War in Korea would haunt every one of us

Steve Evans as a correspondent in South Korea: "The wailing of pain will not be confined to the peninsula."

Steve Evans as a correspondent in South Korea: "The wailing of pain will not be confined to the peninsula."

Have no illusions. A resumption of the Korean  War - because that’s what it would be - would be a war that made the scale of death and destruction in the Middle East seem minor. All wars are brutal, but the Korean War which never formally ended in 1953 was of a different order of viciousness, both directly in terms of hand-to-hand, eyeball-to-eyeball fighting, often at night in sub-zero temperatures, and remotely, from the sky, as carpet bombing. It was blade against blade in pitch darkness with pulverisation from above.

On the best estimate, about 1.25 million people died, civilian and military. The Americans very nearly used the nuclear bomb against Chinese fighters. Even without it, virtually every town on the peninsula was destroyed. More bombs were dropped on Pyongyang than there were citizens there. Millions of gallons of napalm were dropped.

The military people around President Trump know that a war with North Korea would not be some sort of quick in-and-out job, utilising superior technology remotely from the air or even from bases back in the United States. American Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who has seen war at first hand in Iraq and Afghanistan said it would be “catastrophic”: “A conflict in North Korea would probably be the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetime.”

...that doesn’t mean that North Koreans aren’t patriotic and wouldn’t fight to the last mountain top to defend their country against Americans and Australians.

Military planners have worked through scenarios and one of them suggests there would be 30,000 deaths in South Korea within the first 24 hours of a bombardment by conventional North Korean artillery. It is completely obvious that a war on this scale would not be limited or over quickly. It would be an attack on an ally of the United States and of Australia.

There may be hawks who assert that American retaliation would be so massive that North Korea would be flattened and defeated quickly.

But if we have learnt one thing in recent years, it is that wars are easily started but only ended after the expenditure of much blood and treasure. Think of the hubris of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on board the aircraft carrier, Abraham Lincoln. That was in 2003.

Earlier this month,  Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said that Australia would support the United States in any war with North Korea: “So be very, very clear,” he said. “If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States.”

Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are two of a type. They both bluff and shout. A game of chicken between two bluffers is obviously very dangerous. Once missiles are in the air the situation risks becoming nuclear and devastating, very quickly. Kim Jong-un is a despot of the worst kind. The terror of his rule is beyond doubt.

But that doesn’t mean that North Koreans aren’t patriotic and wouldn’t fight to the last mountain top to defend their country against Americans and Australians.

The threat from North Korea is real - out of the media of the Supreme Leader himself: “Washington will be turned into a sea of flame.”

But do not believe that smart bombs will do the trick. If there is to be war, know the true cost, a cost understood by the generals and under-stated by armchair warmongers.

A war in Korea would come home to haunt us all. The wailing of pain will not be confined to the peninsula.

Steve Evans is a Fairfax Media journalist. Until recently, he was the BBC's Korea correspondent covering North and South Korea.

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