KEY POINTS

  • A one-hour barrage from North Korea's artillary arsenal is capable of killing up to 200,000 South Koreans, a new study says
  • North Korea's 6,000 guns and rocket launchers could be used to terrorize eoul in the event of a local crisis
  • Analysts say an invasion by North Korea would be met by a swift and costly response from South Korean and U.S. forces

The Korean People's Army's 6,000 artillery and rocket systems are capable of hurling more than 10,000 artillery rounds and unguided rockets per minute at the South Korean capital of Seoul, a new study says.

This unimaginable deluge of steel and death could kill up to 200,000 South Koreans inside an hour while leveling the northwestern part of the city in range of the KPA's big guns. That's 3,333 dead people per minute, or 55 per second in a city with 10 million residents.

Another 25 million people live in the greater Seoul area. This means some 35 million people might be engulfed by the "sea of fire" North Korea has promised to unleash for decades. A massive death toll in Seoul would be expected, which is why the city has built 23 square kilometers of bomb shelters as a precaution.

This scenario was war-gamed innumerable times as  a potential second North Korean invasion of the South after the Korean War erupted in 1950. Some military analysts, however, suggest such a move would prove costly for North Korea.

They point out the sobering military reality any move to mass these guns to fire would quickly be detected by both the Republic of Korea Armed Forces and the U.S. Forces Korea. North Korean fire would immediately be met with overwhelming counterfire, as well as air strikes.

A new study by the RAND Corporation argues that pummeling Seoul with fire won't mean an invasion of the South is at hand. Instead, North Korea might open fire on Seoul in order to terrorize the population.

“We assessed how North Korea might use their artillery as terror weapons,”  said RAND researcher Timothy Bonds to Forbes.

He said to be effective against military targets, the North Koreans would need to mass their weapons, which makes their artillery and rocket launchers vulnerable to South Korean or U.S. airstrikes. They would also need to aim their fires to be effective, “which takes time and multiple volleys.”

He said other military analyses mostly examine the conventional theory North Korea would deploy its massive artillery army as part of a ground invasion with the swift capture of Seoul as its main initial objective.

North Korean artillery A multiple rocket launcher shoots during an exercise in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, July 15, 2014. Photo: Reuters/KCNA

On the other hand, using their immense artillery forces as a terror, or psychological, weapon offers North Korea more flexibility, contends Bonds.

“Given the increasing South Korean population density close to the DMZ, aiming would be easy: point south and short-range artillery would hit a South Korean factory, town or city along the DMZ,” he said.

“Long-range artillery pointed south would eventually hit somewhere in the Seoul metropolitan area. And the artillery would only need to be exposed long enough to fire a shell or two, or launch a volley of rockets. After they fire, they can return to their hardened underground bunker and shut the blast doors.”

This "shoot-and-scoot" tactic would make it harder for both the South Koreans and Americans to destroy the North's artllery and rocket systems. Some 4,000 of these guns and missile launchers are hidden inside tunnels and concrete bunkers. These weapons only need to expose themselves for a few minutes, fire southwards and retreat to the safety of the bomb-proof shelters.

An even more horrific scenario is North Korea using its massive artillery arsenal to bloody South Korea's nose during a crisis. RAND modeled five scenarios in which the North uses its artillery other than as a prelude to a new invasion of South Korea.

The worst scenario is one where the North opens fire with 5,700 artillery pieces on Seoul, unleashing 385,000 rounds in one hour. The estimated toll would be 205,600 killed and wounded, and 1.9 million more traumatized.

The next deadliest of the five, or the “Sea of Fire” scenario, sees the North using 320 heavy howitzers and rocket launchers to blast Seoul with 14,000 rounds in one hour. This intense barrage might inflict 130,000 casualties. Another 1.2 million people might be traumatized.

The other four scenarios are tamer versions of these two, but all are hoped to be avoided. The worst case scenario would be the use of nuclear weapons, which North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently boasted about developing.