This article is meant to offer an answer to the following question posted on Quora:
“Who would win in this war: the USA, the U.K, Japan, and South Korea vs Russia, China, and North Korea?”
Without hyperbole, this has the potential to become a war to end all wars. Involving most of the world’s largest and most powerful armies and nuclear arsenals (except those of India), another Korean War would probably qualify as World War III, especially if it escalated into a nuclear conflict.
If the seven countries mentioned in the question got into a non-nuclear war with each other, things could unfold differently.
Firstly, it would depend why they went to war, and where the geographical focus of that war was.
Given the countries involved, it seems likely that the Korean Peninsula would be the focal point of such a war — especially given the current state of tension between North Korea and the United States. Of course, South Korea would also fight on the U.S. side in such a conflict.
Though the reason for the tension — North Korea’s nuclear and missile development program — causes some to speculate that the conflict would indeed be a nuclear one, one Pentagon official has reportedly said a ground invasion would be needed to destroy the North’s nuclear missiles. Given that both sides have some of the biggest armies in the world, pitting them against each other in the mountainous Korean Peninsula threatens to be a very bloody conflict, as was the first Korean War (1950-1953).
Some speculate that China would play a role in attempting to defend North Korea from a U.S. attack, because it doesn’t want a victorious U.S. to occupy North Korea’s current territory, on its northeastern border, and it would feel compelled to defend a fellow self-styled people’s republic in order to avoid losing legitimacy in the eyes of its own people.
That leaves Russia, Japan and the U.K.
There is little talk of what side Russia would fight on in such a conflict and much talk of how keen it is to avoid one. Russia has little to gain from a war near its Pacific shores on the Korean Peninsula and plenty to lose: a flood of refugees over its short border with North Korea, nuclear fallout if atomic weapons were used, and the risk of a wider conflict with the U.S. and U.K. for starters. Since the former Soviet Union did not officially take part in the Korean War even as a communist ally of North Korea, there is little reason to think Russia — the Soviet Union’s biggest country — would do so now.
Japan, too, has much to lose from being drawn into a conflict with North Korea. Some experts also speculate that North Korea would have little to gain from attacking Japan. But Japan is reportedly building up an arsenal of drones and missiles that could be used against the North in case it attacked Japan first. (Some commentators assert that North Korea provides Japanese leader Shinzo Abe with a convenient pretext for his long-term ambition of reforming Japan’s pacifist constitution.) Japan also hosts American forces on its soil; if the U.S. decides to use its base in Okinawa for fighting the conflict on the Korean Peninsula (and there are debates as to whether the U.S. needs Japanese consent for this), Japan will find itself drawn in whether the country wishes it or not.
The U.K. reportedly has drawn up plans to join in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula by sending naval support, though this would probably amount to little more than a material show of support for the U.S. and South Korea.
So it does appear possible that six of the seven states, with the probable exception of Russia, could be drawn to some extent into a non-nuclear conflict centered on the Korean Peninsula.
The general consensus is that the U.S.-led side would win a one-on-one war against China due to perceived superior joint warfighting capabilities (coordination between land, sea, air and other forces) and China’s relative lack of combat experience. It is also widely believed that the U.S. could defeat North Korea one-on-one, albeit after a long war involving huge loss of life on all sides and devastating material damage on the Korean Peninsula. However, some have cautioned that this is not a given, and that North Korea could at least secure a stalemate through various forms of asymmetrical warfare and possible greater troop morale and motivation.
South Korea and the U.S. are now major trading partners with China. Even if China and North Korea ended up fighting a conventional war against the U.S. and South Korea on the Korean Peninsula, it is difficult to imagine China supporting regime change in South Korea in order to reunify the peninsula under the North’s current leadership. And it is doubtful whether the U.S. would be willing to abandon South Korea to North Korean and/or Chinese control.
Ultimately, it’s hard to see the biggest powers in this equation — the U.S., China and Russia — willing to go to all-out war against each other because of events on the Korean Peninsula. This means that a ground war on the Korean Peninsula may well end up with a similar stalemate to the one in place today, which was reached with the armistice which temporarily halted the first Korean War in 1953.
The possible implications of a war between the U.S. and Russia, especially during the Cold War years, have inspired horror for decades. Before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was assumed that the two superpowers’ massive nuclear arsenals, if both unleashed, would have catastrophic results for the whole planet. With most major cities in both countries destroyed, tens of millions of their people killed, their economies in tatters and large swathes of their territory dangerously irradiated for decades, there would be no real “winner” of such a conflict. This apocalyptic scenario gave rise to the concept of “mutually assured destruction” and was so scary that some credit it with keeping the peace throughout the Cold War.
Nowadays, the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Cold War is over, but the U.S. and Russia each retain hundreds of intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles capable of bringing about nuclear armageddon. Mutual mistrust and animosity, particularly over geopolitical influence in eastern Europe, have endured between the two states despite the end of the ideological conflict that came with the collapse of the socialist U.S.S.R. China is thought to possess more than 200 nuclear missiles — and this number is growing. The U.K. has submarine-fired nuclear missiles of its own, and North Korea, of course, is developing its own nukes. If all five of these nuclear powers started firing on all silos, there is no telling who would “win” the conflict unless one side officially surrendered first.
Ben Jackson authored this article.
Cover image: The Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test of 1954. (Source: United States Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
For more on South Korea’s relationship with North Korea, read: