North Korea’s ability to turn Seoul into a “Sea of Fire” has been a long-lauded talking point since Pyongyang first made the threat in the 1990s. While it is true that North Korea does have artillery that can hit the South Korean capital, the ability of that weaponry “level” Seoul or turn it into a Sea of Fire is, at the very least, severely overstated. As with most rhetoric emerging from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capability falls far short of what they suggest.
At first, the numbers seem quite daunting: North Korea possesses between 10,000 and 12,000 artillery pieces, the majority of which is positioned along the border area with South Korea. The threat of a Sea of Fire ostensibly comes from the ability to fire all of these weapons upon the South Korean capital. However, there is far more to the story than just raw numbers.
While North Korea does possess a very large amount of artillery, most of this artillery is very old – vintage equipment from the cold war era. In actuality, most North Korean artillery does not possess the necessary range to strike Seoul. Only certain advanced systems – namely, the Koksan 170mm and 240mm and 300m Multiple Launch Rockets (MLRs) – have the range to hit Seoul. The overwhelming majority of North Korean artillery can only hit just south of the DMZ or cannot hit South Korea at all, due to poor range or being held in reserve.
This being the case, the amount of North Korean artillery that can hit actually hit Seoul numbers in the hundreds, not thousands. In addition, this number is further reduced by the fact that most of these systems can only put effective fire on Seoul from within the Kaesong salient – the area of North Korea closest to Seoul. While the Kaesong salient offers many locations to hide and fortify artillery and rocket units, it cannot accomodate all of North Korea’s advanced systems. That being the case, while North Korea has between 600-700 weapon systems that can theoretically hit Seoul, the number of weapon systems actually in the field and ready to fire is likely far less than this number, particularly when one considers that the North likely has some of their systems held in reserve. That being said, however, even this number can be very dangerous. This is still enough artillery to saturate the northern portion of Seoul with fire and cause significant causalities – though it will be a far, far cry away from “leveling” the city. There are, however, problems with this calculus.
When we imagine an artillery barrage of Seoul, we often envision a pre-planned, almost simultaneous firing of all of North Korea’s artillery systems at once, with near-perfect accuracy on target and few, if any, mechanical problems. This is, inherently, a very unlikely scenario for North Korea’s artillery forces. There is very good reason to believe that North Korean artillery would not perform this well – separate from the fact that North Korea is unlikely to engage in a pre-planned and premeditated artillery barrage such as the one described here. The shelling of Yeongpyeong island in 2010 is a prime example of a pre-planned and premeditated North Korean artillery barrage that revealed poor performance on the part of North Korea’s artillery forces.
In 2010, North Korea shelled the South Korean island of Yeongpyeong. Despite the fact that four people were killed, the damage to the island could have – and should have – been far worse. However, the North Korean artillery forces involved performed quite poorly in three particular areas.
The first area is fire capacity. North Korea eventually fired around 170 shells at the island. This was odd, as the artillery and rocket
systems involved in the attack should have been able to fire upwards of 285 shells – or 60% more than what was actually fired. It is not clear whether this was due to a mechanical issue, or the artillery crews evacuating for fear of counter-battery fire. Either way, the North Korean artillery unit did not fire its full capacity during the attack.
The second area is accuracy. Of the 172 shells fired at the island, only 80 actually hit the island – resulting in a hit rate of less than 50%. Needless to say, this is a very poor hit rate, particularly given the fact that this was, again, a pre-planned and premeditated attack. Despite prior preparations, the North Korean artillery could only place just over 45% of shots onto the target.
The last area is effect. Out of the 80 shells that hit the island, 20 of them failed to detonate – a an effective “dud” rate of 25%. In comparison, the US military accepts an artillery dud rate of 2-5%, making 25% many times higher than the modern norm. This was most likely due to age and poor maintaining of the ordnance involved though, considering the premeditated nature of the attack, one would expect the North Koreans to have used relatively serviceable equipment for maximum effect. Nevertheless, in this attack, one in four North Korean shells failed to detonate on impact.
Thus, in the most recent example of a pre-planned and premeditated North Korean artillery attack, North Korea’s artillery forces failed to fire at maximum capacity, placed less than 50% of ordnance on the target, and suffered a dud rate of 25%. In other words, a very poor performance.
Returning to idea of a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul – North Korea’s 600-700 high caliber artillery and rocket systems capable of reaching Seoul could kill a lot of people… if it offered performance superior to that of the artillery units involved in the Yeonpyeong island attack. However, there is still yet another caveat to consider: a North Korean artillery attack is unlikely to be as coordinated and pre-planned as that of Yeongpyeong island, for a number of reasons. North Korea’s artillery forces are, nominally, a defensive measure. North Korea has no intention of attacking and invading South Korea at present – meaning that an artillery attack on South Korea would, by necessity, have to come in response to something, most likely a military attack by South Korea and the US. In this case, North Korea’s artillery attack would be entirely reactionary – in other words, not pre-planned, and not premeditated. Thus, in this most likely scenario, there is real doubt as to whether North Korea’s artillery forces as a whole will offer performance superior to that observed in the attack on Yeonpyeong.
Regardless of speculation on the performance attributes of North Korea’s artillery forces, South Korea is not without its own countermeasures for North Korean artillery. It is worth noting in this case that South Korea itself has between 6,000 and 7,000 artillery pieces in addition to a substantial number of land and ship-based missile systems and counter-battery radar – this is in addition to US assets in the area. Many of these systems are trained on known North Korean artillery positions and are tasked with quickly eliminating such positions in the event of a war. As such, if war were to erupt, much (perhaps most) of North Korea’s artillery and rocket systems could be destroyed outright – with previously undetected positions being detected and subsequently taken out after firing. This is particularly true if South Korea and the US attack first. Realistically speaking, South Korea counterbattery fire would quickly silence most North Korean artillery within minutes, particularly the artillery ostensibly tasked with attacking Seoul. Of course, this still leaves the problem of North Korea’s nuclear and IRBM forces, but that is a different article for a different day.
In the end, there is much hype about North Korea’s artillery forces. Indeed, in terms of damage dealt to Seoul, North Korea’s artillery forces could be deadly if very specific and unlikely conditions are met:
If North Korean Artillery Forces attack first and in a coordinated, pre-planned, fashion (very unlikely to happen, since North Korea does not plan to outright attack South Korea).
If North Korea Artillery Forces perform better than they did during the Yeonpyeong Island attack (also unlikely, given the fact that a North Korean artillery barrage would be reactionary – meaning it is not premeditated or pre-planned and must of carried out under wartime conditions and threat of counter-battery fire – all of which will likely degrade performance).
If the several hundred guns capable of hitting Seoul are able to fire relatively uninterrupted and at maximum efficiency (Incredibly unlikely, given that South Korean artillery and rockets will respond with devastating counterbattery fire within minutes).
If North Korea has chosen for its artillery to act purely in a counter-value manner – that is, to focus on maximizing civilian casualties rather than defending against advancing ROK-US military units (possible, but unlikely given the fact that this would leave North Korea incredibly vulnerable to counter-battery fire, interdiction from the air, and perhaps even invasion from the ground from ROK-US forces unhindered by artillery fire).
Given the (un)likelihood of meeting these conditions, it must be said that North Korea’s artillery capabilities are, at a minimum, incredibly blown out of proportion. Even at maximum efficiency and under the best circumstances, North Korean artillery would not come anywhere close to “leveling” Seoul or turning it into a “Sea of Fire.” Furthermore, if a military strike were to be conducted against North Korea, it is likely that North Korea’s artillery forces would among the very first targets to be struck, along with its nuclear and missile capabilities.
Of course, this still leaves the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack – which is possible if North Korea is capable of successfully delivering a weapon to the intended target, whether that be via aircraft (unlikely) or missiles (more likely). Whether or not North Korea has this capability (yet) is open to debate. But, again, that is a different article for a different day. For now, we can sleep easy about the prospects about North Korea turning Seoul into a “Sea of Fire” (via conventional weapons).