If the United States wanted to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it would have to invade the country, according to an assessment from the vice-director of the Joint Staff.
Rear Admiral Michael J. Dumont made the comments in a letter to two Democratic representatives, Ted Lieu of California and Ruben Gallego of Arizona, released publicly on Saturday. These representatives asked questions about what a possible armed conflict with North Korea might look like.
Although Dumont said several times that he could only provide more details in a closed-door intelligence briefing, his letter contains some important points.
1. The U.S. would have to invade North Korea to destroy all of its nuclear weapons
“The only way to ‘locate and destroy – with complete certainty – all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs’ is through a ground invasion,” wrote Dumont.
Some of the weapons are located in “deeply buried, underground facilities” and so ground forces would be needed to find them.
2. North Korea might use biological or chemical weapons
Dumont said that North Korea might choose to use biological weapons, despite having signed on to a treaty prohibiting them. “North Korea continues to develop its biological research and development capabilities,” he said.
North Korea also has a “longstanding” chemical weapons program, with the capability to produce “nerve, blister, blood and choking agents” and probably has a stockpile of such weapons, he said.
Dumont suggests that conventional weapons like artillery and missiles could be modified to deploy chemical weapons, though it’s an “open question” as to whether North Korea would choose to use them.
3. It’s hard to estimate what the casualties would be
Dumont said that it’s hard to give even a rough estimate of what civilian casualties would be in a conflict with North Korea.
Dumont pointed out that the South Korean capital, Seoul, is very vulnerable to attack. It’s just 56 kilometres from the demilitarized zone, he said, and very densely-populated, with about 10 million people living in the city alone, with millions more in the rest of the capital region (population 24 million). So casualty estimates would depend a lot on how badly Seoul was hit.
WATCH: NATO head says war against North Korea would be ‘catastrophic’
First, it depends on what kinds of weapons were used: conventional or nuclear. Secondly, it also depends on how much of a surprise any attack was. With notice, more South Koreans might be able to take shelter in bunkers, “dramatically increasing their chances of survival,” he said. U.S. officials have said before that there would likely be heavy civilian casualties in the first few days of a conflict.
A third factor is how well U.S. and South Korean forces were able to respond to an attack. Counter-attacks could help to mitigate casualties, he said, and American forces train “constantly” for this.
4. But North Korea doesn’t seem to be preparing for war
Even though North Korea constantly talks about war, Dumont said that the U.S. hasn’t detected any change in the “offensive posture” of the North Korean military. This echoes comments from Dumont’s colleague, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, who told a Senate committee the same thing in late September.
Dumont says the U.S. carefully watches the North Korean military and prepares for all contingencies. However, the Joint Force also fully supports the economic and diplomatic pressure campaigns on North Korea.