By Paul Sung
Amidst all the ongoing discussions about a military conflict between North Korea and the U.S., we need to think beyond missiles, preventative strikes, and nuclear weapons to talk about the potential consequences of a war in the megacity of Seoul. Looking into the hypothetical scenario laid out in this article published by The Diplomat, we need to examine the multifaceted, complex challenges of megacity warfare if a conflict resulted in DPRK boots on the ground in Seoul. Although some literature introduces basic ideas of megacity warfare in the world, we need deeper discussions about such contingencies in the particular context of South Korea to help prepare better interagency coordination and security in a homogenous megacity like Seoul.
As much as military leaders may want to bypass conflict in an urban environment, North Korean military forces may very well bear-hug the most vulnerable hubs of Seoul after the initial artillery and chemical strikes. This maneuver would provide the DPRK tactical advantages in the event of invasion, such as limiting the full potential of large vehicle weapons systems and holding hostages. Given the finite resources available to handle such an enormous threat, the ROK would have to utilize civilian networks and other tools at its disposal to coordinate security measures in dense high-rise environment.
The mere size of the infrastructure and population of Seoul multiplies crowd control challenges. If the ROK applied the U.S. Army’s FM 3-24 counterinsurgency recommendation of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents to work against North Korean conventional or Special Forces units, then it would need more than 400,000 soldiers on the ground in Seoul alone. This number is further exacerbated if leaders take into consideration the number of personnel needed to logistically support each individual soldier. Even a troop ratio of 3-1 in South Korea’s favor would still be burdened by a fraction of North Korea’s special forces units alone.
A comparison between Seoul and Baghdad gives a picture of the enormity of this challenge. Among the existing buildings in Seoul, there are about 180 existing skyscrapers that have at least 21 floors (331 feet). This does not include 34 unbuilt skyscrapers, 7 currently under construction, and 10 being planned. In addition to the 224 skyscrapers there are about 12,500 high-rise buildings of 12 to 20 floors high. Baghdad, in comparison, is nowhere near as developed as Seoul. Even years after the 2004 conflict, the city currently has only eight high-rise buildings –one currently being planned and the other unbuilt. The doctrines that worked in a low and flat urban environment like Sadr City in Baghdad would have to be reevaluated for a mountainous megacity environment like Seoul.
The Challenge of Dealing with the Population of Seoul
One of the first priorities for government and military officials is the safety of the population. Evacuating South Korean civilians southward is much more complicated now than it used to be during the early years of the Korean War. Back then, Seoul was an underdeveloped city without the tall, tech-savvy buildings that it has today. The population size in Seoul was also only a fraction of today’s demographics. According to U.S. military experts John Amble and John Spencer, the ROK would require about 128,000 fully loaded eighty-passenger buses to relocate the civilian population away from Seoul. This number is almost twenty times as many existing buses in the city as of 2014. It does not take into consideration the total metropolitan region as a whole, which constitutes half of South Korea’s population of 51 million people and therefore increases the number of buses needed to 320,000. The number of people who may not respond to emergency messaging in a sudden and limited timeframe would also hinder evacuation. Taking into consideration challenges such as traffic congestion, potential traps on transportation paths, and a lack of adequate transportation, the South Korean government cannot realistically expect a full evacuation to move efficiently.
From the medical side of human security, chemical and biological weapons will cause damage not just in terms of casualties, but also in terms of the psychological affects left on survivors. This will further burden the South Korean government and NGOs, who must deal with the logistical challenges of supporting these survivors. Many victims do not necessarily have to be physically mutilated by chemical and biological weapons to overwhelm doctors; as seen in the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo subway attack, victims can be psychologically convinced that they have the symptoms of diseases, which could inflate the number of patients that doctors must treat. South Korea will also be severely understaffed to take care of them. As the data shows, South Korea has the lowest ratio of doctors to population among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with 2.2 doctors per 1,000 people as of 2015.
The Population as Part of a Solution
Although there are severe challenges with extraordinarily large concentrations of people, Seoul residents can also be valuable assets to counter the North Korean threat. Aside from the fact that males already have basic training as a result of mandatory military service, the population as a whole can provide valuable big data through the Internet. Although South Korean cyberspace is vulnerable to cyberattacks and disinformation, it can also be an asset for public coordination and intelligence sharing. Many innovative apps already have various functions that can help civilians report shootings and sexual assaults and provide video data. High concentrations of people can give more accurate updates for tactical application such notifications of troop sightings. If South Korea is not too severely crippled by a North Korean EMP strike or the attack more generally, innovative apps may play an important role for civilian support, even if North Koreans successfully jam GPS systems.
It is precisely because of these threats that South Korea should promote a diversity of online programs. If South Korea wants to improve its security, it should consider lifting bans on certain apps like Google Maps that may be essential for community-based information sharing. Limiting online resources to domestic services like Naver and KakaoTalk restrict the online options for Seoul residents and therefore limit the number of targets for North Korean cyberagents. Diversifying online resources, on the other hand, reduces the risks and provides alternative programs to supplement domestic products.
Before conflict arises, creative storywriters could play a role in logically assessing solutions in reaction to an impending megacity conflict and spreading such information through manhwas (comics), dramas, or even videogames. The idea of utilizing the entertainment industry for information-based strategies on North Korean issues is not new, but creative writers should seriously consider stories that make informative assessments and antidotes to complex megacity warfare.
South Korean leaders in the public as well as private sectors should study urban conflicts in populated settings more complex than Mosul and Marawi to devise strategies that make up for the weaknesses in military personnel numbers and experience. Although U.S. deployments of strategic assets are useful for conventional warfare against North Korea, the U.S. should work with South Korea on efforts related to enhancing humanitarian readiness and ground force capabilities in the event of a conflict with North Korea.
Paul Sung is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from dconvertini’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.