Asia expert Ralph Cossa said estimates of the number of Americans in Seoul on any given day run in the 200,000-to-300,000 range, if not more.
Any evacuation would be "extremely daunting, and likely to cause chaos, even if air assets are available, but especially if they are not," said Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, a subsidiary of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command on Oahu, revealed at a Feb. 14 House Armed Services Committee hearing that Gen. Robert Brown, commander of U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter, and his staff had been tasked with creating an updated "noncombatant evacuation operations" plan, or NEO, for South Korea.
Col. Christopher Garver, an Army Pacific spokesman, said, "Without going into classified details, the plans needed an update because the scope and scale of the situation continues to grow and because the war plans themselves have evolved over time. Noncombatant evacuation planning needs to maintain pace with other planning."
President Donald Trump on Friday announced new shipping sanctions against North Korea and said if the sanctions don't work, "We'll have to go phase 2, and phase 2 may be a very rough thing [and] may be very, very unfortunate for the world." He did not go into specifics.
Trump added, "If we can make a deal" with the rogue nation, "it will be a great thing. And if we can't, something will have to happen."
Garver said U.S. Army Pacific has responsibility for developing military aspects of the NEO plan in conjunction with the State Department, with the latter having overall responsibility for noncombatant evacuations.
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md., said at the Feb. 14 hearing that he had talked with U.S. commanders, and it "doesn't seem as if we really have a NEO, a good grasp of what we need to do" in the event of war.
Plans are in place, but Brown, a retired Army Reserve colonel, said he didn't get the sense that rehearsals and walk-throughs had been thought through logistically, including "how, as we're bringing follow-on troops onto the peninsula, we coordinate the dependents and other U.S. citizens."
Cossa, a retired Air Force colonel, said if the United States is flowing troops and equipment into South Korea, those planes could help flow evacuees out, but a significant seaborne evacuation would presumably be needed as well.
"And if the Americans are going home, you can bet the Japanese, Chinese, etc. will not be far behind, which would cause widespread panic," Cossa said.
Some have suggested moving civilians out of South Korea before war occurs, which Cossa said creates a dilemma.
"A pre-strike NEO would be a warning to the North and could even trigger a pre-emptive attack by Pyongyang if the North assumed that an attack is imminent," Cossa said. "Not doing it in advance puts the lives of many innocent civilians at risk and would be indefensible morally."
John Weaver, an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania who was a company commander in South Korea in the late 1990s, said if there is a war, North Korea could target South Korean airfields, "which would prevent us from possibly using them for NEO operations."
"It would be extremely difficult because where equipment and personnel are being dropped off might not be the same airfields as where [military] dependents might be arriving," he said.
Traffic challenges would exist getting civilians to NEO points. Weaver added, "When we went through these drills in the late 1990s, we even knew back then how daunting this task would be."
David Santoro, another analyst with the Pacific Forum in Honolulu, said the United States may be realizing that existing evacuation plans are not adequate.
"I don't even know know whether it's possible to have adequate plans, to be honest," he said. Santoro added, "There's no way we could evacuate people in a timely fashion. I have no doubt that a lot of people, a lot of Americans, would die."
This article was written by William Cole from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.