Pundits ponder the arithmetic of death of another war

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The Independent Online
A CARTOON in an Ohio newspaper caught the mood perfectly. A reporter is interviewing a D-Day veteran who took part in one of last week's commemorative parachute jumps over Normandy. The really tough part, recalls the grizzled old soldier, 'was after winning WWII, I got called back to go fight in Korea'. Oh, says the reporter, 'When do you leave?'

Fresh back from the celebrations of a turning-point in one devastating conflict, half a century ago, President Clinton has returned to Washington to deal with the possibility of a new war where US troops would be in the front line - against the same unpredictable adversary whose invasion of South Korea in 1950 ultimately cost 55,000 American lives, almost as many as in Vietnam.

That explains why Washington is so jittery about the confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear programme, and the daily sabre-rattling by Pyongyang against the US, South Korea and Japan. In some respects the crisis involving the last Stalinist hold-out is surreal: is half of east Asia to go up in flames because of the nuclear ambitions of an isolated dictatorship?

But newspapers now run daily maps showing how the 620-mile range of North Korea's new Rodong missile, an uprated version of the Scud, almost reaches Tokyo. It is scant consolation that a war now would be shorter and less bloody. This time, for all its opposition to sanctions, China would not send troops to join the North Korean army, nor would Russia be an ally.

But military specialists believe American casualties would be heavy if North Korea did what it did in the early hours of 25 June 1950 and launched a full-out frontal attack across the 38th parallel.

Under scenarios starting to appear in the US press, advance notice of the attack might be only 12 hours. The first response of the Pentagon would be to use its air superiority, reinforced by planes from Japan and from aircraft carriers, to stage retaliatory strikes against North Korean troops and targets. Even so, some analysts warn, the North's 1.2-million army could overrun Seoul, 35 miles south of the border, despite the 650,000 South Korean and 35,000 US troops already in the South.

In the next phase the US, alone or helped by allies, would send reinforcements (up to 400,000 men, compared to 500,000 in Operation Desert Storm). Ultimately, it is assumed, they would prevail, and within two or three months, not the three years it took between 1950 and 1953. But one prediction is of 20,000 US casualties. North and South Korean military and civilian casualties would be far higher. That is the grimmest denouement of the Korean crisis. Right now, no one knows what will happen, but confrontation seems bound to escalate.

According to an ABC-TV survey, the country is more or less evenly split on use of military force. Confidence in Mr Clinton's handling of the crisis has dropped from 57 per cent to 41 per cent in two months. But for once his Republican opponents are not taking easy shots - another sign that this is not Haiti, Somalia or Bosnia, but the most dangerous foreign crisis of his presidency.