Editor's Note: An abbreviated version of this article originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Regardless of one’s opinion of Steve Bannon’s White House legacy, he stated the military conundrum that is North Korea well: “’Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
One solution to the siege of Seoul comes to mind: a large scale, methodical evacuation of residents willing to leave northern Seoul and the towns above it to get them out of the range of Kim Jong Un’s conventional artillery.
Greater Seoul has a population of about 30 million. According to an admittedly outdated estimate, it appears that the northern third of Seoul is in range of these guns, perhaps 10 million people. By this account, the southern part of the city is largely out of harm's way, and there is an extensive network of underground subways and other shelters that can be accessed to reduce remaining exposures. Military planners have updated data I am not privy to, but these estimates are not likely far wrong.
The North Korean artillery pieces capable of reaching South Korea’s capital are the 175mm Koksan self-propelled guns, the M240mm Multiple Rocket Launcher and the newly unveiled 300mm MLR. The later platform can reach below the top third of Seoul but is not yet widely deployed. It soon will be so the longer an evacuation is delayed, the more people will be exposed to these new guns making an evacuation task harder.
One civilian analyst writes: “Artillery shelters for twenty million people exist in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. After the initial surprise [of a North Korean attack] has worn off, there simply won’t be large numbers of exposed people.” If those in the northern third of Seoul and those in the cities and hamlets north of that city have left, Kim Jong Un’s vaunted conventional artillery will have far fewer hostages, and those that remain will be undertaking the risk by choice. Given an option and adequate resources to relocate, the remaining citizens will look to North Korea more like those in the path of a hurricane who refuse to leave and rather less like Kim’s hostages.
Massive But Not the First. As daunting as an evacuation of 10 million people may be, it is not unprecedented. About 14 million Chinese were evacuated from flooding in north China in 1998. In 1971, 18 million people moved from Bangladesh to India to escape Pakistan forces. In 2005, 3 million were evacuated in Texas and Louisiana due to Hurricane Rita.
Recently, the Russians appear to be evacuating 1,500 people from the northern North Korean border near Vladivostok. North Korea will wonder at a much larger companion action in the south letting the North Korean military know, even if the boss does not, that things have changed.
Seeing his hostage pool melt away may also concentrate the mind of the dictator himself. Simply an announcement of a planned evacuation may alter negotiating dynamics, and if implemented, the steady drip, drip drip of evacuees leaving Kim’s gunsights may get serious discussions for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula finally underway.
Where Will They Go? Since the people evacuating their homes would be doing so not only for themselves but also for the greater good of reducing the world’s chances of another nuclear war, they should receive unprecedented international support. Countries should volunteer to assist relocating significant numbers of those who wish to leave. Some relocations would be temporary, some permanent and the costs, whatever they may be, would be comparatively reasonable for an action that contributes to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula or avoids the second use of nuclear weapons on the globe.
The size of the evacuation means it will proceed slowly giving South Korea and her allies ample opportunity to plan and assist the displaced as the North Korean regime contemplates the implications of such an action. The US could take the lead by temporarily accommodating the relocation of hundreds of thousands either financially in the south, in neighboring countries, and even to US soil. Allies would be asked to do the same. Over time, millions could leave the area until the conventional forces of North Korea had virtually no one to shoot at.
Chinese Intrigue. Will this enormous civil undertaking concentrate Chinese minds? The threat of North Korean civilian refugees streaming across the Chinese border is said to explain Chinese inertia on dealing with North Korean intransigence. To the extent the Chinese see a South Korean evacuation effort as a prelude to a military strike that intransigence may melt. Part of the project could be to place large-scale marine transport capability to evacuate refugees across the Yellow Sea to the relative safety of mainland China if war breaks out. This would put a certain symmetry in play, instead of only worrying about thousands of North Koreans streaming across their border with North Korea, the Chinese must consider that there may be hundreds of thousands of South Koreans taking to pre-positioned transports to get to the China coast. The Chinese leadership may focus less on the north and more on their coastlines in the south.
The sixth North Korean nuclear test means things are about to change in this saga. An evacuation option could add an effective, non-lethal arrow to the allies’ diplomatic quiver. However, if a massive drawdown of civilians from Seoul does not succeed in changing North Korean minds on serious negotiations for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, any military confrontation that erupts will result in far fewer South Korean deaths.
Mark Mackie is former Chief Counsel for the US Senate Committee on Rules with an MA in international affairs from the University of Reading, England and now practices law in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.