Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford recently told Congress that a war with North Korea would devastate Seoul, inflict horrendous casualties, and be unstoppable at the outset.
"It would be a war like nothing we have seen since 1953, and we would have to deal with it with whatever level of force was necessary," Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee in June 12 testimony. "It would be a very, very serious war."
Much of the focus on the North Korean threat has been on the North's drive to develop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile with a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, but Dunford said the conventional threat in the form of long-range artillery on rails and in hardened bunkers along the demilitarized zone would also be formidable.
In response to questions from Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., Dunford said, "There's 25 million people in Seoul, and 300,000 of those are Americans who are within range of thousands of rockets, missiles and artillery pieces along the border.
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"I don't have any doubt in my mind, if we go to war with North Korea, that we will win the war," he said, but warned that "we will see casualties unlike anything we've seen in 60 or 70 years."
Dunford said that the bulk of the casualties would come "in the first three, five, seven days of the war, where all those people in the greater Seoul area are exposed to the North Korean threat that we will not be able to mitigate initially."
Mattis stressed that diplomacy, coupled with economic sanctions, must take precedence in attempts to restrain North Korea. As part of that effort, he joined with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department on Wednesday for talks in the U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue.
The talks were the outgrowth of the April summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. Yang Jiechi, China's top foreign policy official, and Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, led the Chinese delegation.
Trump had counted on China using its influence and economic heft to rein in North Korea's Kim Jong-un but appeared to back off that approach after the death of American college student Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier died Monday at an Ohio hospital five days after he was evacuated in a coma from North Korea, where he had been held prisoner for 17 months.
On Tuesday, Trump took to Twitter: "While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!"
At the State Department, Tillerson and Mattis said the efforts are continuing despite Warmbier's death, but Tillerson said, "We need to address directly, very frankly, areas where we face threats. The most acute threat in the region today is posed by the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]. China understands that the U.S. regards North Korea as our top security threat."
Mattis said he reaffirmed with his Chinese counterpart that North Korea's nuclear programs pose a threat to the region and the world. Without giving details, Mattis said, "We will continue to take necessary measures to defend ourselves and our allies."
The SecDef said he agrees with the anger and frustration of Trump and the American people over the treatment of Warmbier, who was arrested and tried for allegedly taking a propaganda poster as a souvenir.
"We see a young man go over there healthy and, with a minor act of mischief, come home dead," Mattis said. "There's no way we can look at a situation like this with any way of understanding."
He said Americans had lost patience "with a regime that provokes and provokes and provokes."
"Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden, writing on North Korea in the Atlantic Monthly, said Trump will soon "collide with the same harsh truth that has stymied all his recent predecessors: There are no good options for dealing with North Korea."
"Right now, the best hope for keeping the country from becoming an operational nuclear power rests, as it long has, with China, which may or may not have enough economic leverage to influence Kim's policy making," said Bowden, who was recently interviewed by Military.com on his new book "Hue 1968."
China "also may not particularly want to do so, since having a friendly neighbor making trouble for Washington and Seoul serves Beijing's interests nicely at times," he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.