Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gaming a new Korean war

Over at Kotaku, Michael Peck suggests Even Our Best Video Games Can’t Predict What Kim Jong-Un Would Do To Win a New Korean War.

It is curious that there are far more  games on a Soviet invasion of West Germany that never happened than a Communist assault on South Korea that actually did. It is even more curious that there haven’t been more games on a Second Korean War, given how volatile the region is.

The Demilitarized Zone between the two nations is the most heavily armed border in the world. The two Koreas together are only about the size of Nebraska, but they have close to two million soldiers, 10,000 tanks, and enough firepower – even without North Korea’s nukes – to turn the peninsula into a wasteland.

The specter of war has hovered for 60 years, but the dogs of war are barking more loudly than ever, incited by hard times in the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea’s economy has collapsed, its people have been reduced to eating grass, and its latest rocket ended up in the Yellow Sea instead of outer space. So we have a desperate regime that, like the high school juvenile delinquent, believes that bluster and threats will terrify the world into meeting its demands.

At the same time, South Korea is taking a harder line against North Korean artillery barrages and attacks on South Korean warships, and it won’t take much in the way of malice or miscalculation to ignite a conflict. The First Korean War was a UN “police action” (as Alan Alda complains in “MASH”, “If this is a police action, where are the cops?”). The Second Korean War could be anything from a targeted strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, to all-out regime change by U.S. and South Korean armies, to a “what the hell, we’re going down, let’s throw the dice” invasion of South Korea by the North.

Can wargaming illuminate a Second Korean War? To some extent, yes.

The piece mentions Seoul’s vulnerability to North Koreas large arsenal of conventional artillery, although it doesn’t raise the question of what the DPRK might do with its few poorly-designed nuclear weapons (which, at the moment, are probably not small enough to fit on ballistic missiles) or how others might respond to their first use. Then again, Michael does stress that “One reason why wargames were invented was so that commanders wouldn’t be surprised by what happened on the real battlefield. But we can pretty sure that whatever happens in Korea, it won’t be what we expected.”

* * *

Regarding boardgames, there are a handful that cover possible wars in the 1970s through to the 2000s, including Crisis Korea: 1995 and  Millennium Wars: Korea. GMT’s Next War: Korea, which has optional rules for an initial DPRK nuclear strike at the South Korean port of Busan, is slated for publication later this year.

7 responses to “Gaming a new Korean war

  1. Elyssebeth Leigh 01/05/2012 at 4:13 pm

    Perhaps the reason why ” there are far more games on a Soviet invasion of West Germany that never happened than a Communist assault on South Korea that actually did.” is because the latter is a ‘battle’ of philosophies, values and culture’ whereas the former would have been a battle of economics and military strategy.
    As various game designers of human interaction games [ see for example Gary Shirts and Dick Duke] have shown it is far harder to ‘game’ culture and there is an enduring uncertainty of the outcomes that does not easily lend itself to more numerically driven military strategising.

  2. Rex Brynen 01/05/2012 at 1:50 pm

    It seems to me there are several interesting game-able nuclear issues here, as part of a broader war-game:

    1) As I suggested earlier, an allied player has to worry whether certain types of attacks against DPRK infrastructure might trigger DPRK escalation. Imagine every airstrike against Pyongyang came with a 3% chance of a North Korean nuclear response–would you attack targets around Pyongyang at all, or err on the side of caution?

    2) Does NK really get pulverized after nuclear first use? Lets say it nukes a ROK port–but keeps a half dozen nukes in reserve, threatening to use them against Seoul (or Tokyo). What would the appropriate allied retaliatory strategy be?

    3) Because the DPRK is likely reliant on air delivery of its weapons, and the allies are likely to rapidly establish air dominance, North Korea faces a potential use-the-or-lose-them trade-off in war.

    4) Similarly, any attempt to use some of its nukes run the risks of the strike being intercepted: the DPRK loses one of its small stockpile, while the world recognizes the attempt from the now radioactive wreckage of a Su-25. Equally (like its first test) its weapon might fizzle, thereby undercutting the perceived threat of its nuclear deterrence.

  3. Michael Peck 01/05/2012 at 1:21 pm

    Is NK nukes a topic that not even Brian Train could turn into a game? If NK has nukes, they would be a limited number for a limited number of delivery platforms. Either they would reach Seoul or Tokyo, or they wouldn’t. Don’t think an missile defense game would be interesting. Seems to me this would be a political game where the game basically ends if negotiations fail and NK launches (and is immediately pulverized), or a military game where the goal is to destroy Pyongyang’s WMD before they can launch them.


  4. Rex Brynen 01/05/2012 at 12:59 pm

    Iron Dome is intended to provide a very localized defence against artillery rockets, etc–it isn’t intended for use against ballistic missiles or aircraft. South Korea doesn’t really have much missile defence capability yet, although it is working on it. the US does have some ABM capability (PAC-3s and Aegis) in theatre.

    However, as noted earlier, the DPRK probably doesn’t (yet) have a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on a missile, so any delivery would likely be by aircraft.

  5. seachangesimulations 01/05/2012 at 11:46 am

    Are people working in these ‘Iron Dome’ defense systems into these? I think that could be one of the most destabilizing technologies. Right before the S. Koreans flip the on switch, the North will have tremendous incentive to act.
    (BTW, I do hope the South gets a good iron dome, just that it is put in quickly and silently.)

  6. Rex Brynen 01/05/2012 at 10:42 am

    It depends to a large extent on what one assumes about the size and effectiveness of the DPRK nuclear arsenal, as well as when and how it uses them. The Arms Control Wonk piece I linked above suggests that if North Korea’s nukes are as bad as their two tests suggest, they would have surprisingly little effect even used against port facilities. On the other hand, more and better nukes would be more effective at damaging transport nodes, destroying key military airfields, or striking at troop concentrations.

    Strategically, DPRK nukes might deter certain allied actions (raids against Pyongyang, Japan’s willingness to support North Korea, etc). Indeed, one could imagine a rather good game dynamic (a bit like Twilight Struggle) where certain allied actions increase the risk of an unpredictable DPRK leadership escalating to a nuclear option.

    I agree–plenty of interesting wargaming potential!

  7. Michael Peck 01/05/2012 at 10:32 am

    I didn’t address NK using nukes because it wouldn’t really be war – more like a spasm – and there isn’t much to game there. Unless you’re paying Missile Command (one of my favorites, even I can’t make it past the first five rounds). But there is fertile wargaming ground here, with big-war force-on-force, asymmetric warfare, etc.


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