North Korea Can’t Really Turn Seoul Into a “Sea of Fire”

For more than a decade, conventional wisdom has held that North Korea could subject the South Korean capital of Seoul to devastating artillery attack.

With a greater metropolitan population of 24 million, Seoul has the largest population density of all the OECD countries, eight times more dense than New York City and three times more dense than Tokyo and Yokohama.

Aimed at Seoul, North Korea’s prodigious amount of artillery, particularly its 170mm Koksan guns and 240mm multiple rocket launchers, could kill “millions of people” in the event of war on the Korean Peninsula.

The “sea of fire” scenario first surfaced after the Clinton Administration decided not to attack North Korean nuclear facilities in 1994. Coincidence? Maybe, but since then it’s been used to trump discussion of any military action against North Korea, for whatever reason.

Uncertainty about how military action would play out, as well as the North’s unpredictability, means that virtually anything anyone proposed risked the “sea of Fire.” This haunting scenario has played a role in how policymakers and wonks view engagement with the North.

Is North Korea unpredictable? Yes. Does it have an enormous amount of artillery? Yes. Are many of the artillery pieces in cover? Yes? Could an artillery attack on Seoul kill “millions”? Probably not. Read more