The more common term for the potential fate of the South Korean capital, casually dropped on recent radio and television news reports, as well as in AOL news op-eds from earlier this year, is that it would be "flattened." Analysis from went so far as to gauge how long this would take: "Its conventional artillery capability would allow North Korea to flatten Seoul in the first half-hour of any confrontation."
Forget that North Korea would be committing strategic and political suicide with a full-scale bombardment of Seoul. If a storm of artillery rounds fell on Seoul, would the city really disintegrate?
"Artillery is not that lethal," says Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is a national security analyst for ABC News. "It takes a long time for it to produce the densities of fire to go beyond terrorism and harassment." Even in a worst-case scenario, where both U.S. and South Korean forces are somehow paralyzed or otherwise engaged, and North Korea fires its 170mm artillery batteries and 240mm rocket launchers with total impunity, the grim reality wouldn't live up to the hype. Buildings would be perforated, fires would inevitably rage and an unknown number of people would die. Seoul would be under siege—but it wouldn't be flattened, destroyed or leveled.
If this sounds like squabbling over semantics, it is. But semantics and language matter. The casual, and largely unsupported references to Seoul's potential flattening punctuates the notion that Kim Jong Il is holding a city hostage. It recasts a complex strategic vulnerability as a cartoon: an entire city facing a perpetual firing squad. It also ignores physical laws, and the realities of modern warfare.
Barring the use of nuclear weapons or large-scale bombing runs, destroying a city requires an extended campaign of shelling and demolition, the likes of which the world hasn't seen since WWII. When the Chechen capital of Grozny was all-but-destroyed by Russian forces in 1999, it was the result of months of artillery and missile bombardments, as well as air strikes. There's no doubt that North Korea's massive deployment of artillery, and potential deployment of roughly 300 ballistic missiles, could wreak havoc on Seoul and its population. What's clear, however, is that a sudden barrage of shells and missiles would only mark the beginning of a battle for the city, not an apocalyptic fait accomplit.
And as Cordesman points out, flattening, levelling or otherwise destroying a city is an obsolete tactic. The firestorms of the past century have been replaced with surgical, precision-guided strikes, which can disable a city's communications, cut off its power and water supply, and pave the way for a ground invasion. "That's the real world," Cordesman says. "Not Dresden." The accuracy of North Korea's roughly 300 ballistic missiles is either classified or simply unknown, but nearly all are believed to rely on "strap-on" guidance, cobbled-together targeting systems that can't compete with modern smart bombs.
That North Korea and its astonishing array of artillery poses a significant threat to Seoul is obvious. But to understand the exact dimensions of that threat, and what's at stake in a potential full-scale war, the caricature of a city wiped off the map isn't helping anyone.