack spare parts. Pyongyang has pursued a nuclear deterrent in part because it is now at such a disadvantage in terms of conventional weapons compared to South Korea (not to mention U.S. forces in the Pacific). It’s therefore possible that an initial assault might yield the same results as the first salvo in the Iraq War.
But however brutal the Kim Jong Un regime is, the population would not likely welcome American soldiers with open arms. An insurgency comparable to what took place after the Iraq War would likely arise, which would end up costing the United States even further loss of life and money.
But even in the absence of an insurgency, the costs of the military operation will be dwarfed by the costs of reconstruction. Reconstruction costs for South Korea, a major industrialized country, would be much higher than in Iraq or certainly Afghanistan. The United States spent about $60 billion initially for post-war reconstruction in Iraq (much of it wasted through corruption), and the bill for liberating the country from the Islamic State runs closer to $150 billion.
Add to that the monumental costs of rehabilitating North Korea, which under the best circumstances would cost at least $1 trillion (the estimated costs of reunification) but which would balloon up to $3 trillion in the aftermath of a devastating war. Ordinarily, South Korea would be expected to cover these costs, but not if that country too had been devastated by war.
Spending on the military campaign and on post-conflict reconstruction would push U.S. federal debt into the stratosphere. The opportunity costs — the funds that could have been spent on infrastructure, education, health care — would be enormous as well. The war would likely put America into receivership.
Bottom line: Even a limited war with North Korea would directly cost the United States more than $1 trillion in terms of military operations and reconstruction, and considerably more indirectly because of setbacks to the global economy.
In terms of environmental impact, a nuclear war would be catastrophic. Even a relatively limited nuclear exchange could trigger a significant drop in global temperatures — because of debris and soot thrown into the air that blocks the sun — which would throw global food production into crisis.
If the United States tries to take out North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities, particularly those buried beneath the ground, it will be sorely tempted to use nuclear weapons first. “The ability to take out the North Korean nuclear program is limited, with conventional weapons,” explains retired U.S. Air Force General Sam Gardiner. Instead, the Trump administration would turn to “hard-target-kill” weapons fired from nuclear submarines near the Korean peninsula.
Even if North Korea is unable to retaliate, these preemptive strikes carry their own risks of mass casualties. The release of radiation — or lethal agents, in the case of strikes on chemical weapons repositories — could kill millions and render large tracts of land uninhabitable depending on a number of factors (yield, depth of explosion, weather conditions), according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Even a conventional war fought exclusively on the Korean peninsula would have devastating environmental consequences. A conventional aerial attack on North Korea, followed by retaliatory strikes against South Korea, would end up contaminating large tracts of territory around energy and chemical complexes and destroy fragile ecosystems (such as the bio-diverse Demilitarized Zone). If North Korea managed to hit any of the 24 nuclear reactors in the south, the radiation effects would be considerable even if meltdown didn’t occur (and catastrophic if it did). The use of depleted uranium weapons by the United States, as it did in 2003, would also cause widespread environmental and health damage.
Bottom line: Any war on the Korean peninsula would have a devastating impact on the environment, but efforts to take out North Korea’s nuclear complex or South Korea’s nuclear reactors would be potentially catastrophic.
There would be other costs of war associated with an attack on North Korea. Given the opposition to war of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the United States would strain its alliance with that country to the breaking point. The Trump administration would deal a blow to international law as well as international institutions such as the United Nations. It would encourage other countries to push diplomacy aside and pursue military “solutions” in their regions of the world.
Even before the Trump administration took office, the costs of war worldwide were unacceptably high. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, the world spends over $13 trillion a year on conflict, which works out to about 13 percent of global GDP.
If the United States goes to war with North Korea, it will throw all of those calculations out the window. There has never been a war between nuclear powers. There hasn’t been an all-out war in such an economically prosperous region for decades. The human, economic, and environmental costs will be staggering.
This war isn’t inevitable.
The North Korean leadership knows that, because it faces overwhelming force, any conflict is literally suicidal. The Pentagon also recognizes that, because the risk of casualties to U.S. troops and U.S. allies is so high, a war is not in the U.S. national interest. Secretary of Defense James Mattis acknowledges that a war with North Korea would be no cakewalk and, indeed, would be “catastrophic.”
Even the Trump administration’s own strategic review of the North Korean problem didn’t include military intervention or regime change as recommendations alongside maximum pressure and diplomatic engagement. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently said that Washington is open to talks with Pyongyang “without preconditions,” an important shift in negotiating tactics.
Perhaps during this holiday season, Donald Trump will be visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. The ghost from the past will remind him once again of the avoidable tragedies of the Iraq War. The ghost from the future will show him the ruined landscape of the Korean peninsula, the vast cemeteries of the dead, the devastated U.S. economy, and the compromised global environment.
As for the ghost of Christmas Present, the ghost who carries an empty and rusted scabbard and who represents peace on earth, we are that ghost. It is incumbent on the peace, economic justice, and environmental movements to make ourselves heard, to remind the U.S. president and his hawkish supporters of the costs of any future conflict, to press for diplomatic solutions, and to throw sand in the gears of the war machine.
We tried and failed to prevent the Iraq War. We still have a chance to prevent a second Korean War.