WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- If the United States goes to war with North Korea, there would be high casualties on both sides, according to military analysts and retired officers familiar with the region. Nevertheless the United States, backed by South Korea's powerful military, would prevail, they said.
"We would kick their butts, but it would be bloody," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
"Certainly, any conventional war fight in Korea -- because of the tyranny of proximity -- would wreak havoc and destruction and devastation on (South Korea). But I think the alliance would prevail if there was a war," said retired Army Gen. John Tilleli, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 1996 to 1999.
For now, U.S. President George Bush and his national security team continue to insist that international diplomacy -- with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea pressuring North Korea -- is the way ahead with Pyongyang, which, U.S. officials say, recently told them it had a nuclear weapons program.
"The president is keeping all of his options on the table, and we're leading with the diplomatic option because it's important for everybody to realize this is a problem not just for the United States but for the region and for the world," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday on CNN.
In the meantime, the 37,000 U.S. service members in South Korea and the 670,000 South Korean fighters remain at the ready.
"I think it's a time to be especially cautious and careful," Tilleli told United Press International. "At the same time they are trying to solve the nuclear issue, don't let down our readiness guard."
Some 700,000 of the 1.1 million active-duty North Korea soldiers, roughly 2,000 tanks and 8,000 artillery systems are arrayed within 100 miles of the 155-mile-long Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that separates North and South Korea. About 20 million South Koreans -- half the civilian population -- live in and around Seoul, within artillery range of the North. According to U.S. officials, North Korea can field more than 12,000 self-propelled and towed artillery weapons.
These North Korean forces are "getting better, day to day, year to year," Army Gen. Thomas A. Schwartz told reporters during an interview in Seoul in March 2000. "They've been improving themselves. They've been modernizing and they've been exercising."
North Korea has been ravaged by economic troubles and nearly five years of famine in the late 90s during which as many as 2.2 million people died. One-fourth of its 22 million people receive food aid from the World Food Program, which recently warned a new famine might be coming as it tries to rally donations. With a newly announced nuclear program, the expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and international missile exports, North Korea is tough sell.
Despite the troubles, however, the military has received special food consideration and funding from Pyongyang. Raking in $5 billion a month, the military soaks up more than one-third of North Korea's annual gross domestic product, according to the CIA.
"I still think the relative proportion of constrained resources goes to keeping the military at a level that's acceptable to them," said Tilleli. "That is the irony of North Korea -- in that they are willing to cause their population to suffer great deprivation when there is not an external threat."
The conventional force it has amassed is a powerful one, comprising 5 million reserves in addition to the 1.1 million active-duty soldiers. Its air force is large but believed to be poorly maintained. It numbers 110 MiG-17s, 160 MiG-19s, and 130 MiG-21s, as well as 30 more modern MiG-29s, according to the U.S.-based Center for Defense Information.
The United States "would have to fight in terrain that is a great equalizer, that only requires (of North Korea) a certain basic level of armament," O'Hanlon told UPI. "They could do what the Somalis did (in 1993), which is basically ambush. They could certainly make it bloody."
More worrisome, however, is the North Korean missile force, which holds most of South Korea at risk. A missile tested in 1998 can reach Japan, and it is believed North Korea is close to having an intercontinental missile that can hit the United States.
"Their ballistic missile inventory includes over 500 Scuds of various types that can threaten the entire peninsula and they continue to produce and deploy No Dong missiles capable of striking Japan and our U.S. bases there," said Gen. Leon Laporte, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.
North Korea is also assumed to have material for at least two nuclear warheads, if not the warheads themselves. Now that it has restarted its mothballed fast breeder reactor, and accessed the spent fuel rods placed under U.N. seal, it could have material for two more in less than six months.
North Korea is understood to have an arsenal of chemical and possibly biological weapons, both of which could be delivered to Seoul via artillery or missile in advance of a land attack.
"If they were to be foolish enough to try some sort of a conflict, they would not be hesitant to use all of their capability," Tilleli said. "But I think they understand the United States and (South Korea) would prevail."
South Korean forces would absorb most of any North Korean offensive. The 37,000 U.S. forces are on the Korean peninsula primarily to help mount a counter-attack.
While North Korea could initially overwhelm a U.S.-South Korean coalition with its sheer numbers, the superior training, weapons, maintenance and logistics system backing it up would best them in the end, according to most military analysts.
"They don't have the ability to make it last," O'Hanlon said of Pyongyang's military.
Tilleli refused to speculate whether North Korea's newly belligerent stance is timed to capitalize on the United States' focus on a potential war with Iraq, or is simply a way to secure more food and energy aid as winter sets in.
"It's so hard to get into the brain cells of leadership of North Korea. Brinksmanship has been their modality for dealing with world," he said.
North Korea admitted to its nuclear program only after it was confronted with evidence by a U.S. diplomatic team in October, U.S. officials say.