Here’s How Long a War Between the U.S. and North Korea Would Probably Last

Donald Trump isn’t the first president to consider war with North Korea. But the president hasn’t shown a lot of restraint in talking about the insular nation, promising that “all options are on the table” for dealing with Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons program. That includes mind games, name-calling, and even war with North Korea.

But for all the talk of nuclear buttons and powerful weapons, few people are talking about what a war on the Korean Peninsula would actually look like. Read on to learn everything we know about how a war with North Korea would actually play out, including what the death toll might look like (page 6), and how long the war would last on pages 7 and 8.

1. Kim Jong Un could use nuclear weapons at the start of the war

A screen broadcasts a missile test

A Tokyo screen broadcasts a North Korean missile launch in July. | Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images.

Not every expert believes that Kim Jong Un would consider North Korea’s nuclear weapons a last resort, according to Vox. “Most of the people I spoke to said they believed Kim would use nuclear weapons against South Korea in the initial stages of the fighting,” Yochi Dreazen explains. Kim Jong Un knows that the U.S. would want to knock out North Korea’s nuclear weapons before they could be fired. So he would need to either use them early on in a conflict or risk losing them altogether.

Next: The U.S. would have to send a lot more resources to South Korea. 

2. The U.S. would need to deploy hundreds of thousands of troops

US soldiers stand at attention during the official closing ceremony of the multinational military exercise

U.S. Military | Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

Vox learned that the United States currently has about 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. Donald Trump would need to deploy hundreds of thousands more if war broke out with North Korea. The U.S. would also have to send thousands of tanks, armored personnel carriers, bombers, fighter jets, helicopters, and artillery pieces. Most would need to travel to South Korea by boat in a process that could take six weeks or even longer to complete. American ships would unload at the South Korean city of Busan. But Kim Jong Un could try to slow U.S. efforts by nuking the city.

Next: A war with North Korea would have terrible effects on South Korea. 

3. A war with North Korea would devastate South Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) pose for photographs

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in | Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images

North Korea could devastate Seoul even without nuclear weapons thanks to all of the rocket launchers and artillery pieces it has within range of the South Korean capital. The Congressional Research Service estimates that Kim could hit Seoul with 10,000 rockets per minute and kill more than 300,000 South Koreans in the opening days of a war. Vox learned that Kim Jong Un also has another powerful weapon: “25 million people — including 1.2 million active-duty troops and several million reservists — who have been ‘indoctrinated since childhood with the belief that Kim and his family are literal gods whose government must be protected at all costs.'” Plus, in the event of a ground invasion to destroy North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, U.S. troops would also face Kim Jong Un’s biological and chemical weapons.

Next: Kim Jong Un could deploy these scary weapons.  

4. Kim Jong Un could use terrifying biological weapons

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a factory at an undisclosed place.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a factory at an undisclosed place. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

Nuclear weapons and brainwashed troops are scary enough. But Vox reports that North Korea’s arsenal of biological weapons includes smallpox, yellow fever, anthrax, hemorrhagic fever, and even plague. “They are some of the most frightening substances on earth,” Vox notes. And experts expect that Kim Jong Un could use them against South Korean ports, airfields, and cities in order to kill civilians and troops and cause widespread terror. “It’s hard to overstate just how frightening these types of weapons are,” one expert explained. Biological weapons could kill huge numbers of people in an attack that would be nearly impossible to prevent.

Next: This nation would also get involved. 

5. China would get involved in a war with North Korea

Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol-Ju in China with President Xi Jinping

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, with Chinese President Xi Jinping | AFP/Getty Images

Vox reports that China would definitely get involved if war broke out with North Korea. But Beijing would intervene not to help the United States, but to protect its own interests. Just as the United States would send troops to take control of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons, China would send take control of nuclear and missile sites. China would want to stabilize North Korea on its terms, not on those of the U.S. And as Vox reports, “it would be doing so against a Trump administration that is notably hostile and fearful of China’s rising global influence.”

Next: An enormous loss

6. A million people could die

north korea military soldiers with tanks and smoke

The Korean People’s Army during a military parade. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

Vox spoke to retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, a former NATO military chief who estimated that a war with North Korea could kill a million people or more. Several other experts estimated that millions of people would die. And that’s if North Korea doesn’t use its arsenal of nuclear weapons. They say that Kim Jong Un is a “fundamentally rational” leader whose goals are to ensure the survival of his regime and his personal control over North Korea. The fear is that Kim would go to great lengths — even to nuclear war — to achieve his goals.

Next: This is how long some people think a war with North Korea would last. 

7. A war with North Korea could be over in 60 seconds

Kim Jong-Un

Jong Un inspects a ground-to-ground missile in North Korea. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

Because North Korea knows that the goal of a U.S. or South Korean strike would be to destroy or capture its nuclear weapons, experts think that Kim Jong Un might use those early in a war. But others have pointed out that North Korea might not even have time to deploy its weapons. As The Daily Star notes, the U.S. could launch its own nuclear weapons on North Korea within 60 seconds of Donald Trump giving the order. The publication reports that “A nuclear strike by the U.S. would likely trigger responses from China and Russia. NATO would then react — including Britain –and a counter strike would follow, spiralling into a brief, bloody and civilization-ending World War 3.”

Next: Others think the war would last much longer. 

8. Alternately, a war could last for 4 to 6 months

The launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People's Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea

The launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People’s Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea | STR/AFP/Getty Images

But not everybody thinks that a war with North Korea would be over in a day. Newsweek reports that “Conventional thinking in the Pentagon is that it would be a four- to six-month conflict with high-intensity combat and many dead.” Nobody wants that scenario to play out. But experts have warned that as tension rises — with threats and apocalyptic language on the table from both sides — so does the potential for a series of misunderstandings to escalate into all-out war.

Next: This seems particularly unlikely. 

9. But a U.S. military campaign against North Korea seems unlikely

Donald Trump frowning

Donald Trump | Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

Experts differ in their assessments of how likely war with North Korea is. But few consider it imminent. The Atlantic reports that it’s particularly unlikely that the U.S. would initiate a preventative attack on North Korea’s weapons — as Donald Trump has threatened — because of the “enormous casualties” that such a campaign would entail. “The only circumstances in which it would be morally defensible are if the president had reliable intelligence that the North Koreans had a nuclear weapon mated onto an ICBM that was targeted at a U.S. or allied city, and was about to launch. That is, as a preemptive, but not a preventative war.”

Read more: The White House and Other U.S. Targets on North Korea’s Nuclear Hit List

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