July 18, 2024

Wargaming the Next Korean War

RockyMountainNavy, 1 June 2022

While we are currently following the war in Ukraine, it is important to remember that there are other potential conflicts out there. The wargame community itself has a few wargames on near-future potential conflicts, the most popular which (at least in terms of publicity) may be Mitchell Land’s Next War-series from GMT Games, including Next War: Taiwan (2014) and Next War: Poland (2017). Another title of relevant interest is John Gorkowski’s South China Sea from Compass Games (2017).

One of the potential conflicts that lingers out there has been doing so for nearly 70 years. As any good student (or lawyer) of history will tell you the Korean War (1950-1953) never really ended. Sure, an Armistice signed July 27, 1953 ended active combat operations but the war itself never officially “ended.”

Major General Blackshear M. Bryan, U.S. Army (2nd from left), Senior Member of the Military Armistice Commission, United Nations’ Command, exchanges credentials with Major General Lee Sang Cho, North Korean Army (3rd from right), Senior Communist delegate, at the Conference Building at Panmunjom, Korea, 28 July 1953. This was the day after the Korean War Armistice went into effect. (Army Signal Corps Collection/U.S. National Archives)


While there are plenty of wargames covering the Korean War of 1950-1953, few address a possible renewed modern or near-future conflict. More than a few of those wargames are tactical-level simulations, but I don’t intend to talk about those here.1 Instead, I wish to focus on operational-level wargames.

Operational-level wargames depicting the “next” war on the Korean peninsula tend to do fair job of depicting a conventional forces battle but fails to keep up with the development of North Korea’s military forces. Furthermore, these wargames tend to be poor at depicting ballistic missiles in a conflict. Many commercial “modern” wargames also are poor at depicting different theories of victory for North Korea, and the potential for nuclear weapons use on—and off—the Korean Peninsula.

Gulf Strike (Victory Games, 1988 2nd Edition)

For most hobby wargamers any inaccuracies are probably acceptable as their emphasis is more likely on playability and enjoyment than any measure of realism. However, a well-designed commercial hobby wargame can have “professional” value; look no further than the stories surrounding the venerable Mark Herman and his wargame Gulf Strike (Victory Games, 1983) that was famously used by the Pentagon in the early days after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.2 Within academic and the professional wargaming communities there seemingly is always an effort to use commercial “off-the-shelf” wargames to inform policy and defense planning processes. It is those wargamers I am addressing my comments to the most, though I sense that hobby wargamers will enjoy a discussion on how different wargames depict potential conflicts.

Disclaimer – In the following piece I am going to point out how various wargames do, or don’t, do a good job of depicting elements of a potential future conflict on the Korean peninsula. To be clear: In no way is any “criticism” intended to be a slight toward a designer or publisher. Rather, I applaud them for attempting to “look forward” instead of being comfortable solely in the past. I hope you will see in these wargames how their great depth of analysis and modeling—more so than I believe they are commonly credited with—has useful applicability to looking at potential futures. Others of you will undoubtably say, “If you don’t like these wargames and want something else then design it!” Maybe someday…


Today’s North Korean Military

Here is how the 2021 North Korea Military Power report publicly released by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) describes the North Korean military of today:

2021 North Korean Military Power (Defense Intelligence Agency)

The evolution of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) from a regional military to an aspiring nuclear force with intercontinental strike capabilities is the result of decades of commitment to two consistent missions given to the military by the Kim family regime: preserve the North Korean state’s independent existence against any external power, and provide the means for North Korea to dominate the Korean Peninsula. Over the course of its existence, the KPA has seen both the decline of some core strengths and the evolution of new capabilities, but it has retained these central roles. Although expanded in scope, the new capabilities North Korea’s military is developing are consistent with its founding objectives. They are intended to hold the United States at bay while preserving the capacity to inflict sufficient damage on the South, such that both countries have no choice but to respect the North’s sovereignty and treat it as an equal.

North Korea’s military poses two direct, overlapping challenges to the United States and its allies: a conventional force consisting mostly of artillery and infantry that can attack South Korea with little advance warning, and a ballistic missile arsenal, intended to be armed with nuclear weapons, that is capable of reaching bases and cities in South Korea and Japan, and the U.S. homeland. Although the conventional threat to the South has evolved slowly over several decades, the rapid pace of development and testing in the nuclear and missile programs between 2012 and 2017 has brought this second possibility closer to reality faster than most international observers had anticipated. These capabilities create growing risk of a military flashpoint in Northeast Asia that could quickly escalate off the Korean Peninsula, possibly across the Pacific Ocean to U.S. soil.3

If a wargame is to model a conflict involving the North Korea of today, it should address those two “overlapping challenges:” an infantry and artillery-heavy conventional force for attacking South Korea and a ballistic missile force, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, that can reach targets on the Korean peninsula and into the region but also as far away as the U.S. homeland. Much like the conventional threat to South Korea has “slowly evolved,” so have wargames. Likewise, the “rapid pace of development and testing in the nuclear and missile programs…has brought this second possibility closer to reality faster…” than wargame designers have…well, designed.


Conventional Wargames for a Conventional War

Mitchell Land’s Next War: Korea wargame from GMT Games (First Edition, 2012 with a 2019 Second Edition) does a very credible job of depicting the conventional force threat to South Korea. And it should, for it is based on a great model of military conflict on the Korean peninsula, Gene Billingsley’s Crisis: Korea 1995 (GMT Games, 1992). Gene developed his game when North Korean conventional military power was perhaps at its height and well suited to offensive operations. In 1991, just a year before Gene’s game, DIA publicly released North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength that laid out the North’s offensive operations. Reading DIA’s description of North Korea’s offensive strategy in 1991 sounds like most any game of Crisis: Korea 1995:

The basic goal of North Korea’s offensive military strategy is to consolidate and control strategic areas of South Korea and quickly destroy the allied defense before the United States can provide significant military reinforcement. North Korea has concentrated troops, self-propelled artillery, and logistic supplies in the forward area between Pyongyang and the Demilitarized Zone. At the onset of hostilities, artillery units would launch massive predatory fires at South Korean defensive fortifications and along the major routes of advance. The Air Force would strike selected ground targets, such as enemy airfields, supply points, and some ground forces. Although the Air Force does not perform close air support for force units in contact with the enemy, it would strike high-value targets and selected tactical terrain prior to offensive operations. North Korean infantry and armored elements of the first-echelon divisions of the forward conventional corps would attempt to penetrate the allied forward defense. The mechanized corps, brigades augmented with attached self-propelled artillery, and combat support elements would attempt to pass through any openings the frontline corps create. The mechanized corps quickly would penetrate deep into South Korea, bypassing and possibly isolating many allied units.

North Korean airborne and sniper units would support the penetration as units from the rear corps reinforce the forward corps’ offensive operations to link with successful North Korean penetration forces. The mechanized forces would continue toward Seoul and other key military objectives with amphibious vehicles and river-crossing units to bridge the Imjin River to the northwest of Seoul. North Korean would attempt to turn the flanks and encircle the South’s divisions deployed to the North of Seoul. Successfully enveloping Seoul would destroy the majority of South Korean ground units and leave the entire country extremely vulnerable to North Korean mechanized and armored forces.4

Crisis: Korea 1995 does a very credible job modeling North Korean offensive operations as explained by DIA in 1991. Crisis: Korea 1995 uses an initiative system that grants the player with that initiative a First Movement/Combat advantage where the non-initiative player is limited to reacting with only “elite” forces. As designer Gene Billingsley puts it, “This mechanism portrays the ebb and flow of combat operations, as the side with the Initiative pushes, exploits, and presses the advantage of momentum until running out of steam.”5 He elaborates on that thought in the Design Notes:

Crisis: Korea 1995 (Courtesy GMT Games)

I created the Initiative system because I wanted to try to reflect the advantages of initiative and momentum on modern warfare while also injecting a feel for the ebb and flow of combat operations…Having the Initiative, whatever it is, allows the force with Initiative great flexibility of options and actions and forces the enemy to react. Thus, I created a Sequence of Play that puts the non-Initiative player in a serious reaction mode. Initiative also opens the door to possible exploitations, thus you find those capabilities only on Initiative turns.6

Notably, designer Gene Billingsley also calls out author Joseph Bermudez for his insight into the North’s Special Forces.7 It should also be noted that ballistic missiles do not make an appearance in Crisis: Korea 1995, though cruise missiles are included. In retrospect this is not surprising given the Air Game in Crisis: Korea 1995 was heavily influenced by the then-recent experiences in Operation DESERT STORM.8


Interlude – Korea ’95: The Next Korean War

Korea ’95: The Next War in Korea (Courtesy BGG)

[Interestingly, there is another “Korean War in 1995” wargame out there; Korea ’95: The Next War in Korea by Charles T. Kamps Jr. published in CounterAttack magazine issue #4 in March 1993. Although published in 1993, a cursory examination of sources used reveals the design is based on documents accumulated in the late-1970s and mid-1980s and conveys an even-then outdated depiction of the military situation on the peninsula. As a result, the game design assumes a very dated North Korean Army. As stated in the Player’s Notes, “Despite the technological advances of the past forty years, the North Korean Army is prepared for nothing more than a typical 1944-era Soviet-style offensive: mass every available asset; attack, attack, attack; and continue to attack to move forward toward the geographic objectives until supply or enemy resistance forces a halt to the operation.” That and an assumption that US and South Korean airpower would be decisive. Unconventional warfare units are included, but the concept of a “Second Front” is poorly depicted. Ballistic missiles are also totally missing from the design. The resulting game is indeed nothing more than a rehash of World War II with devastating allied airpower played out in Korea.]9


From Crisis to Next War

Fortunately for us, the design of Next War: Korea was not a direct copy but an evolution from its predecessor, Crisis: Korea 1995. Between the publication of Crisis: Korea 1995 in 1992 and Next War: Korea in 2012 the North Korean military evolved and, likewise, wargame designers needed to keep up.10

Next War: Korea (Courtesy GMT Games)

The 1990’s proved to be especially challenging times for the North Korean military. In addition to dealing with a famine and near-total collapse of the country following the end of the Cold War and subsequent loss of Soviet aid, the North Korean military was forced to address changes in warfare. Looking to lessons from the 1991 Gulf War, North Korea noted that it took the United States a significant amount of time to deploy military forces. They also noted it takes time for the U.S. to build international coalitions. In matters more militarily focused, the ability for the U.S. to deliver precision strikes and destroy the Iraqi forces reinforced to North Korean military planners the need for expansive underground facilities to protect personnel and equipment. The 1999 Kosovo War allowed the North Koreans to study how the U.S. operated in terrain and weather similar to the Korean peninsula and see the effects they had on U.S. high-tech weapons. This spurred North Korean analysis of how to avoid and survive air strikes—to include the use of cyber warfare—by finding ways to disrupt satellites, the Internet, and radio waves.11

This “revolution in warfare” is reflected in the evolution of the design between Crisis: Korea 1995 and Next War: Korea. Like Crisis: Korea 1995, the newer Next War: Korea is ideally suited for depicting the conventional conflict on the peninsula with its core emphasis on conventional maneuver combat and exploitation as well as a robust Air Game and Special Forces. Next War: Korea also added “Theater Weapons” and nukes. Notably, Next War: Series Supplement #1 added rules for cyberwar.12

The various rules published in Next War: Supplement 1 and Next War: Supplement 2 (GMT Games, 2019) have slowly evolved the game model. In 2019, GMT Games released a Second Edition with the most up-to-date compilation of the rules and a more current order of battle. The game evolved somewhat like the threat.

Following his father’s death in 2011 and his own rise to power, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un retained a focus on his conventional force capabilities while at the same time accelerating the pace and development of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. From 2011 to 2017, young Kim emphasized the centrality of the Korean People’s Army to his regime through many visits to military units. He directed more realism and complexity for military training. He smiled widely at high-profile artillery firepower demonstrations and Air Force pilot competitions and laughed at special forces raid training on mock-ups of the South Korean Blue House—then the presidential residence. In many ways, this is the North Korean military depicted in the second edition update to Next War: Korea released in 2019.


Wither North Korea?

North Korean publicized events in late 2020 and into 2021 indicate a pace of weapons development and modernization in North Korea that DIA, much less wargames with multi-year development cycles, cannot seemingly keep up with:

Since Kim Jong Un took power, North Korea has introduced a few13 new conventional systems systems and equipment sets across all its military services, including new tanks, artillery rockets, and unmanned aerial vehicles, most of which have been displayed in military parades linked to important North Korean holidays and observances. The extent to which some new equipment has been integrated into the force is unclear, but these observations suggest a continuing KPA emphasis on modernizing strike weaponry, improving surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and broadening the regime’s options for raids or other special forces operations in South Korea.14

In October 2020, North Korea conducted a nighttime military parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The parade unveiled many new weapons systems, conventional and nuclear, that are not accounted for or otherwise depicted in Next War: Korea. The parade line-up of systems—as named by one think tank—included:

  • Anti-Tank Guided Missile 1
  • Anti-Tank Guided Missile 2
  • Wheeled Self-Propelled Gun
  • New Tank
  • Self-Propelled Howitzer
  • 240 mm Multiple Rocket Launcher (MRL)
  • KN-09 MRL
  • KN-25 MRL (4 tubes; wheeled chassis)
  • KN-25 MRL (6 tubes; tracked chassis)
  • New MRL
  • Anti-Ship Cruise Missile
  • Pukguksong-4 SLBM
  • New Short-Range Air Defense System
  • KN-06 Air Defense Missile
  • Pukguksong-2 MRBM
  • Possible Land Attack Cruise Missile
  • KN-23 SRBM
  • KN-24 SRBM
  • Hwasong-12 IRBM
  • Hwasong-15 ICBM
  • New ICBM – A New Strategic Weapon15
Weapons North Korea displayed at its Oct. 10 parade shows Pyongyang advancing “pragmatically,” a South Korean analyst said Tuesday. Photo by KCNA/UPI


On October 11, 2021 North Korea held a defense development exhibition entitled “Self-Defense 2021” in Pyongyang to celebrate the 76th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. The exhibition offered a rare glimpse into the depth of North Korea’s arms build-up. New weapons displayed included a hypersonic glide vehicle, a new missile with what appears to be a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV), and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). As one think tank assessed the exhibition:

    1. Despite its difficult economic situation, the DPRK has continued to invest considerable resources in developing new military technologies;
    2. The DPRK has been able to procure or locally manufacture key components for advanced weapon systems that are difficult to import due to international sanctions;
    3. The DPRK’s efforts in both nuclear and conventional military development are extensive in depth and scope; and
    4. Although some weapons showcased at the exhibition may not yet be completed, their development should be closely monitored.16
North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un has boasted of his country’s “invincible” military during a major weapons expo, and blasted Washington for hypocritically talking of peace while driving a wedge between Pyongyang and Seoul.


What is the impact of these new weapons systems, and how might it change what Next War: Korea or any other wargame on “modern” conflict in Korea depicts? DIA tells us that, regardless of the new weapons, the future offensive outlook for North Korea is bleak:

The North Korean military, once considered a threat that would be confined to the 20th century, has never abandoned its ambition of dominating the peninsula and, if possible, reunifying it under Pyongyang’s rule. The KPA currently lacks the operational capability to forcibly reunify the Korean Peninsula, as attempted in 1950, but Kim’s forces are developing capabilities that will provide a wider range of asymmetric options to menace and deter his regional adversaries, quickly escalate any conflict off the peninsula, and severely complicate the environment for military operations in the region [Emphasis mine].17

From some perspectives, the latest DIA assessment tells us that modern wargames that postulate a North Korean offensive into the South, be it Billingsley’s Crisis: Korea 1995 or Kamp’s Korea ’95 or Land’s Next War: Korea are in some ways more “alternate history” than future conflict.


A Different Future?

A RAND Corporation study from 2018 might point to a way to “save” wargames like Next War: Korea from the dustbin of (alternate) history. In The Korean Peninsula: Three Dangerous Scenarios the authors relate the context and analysis of three study areas they looked at for the U.S. Army:

    1. the growing operational and strategic implications of a large, survivable North Korean nuclear force
    2. the operational challenges of North Korean artillery and related capabilities that can threaten Seoul from the Kaesong Heights
    3. the operational and diplomatic issues attendant to a potential mission to secure loose nuclear weapons after a North Korean collapse.18

I’m going to put aside scenario 1 for the moment and focus on the other two scenarios.


Limited War

North Korean conventional threats to Seoul—notably the massed artillery stationed in the Kaesong Heights area—pose the second major challenge to U.S. policy and strategy in Korea. Wars with little or no use of nuclear weapons and more limited objectives than unification of the peninsula could arise in several ways.

Under the umbrella of the maturing nuclear capabilities discussed above, North Korea might escalate the scale of provocations to obtain specific political objectives, such as an unconditional return to negotiations over economic sanctions or the conclusion of a peace treaty. Alternatively, Kim Jong-un might initiate a diversionary war to forestall a coup or domestic turmoil. North Korea could mistake a U.S. decision to deploy additional forces to the peninsula to shore up deterrence as an incipient U.S.–South Korea invasion, provoking preemptive strikes on allied forces, ports, and airfields. In the wake of U.S. or South Korean preventive strikes against nuclear capabilities, Kim Jong un might seek to restore deterrence by conducting limited artillery strikes against select military or civilian targets.

Despite these substantial escalatory risks, some historical evidence suggests that even after substantial military casualties have been taken, relatively immature nuclear powers are still capable of limiting the scope of conflict. Thinking through how to keep a conflict over limited objectives limited in scope before the crisis occurs is an important responsibility that policymakers and planners need to address.19

The RAND wargames looked at two options for limited war scenarios. Both are excellent candidates for new Next War: Korea scenarios:

    1. A counterfire operation conducted with air and artillery strikes against North Korean long-range artillery, supplemented by air and missile defenses
    2. A “limited” ground invasion to seize the Kaesong Heights, the region north of the DMZ from which North Korean long-range artillery can hit Seoul.20


Interlude – Drive on Pyongyang

Published in 2013 in Modern War Magazine #5, Drive on Pyongyang may be one of the most interesting “next” Korean War designs published. Designer Ty Bomba and Joseph Miranda teamed as Designer/Developer and Eric Harvey (who designed DMZ: The Next Korean War in 2010) provided editing.

Drive on Pyongyang (Courtesy BGG)

Drive on Pyongyang postulates a U.S.-led Coalition launches a ground war into North Korea. The (few) sources noted date from the late 2000’s and include an Army War College paper co-authored by my Best Man. The magazine has a very extensive “situation briefing” that is almost totally disconnected from the game. The game even has the option for Chinese intervention—on the Coalition side. Practically speaking, there is no real comparison between Next War: Korea and Drive on Pyongyang though they both are of the same time period.21


Regime Collapse -or- “Nukes on the Loose”

A third major policy challenge would emerge if North Korean instability threatened the security of its nuclear arsenal. While the current regime could gracefully fail and be replaced by a more cooperative successor that retained control over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, regime collapse could also usher in a chaotic and unstable period, as North Korea became a failed state engulfed in a civil war. In this case, the threat posed by the North’s nuclear arsenal would shift partly, from one of operational use and political coercion to one of finding and controlling warheads and material.22

Again, the RAND paper basically gives us a scenario:

Our wargames posited that in late 2017, Kim Jong-un died unexpectedly, precipitating a civil war between three North Korean factions. These North Korean groups were competing with each other to control North Korean territory and resources, including nuclear weapons, nuclear facilities, and missile delivery systems (from short-range missiles to ICBMs). These capabilities offered a means for the three factions to achieve their objectives—the primary one for each faction being survival—and they viewed their nuclear capabilities as an essential element to their survival. In the scenario developed for the wargame, the international community at first warily watched the civil war slowly unfold, but remained on the sidelines because the conflict remained confined to North Korean territory. Then, however, a ship interdicted in the Philippines was found to be carrying special nuclear material that was traced back to North Korea.23

Although the military aspects of this scenario were addressed in part by the “Next War: Insurgency” rules found in Next War: Series Supplement #2,25 or Westphalia26 that accommodate high-player counts.


Interlude – The Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom

[A real alternative scenario for a future Korean conflict can be found in Modern War Issue #45 (Jan-Feb 2020). The Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom by designer Eric Harvey depicts the sudden eruption of war on the Korean peninsula which “compels” China to intervene before the US can reinforce South Korea.

Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom (Courtesy BGG)

While scenarios covering Chinese intervention in a Korea conflict appear in other games, Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom takes the “intervention” concept to an extreme with China attempting not only to bolster the Kim Regime, but to expel the Americans from the peninsula and overthrow the South Korean government. In addition to conventional and special forces, this game also includes “modern” warfare elements like cyberwar and missiles, albeit in a highly abstracted form. If nothing else, this wargame shows the impact of Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities against the Korean Peninsula.]27


Wargames – Putting the “Miss” in “Missile”

While wargames like Next War: Korea do a very credible job at depicting the (past?) conventional battlefield situation, they actually do little to address the second of DIA’s “overlapping challenges”—North Korea’s ballistic missile arsenal. In some ways this is not surprising given the roots of the game from the early 1990s. In the 1991 Foundations for Military Strength the North’s ballistic missile force barely gets a mention, and only then under “Chapter 7: Special Issues – Indigenous Weapon Production:”

Since the mid-1980’s, North Korea has produced, deployed, and exported a SCUD-type mobile surface-to-surface missile. From deployment locations near the Demilitarized Zone, SCUD-type missiles can target over two-thirds of South Korea. North Korea probably deploys the missiles in brigade-sized units of 12-18 launchers.

The SCUD-type missile is not very accurate and would be used against large, soft, area targets. The Soviet SCUD can be armed with nuclear, chemical, or conventional high-explosive weapons.28

As already mentioned, this limited SCUD-type missile threat is not depicted at all in Crisis: Korea 1995. SCUD missiles are also not mentioned in Korea ’95 which is not surprising given the dating of its sources.

By the time the real 1995 arrived the North Korean missile program had not advanced much further with a total of 11 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) and five medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) launches between 1984 and 1994.29 In October 1995, DIA published an update to their 1991 Foundations which described the North’s ballistic missile program as thus:

Despite economic problems, since the early 1980s North Korea has spent millions of dollars annually in an aggressive ballistic missile development program. Pyongyang has progressed from producing short-range SCUD missiles to the developmental testing of a medium-range missile, the No Dong, to early-stage development of longer range two-stage missiles, the Taepo Dong I (TD 1) and Taepo Dong II (TD 2).

North Korea has a brigade-sized SCUD B/C surface-to-surface missile (SSM) unit about 50 kilometers north of the DMZ. Several SCUD B/C facilities have also been noted in development near the DMZ. These facilities would provide North Korea with additional hardened sites that could double or triple the numbers of SSM launchers and support equipment in the forward area.

North Korea produces an indigenous variant of the former Soviet Union’s SCUD B, known as the SCUD C. The C model has a 700-kg warhead with an improved range of 500 kilometers over the B model’s 300 kilometers. It also has an improved inertial guidance system for better accuracy. The North Koreans can produce four to eight SCUDs a month for their own armed forces or for export. For nearly a decade, North Korea has deployed SCUD-type, mobile SSMs capable of reaching all of South Korea. The country continues to emphasize its ballistic missile development program, which eventually could provide Pyongyang with a system capable of threatening other countries in Northeast Asia.

The No Dong is a medium-range missile based on SCUD technology. It has a range of about 1,000 kilometers with a 1,000-kg warhead. The No Dong was originally designed for export, but it still has not been produced in numbers suitable either for export or for operational deployment in North Korea.

North Korea’s two long-range ballistic missile systems under development are the Taepo Dong I and Taepo Dong II. Both are two-stage systems. The estimated range for the TD 1 is more than 1,500 kilometers, while that of the TD 2 is more than 4,000 kilometers. At present, both systems are in the design stage. Before they reach flyable prototype form, Pyongyang must surmount difficulties in developing multistaging and engine clustering. North Korea has no experience with these significant technologies.30

About half-way through his reign, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il appeared to have reinvigorated his ballistic missile program. Aside from a single space launch in 1998, the years from 1995 to 2002 were very quiet for missiles. However, beginning 2003, all that changed. Between 2003 and 2009 North Korea conducted 21 SRBM and four MRBM tests, along with two more space launches. This was also the time of North Korea’s first two nuclear tests (2006 and 2009).31

This spurt of missile testing from 2003 to 2009 is the historical record that the first edition of Next War: Korea was built upon. The rules in Next War: Korea reflect Kim Jong-il’s emphasis on SRBM and MRBM systems, though in an abstract way through Standard & Advanced Series rule 26.0 “Theater Weapons,” Game Specific Rules 13.0 “Theater Warfare Assets [26.0 Advanced],” and rule 3.0 “DPRK Nukes” found in Next War: Series Supplement #2.


Interlude – DMZ: The Next Korean War

[In much the same way as Crisis: Korea 1995 and Korea ’95 were published temporally near each other, Next War: Korea from 2012 was published around the same time as another next Korean War game.

DMZ: THe Next Korean War (Courtesy BGG)

DMZ: The Next Korean War was published in 2010 and is a small footprint, low-density wargame of the first days of a North Korean invasion of South Korea. With only 100 counters the unit scale is grand—brigades for the Americans, divisions/brigades (with few battalions) for the South Koreans, and corps/divisions for the North Koreans. It also focuses on the DMZ battles and the fight for Seoul; most of the rest of the country is not included. The primary game mechanism is Decision Game’s “Fire & Movement” system where players augment their units with “support fires” which accentuates maneuver and asset management by the players. Ballistic missiles are not depicted, and the question of nuclear weapons is neatly sidestepped with the assumption, “This scenario assumes no nuclear weapons would be employed by either side during the time span represented by the game. ]32 33


Kim Jong-il died in 2011, the year before the first edition of Next War: Korea was published. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, took the mantle of power at age 27. His reign has been marked by an accelerated pace of development for both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. By the end of 2017, North Korea had conducted four additional nuclear tests, including what may have been one of a higher yield thermonuclear device. He also oversaw the testing of several new ballistic missile designs with varying ranges including a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), two types of mobile intermediate-range missiles (IRBMs), and the tests of intercontinental-range missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the continental United States.34

As it stands today, little of this new force is reflected in Next War: Korea, even if one considers the updates to the rules in the 2019 second edition and rules that appear in Next War: Supplement 1 and Supplement 2. Part of this is the timing of the Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power and the original publication of Next War: Korea. North Korea itself did not establish a Strategic Force until 2012 (the same year the first edition of Next War: Korea was published) when it reorganized what was previously the Strategic Rocket Forces. The Strategic Force is organized around regional—and intercontinental—target sets. Scud-class SRBM range South Korea with some extended-range variants able to reach as far as Japan along with the No Dong MRBM. The force also operates the Hwasong-12 IRBM designed to reach Guam, as well as the Hwasong-14 ICBM capable of reading the continental United States. North Korea claims that every class of missiles it possesses can carry nuclear warheads. In 2016 North Korea even went so far as to claim that a Scud-class SRBM test simulated a nuclear strike on a South Korean port.35 

In Next War: Korea we find direct references to SCUD missiles in Advanced Series Rule 26.0 “Theater Weapons” which are limited to on-peninsula strikes. Game Specific Rule 13.2 “DPRK SCUDs” adds additional fidelity, and gives the North Korean player the ability to target the Japan Basing Box with SCUDs, meaning the SCUDs also represent the extended range variant and No Dong MRBM. Further, every scenario starts by giving the North Korean player the option of starting the game with 10 SCUD strikes. With regards to nuclear-tipped missiles, Advanced Series Rule 15.9 “DPRK Nuclear Strike” is an optional rule to start the game with a nuclear strike against Busan, a clear acknowledgment of the North Korea simulated nuclear port strike. It should be noted that rule 3.0 “DPRK Nukes” in Supplement #2 actually limits the North to five nuclear weapons as the rule, “…represents the limited number of such warheads the DPRK has been able to produce combined with a limited ability to mount them.”36

Does the non-inclusion of missiles beyond the SCUD SRBM and No Dong MRBM really matter? Next War: Korea is an operational-level game of conflict on the Korean peninsula. The game, by design, is focused on the “First” and “Second Fronts” of the war; the battles along the DMZ and of the special forces in rear areas. The need for the allies to reinforce the peninsula, or for North Korea to execute a kind of “anti-access” campaign is abstracted out. And while the missile counters and rules may say “Scud” we have to acknowledge that at least some of the longer range missiles may have been abstracted out in the design. But we must ask, if that is the design approach are we missing some important element?


Theory of Red Victory

Brad Roberts from the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is worried. Mr. Roberts believes our adversaries, especially China, have done some real intellectual homework and “reconceptualized warfare and reimagined conflict” in ways that American defense planners, much less wargame designers, have been slow to grasp:

They studied the American way of war in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, among others. They closely followed periodic U.S. reviews of defense policy, strategy, and capabilities for what they signaled about U.S. military ambitions and the future American way of war. They then revised their own military strategies, developed new concepts of operations, realigned military organizational structures, developed and tested new doctrine, and designed, acquired, and fielded new capabilities aligned with those concepts and doctrine. Then, they mustered the political will and sustained focus to overcome significant bureaucratic, technical, and financial obstacles.

Their intellectual homework has focused on a realm most American military experts consider ours to dominate—the realm of escalatory action beyond the engagements of general-purpose military forces. But where we perceive strength, experts in Russia and China perceive opportunity. This mismatch is at the core of the NDS [National Defense Strategy] Commission’s concern. U.S. adversaries have created and put together ideas about how to prevail in those conflicts by shaping the decisions of their adversaries in a manner conducive to their national objectives by imposing cost and risk through escalation and the threat of more to come.

As I argued in my 2015 book on U.S. nuclear policy, these ideas combine into something we can usefully label as a theory of victory. A standard dictionary definition of victory is “overcoming an enemy or antagonist.” A standard dictionary definition of theory would thus be “a plausible principle or set of principles offered to explain a phenomenon.” Thus, a theory of victory can be defined as a plausible set of principles for overcoming an enemy. As a shorthand, I adopted from the wargaming community the labels Red and Blue to characterize the opposing teams and concepts.37

In his On Theories of Victory, Red and Blue, Roberts discusses a generic “Red Theory of Victory” that has four key elements:

1. If war with the United States appears inevitable, it is necessary and possible to go first, to go hard, and to create a fait accompli. The possibility of a meaningful military response by the United States and its allies to attempt to reverse the fait accompli can be significantly reduced by presenting an image of significant costs in blood and treasure of any effort to restore the status quo ante militarily. Victory would be measured in the territory gained (or “recovered”) but also in the demonstration to the world, and especially to U.S. allies, that the extant regional security order is not viable.

2. If the United States nonetheless resolves to try to restore the status quo ante militarily, this can be effectively halted by separating its allies from each other and from the United States. This puts the United States in the difficult position of having to choose between fighting alone or not at all. Victory would be measured as above but also in the demonstration of coercive leverage over U.S. allies.

3. If these efforts fail, U.S. military action can be made sufficiently costly to it by kinetic and non-kinetic attacks on any forces actively engaged in the attempted restoration, on the territories of those allies, and on U.S. forces in theater or en route to the theater (anti-access, area denial strategies). This puts the United States in a difficult position of having to choose between escalating and terminating without achieving its objectives. Victory would be measured as above but also in calling into question globally the credibility of America’s power projection strategy. In certain extreme circumstances, the kinetic means might include non-strategic nuclear weapons.

4. If these efforts fail to bring timely war termination and something significant is newly at risk, such as the bulk of the forces that created the fait accompli and/or the survival of the regime, then Red can remind the United States of the vulnerability of its homeland to attack with a limited strike, whether kinetic or non-kinetic, conventional or nuclear. This would put the United States and its allies in a difficult position of having to choose between further escalation after it has once failed to achieve its intended objective and terminating without achieving its objectives while under direct attack. Here victory would not be measured by the metrics noted above but by the domestic benefits, both domestic and international, of having “taught the United States a lesson” while retaining the capability to fight again another day.38

Although this generic Red Theory of Victory is based on Russia (nvb…pre war in the Ukraine) and China, it is an interesting thought exercise to try and apply it to North Korea. Since I’m a Grognard, I’m going to do so through the lens of wargaming. Let’s take each element of Red Victory in turn and see how Next War: Korea addresses them.

1. If war with the United States appears inevitable, it is necessary and possible to go first, to go hard, and to create a fait accompli.

The different surprise attack scenarios in Next War: Korea fit this first element of Red Victory well. One could make the argument that only the Strategic Surprise or Tactical Surprise scenarios are worth playing as the longer Extended Buildup, though most beneficial to the United States and its allies, is also maybe the most unrealistic. The Victory Conditions in Next War: Korea (see Standard Series Rule 12.0 “Victory”), focused as they are on control of locations and destruction of enemy forces, are most applicable when taken in the context of, “Victory would be measured in the territory gained (or “recovered”) but also in the demonstration to the world, and especially to U.S. allies, that the extant regional security order is not viable.”

2. If the United States nonetheless resolves to try to restore the status quo ante militarily, this can be effectively halted by separating its allies from each other and from the United States.

Alliance politics make no real appearance in Next War: Korea. The first edition had an “International Posture Matrix (IPM)” which was retired in the second edition though it still (confusingly) is referenced in the rules.39 The second edition uses a Victory Point choice system driven by player selection of “Intervention Levels” in Advanced Scenarios (see Game Specific Rule 16.2.1 “Intervention Level Determination”).

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III burns incense in honor of the fallen, in a ceremony with Minister of National Defense Suh Wook at Seoul National Cemetery, Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)


Many (all?) modern next Korean War games seemingly assume that the ROK-U.S. alliance is solid. This may not actually be the case, as some point to alliance stressors such as growing U.S.-China competition and North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. It has been pointed out that, “Seoul signed up for a joint effort to deter North Korea (and, in the distant past, to prevent the spread of communism); it never agreed to a U.S. effort to contain China.” Some say North Korean development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons has altered the “risk-reward” calculus of the alliance. They question if America is willing to risk destruction of U.S. cities on behalf of a small ally half a world away. In the future, the alliance could change into a more robust, extended alliance or maybe see a drawdown/withdrawal of U.S. troops as South Korea assumes more defense responsibilities. In the extreme, there is also a chance that the alliance could end or—in an even more extreme move—see South Korea acquire its own independent nuclear weapons program.40

Each of those futures would be represented very differently in a wargame like Next War: Korea. In terms of a wargame scenario, they probably represent the “starting conditions” of a scenario rather than an in-game event. Admittedly, these scenarios make the situation depicted in Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom seem not as extreme as it might appear at first glance…

3. If these efforts fail, U.S. military action can be made sufficiently costly to it by kinetic and non-kinetic attacks on any forces actively engaged in the attempted restoration, on the territories of those allies, and on U.S. forces in theater or en route to the theater (anti-access, area denial strategies)…In certain extreme circumstances, the kinetic means might include non-strategic nuclear weapons.

Next War: Korea, with the exception of ballistic missiles, handles “kinetic” attacks pretty well. Non-kinetic is generally refers to cyber, and though the core rules for Next War: Korea don’t have cyber rules they do appear in Next War: Series Supplement #1.

Anti-access/area denial (A2AD) in Next War: Korea barely appears. The rules focus exclusively on sea movement of amphibious forces and sea transport within theater (see 7.0 “Sea Control and Naval Rules”). The arrival of forces from off-peninsula is automatic (Standard Series Rule 10.0 “Reinforcements). In the Advanced Series rules, more detailed naval combat options appear but there is no real representation of a North Korean threat to supply and reinforcement on the peninsula. The North Korea Military Power report makes no mention of A2AD; the closest they come to doing so is a single sentence under the North Korean Navy which states, “In wartime, the Navy will focus on anti surface warfare, mine warfare, and interdicting sea lines of communications to hinder the United States and UNC’s ability to flow forces into theater.”41 If you ever read Larry Bond’s book Red Phoenix you know how well some think that will work out!42

While North Korea may not present a significant A2AD threat, China certainly does. As one report notes, “If there were a war on the Korean Peninsula, rapid reinforcement of CFC forces by the United States will require acquiescence from Beijing—North Korea’s closest ally.”43 While there are rules for Chinese intervention in Next War: Korea, those rules don’t address the A2AD capability they bring with them.

A Chinese Missile Attack on a U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier: Is It Possible?


Interlude: South China Sea

[A modern wargame that one would think touches on the A2AD threat from China should be designer John Gorkowski’s South China Sea: Modern Naval Conflict in the South Pacific (Compass Games, 2017).

South China Sea (Courtesy BGG)

Unfortunately, South China Sea does NOT include any rules for anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM), an important element of China’s A2AD strategy. That’s an unfortunate oversight, especially since the issue of ASBMs has been well understood since Andrew S. Erickson published his excellent book Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Development: Drivers, Trajectories and Strategic Implications in 2013!]44


In the North Korean context, non-strategic nuclear weapons can be a bit hard to define. The US Department of Defense defines tactical use of nuclear weapons as, “the use of nuclear weapons by land, sea, or air forces against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations that contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope, or in support of the military commander’s scheme of maneuver, usually limited to the area of military operations.”45 Other writers point to a more vague defintion of a Tactical Nuclear Weapon (TNW) that include a deliberately reduced explosive yield, limited range, and a perceived limited escalatory potential following use. Traditionally, North Korea has long referred to nuclear weapons as “strategic.” In January 2021 North Korea referenced for the first time ever “tactical nuclear weapons” amongst a list of significant accomplishments.46

As discussed above, Next War: Korea treats tactical nuclear weapons in a very abstract manner. The Next War: Series Supplement #2 Series Additions Rule 3.0 “DPRK Nukes” limit of five markers (though only three are in the countermix), or strikes, seems incompatible to the strategy some project. When asked why there are so few nuke counters included in the game, designer Mitchell Land responded in a BoardGameGeek.com forum for Next War: Supplement #2 – Insurgency under a post titled “DPRK Nukes:”



If history is an indicator, a “tactical” nuclear war will use far more than a half-dozen or less Nuclear Attack Markers. In the 1950’s, the U.S. Army experimented with the Pentomic Army organization and a reliance on battlefield atomic weapons to defend against a Soviet army that was a conventional overmatch. Here is how one U.S. Army history describes a 1958 exercise in Europe:

In October, USAREUR conducted QUICK SERVE, a command post and maneuver exercise designed to test the ability of atomic munitions support units to deploy rapidly and to guard, transport, and deliver atomic weapons to firing units at the expenditure rate expected in an atomic war. Participating artillery and missile units fired 141 simulated atomic warheads during a three-day period [my emphasis]. In the end, reviews of the exercise indicated that procedures for authenticating presidential release of nuclear weapons, and for transmitting that release authority from the supreme allied commander down to the Seventh Army commander, were too cumbersome. Also, ammunition supply points were too far from firing units to deliver munitions forward in a timely manner. In their final reports, both the Seventh Army and USAREUR recommended that ammunition supply points be located in urban areas along readily accessible road networks and close to the units they supported. In that way, they said, ammunition vehicles could travel to the supply points, load, and return to their units during hours of darkness. The commands also recommended that initial ammunition loads for Honest John units should be increased to compensate for the long distances between units and their supply points. The Seventh Army also complained about strings higher headquarters placed on many weapons, reserving them for use against specific targets. The command wanted to keep these restrictions to a minimum to reduce time spent waiting for the release of the weapons. Overall, the exercise proved so valuable as a gauge of the logistical readiness of atomic support units that USAREUR made plans to repeat it on a regular basis.47

Honest John Rocket is prepared for firing by men of D Battery, 1st Field Artillery Battalion, 31st Artillery Regiment of the 7th U.S. Infantry Division, at Camp St. Barbara, Korea. The battery recently conducted its first air-burst firings under the direction of Capt. Richard Trefry, commanding officer. Before a rocket is launched three separate safety devices must be removed from missile. During the recent firing, Pvt. Jerry White, one of the newest members of the battery, pushed the button that sent the first rocket skyward. Men from D Battery, 1st Field Artillery Battalion, 31st Artillery Regiment of the 7th U.S. Infantry Division, at Camp St. Barbara, Korea. The battalion is the only 7th Infantry Division unit employing the surface-to-surface weapon. “We practice every day,” Capt. Richard Trefry, the battery commander, said, “but fire only 12 times a year.” “In training there is always the anti-climax when they push the plunger and nothing happens.” Pvt. Jerry White, one of the newest members of the battery, pushed the button that launched “Old Diablo” on its way. He described it as a “good feeling.” “You almost feel like the missile was your own,” he said. Richard Hapke, ©1959, 2019 Stars and Stripes, All Rights Reserved


In Next War: Korea, the “DPRK Nuke” rules disincentivizes the North Korean player from using Nuclear Attacks. Each time a Nuclear Attack Marker is placed, the Allied player is awarded between 10 and 20 VP. This may seem appropriate given the on-peninsula operational focus of the game, but it conflicts with the apparent shifting strategic reality of a conflict with North Korea that could project threats as far away as the U.S. homeland. Further, North Korea seems well on the pathway to having (much) more than “three Nuclear Attack Markers.” Some estimate that North Korea already has 67 to 116 nuclear weapons, and by 2027 might have a stockpile in the range of 151 to 242 weapons. How many “markers” does that equate to in Next War: Korea?48

4. If these efforts fail to bring timely war termination and something significant is newly at risk, such as the bulk of the forces that created the fait accompli and/or the survival of the regime, then Red can remind the United States of the vulnerability of its homeland to attack with a limited strike, whether kinetic or non-kinetic, conventional or nuclear.

The exact conditions that North Korea would use nuclear weapons, delivered via ballistic missiles, is unknown. In North Korea Military Power, DIA suggests that Kim Jong-un would only use nuclear weapons if his regime was in danger of ending:

The steady development of road-mobile ICBMs, IRBMs, and SLBMs highlights Pyongyang’s intention to build a survivable, reliable nuclear delivery capability. The developing capability has been accompanied by high-level statements, the first of which was issued in 2013, in which North Korea stated it would use nuclear weapons to respond to an invasion and may use them to prevent an attack. Together, these developments suggest the potential for nuclear weapons to be used at any stage of conflict when the North believes itself in regime-ending danger. The point at which North Korean leadership would perceive this threat is unclear, as are specific regime plans for nuclear use.49

Ankit Panda notes that North Korea has, “reserved the right to use nuclear weapons first if deterrence fails, with the primary objective of degrading a joint US-South Korean campaign against its territory by striking a range of military targets on the Korean peninsula and Japan, where the United States also bases forces.” He goes on to explain:

North Korea would likely use many of its theater-range nuclear capabilities in its inventory to achieve these objectives while retaining its relatively small and minimally tested ICBM force in reserve to threaten retaliation against the US homeland to deter nuclear retaliation in kind by the United States. If it did not expend the full array of its theater-range nuclear delivery systems in an initial strike, North Korea may also hold major population centers in South Korea and Japan at risk. In doing so, Pyongyang might hope to politically “decouple” the United States from its allies and terminate the conflict while preserving the regime.

In broad terms, North Korea has adopted an asymmetric escalation nuclear posture, defined as a posture “explicitly designed to deter conventional attacks by enabling a state to respond with rapid, asymmetric escalation to first use of of nuclear weapons against military and/or civilian targets.” This posture entails numerous risks for North Korea, but it also presents a means-ends rational approach to meeting the country’s national defense needs under existing resource constraints. For Kim Jong Un, whose overarching objective in a crisis will be to ensure his own survival, the bet on offer by creating unlimited stakes is to forgo nuclear use and face certain loss at the hands of the United States and South Korea, or to cross the nuclear threshold early and generate a chance—however small—of terminating the conflict on favorable terms and surviving. TNWs, if developed and deployed in North Korea, could augment Kim’s strategy in important ways while introducing new challenges for his adversaries.50

Which brings us back to the first of RAND’s Three Dangerous Scenarios—“the growing operational and strategic implications of a large, survivable North Korean nuclear force.” As the authors describe it:

Concerned about the vulnerability and that of its nuclear force, North Korean leadership may primarily view nuclear weapons as an ultimate safeguard for regime survival before or during a war. North Korea will likely continue to use the threat of nuclear weapons to divide the United States from its allies. In the case of war, it would also seek to limit U.S. and allied military operations and to prevent regime change. One leading danger is that the perceived vulnerability of a relatively new DPRK deterrent will lead Pyongyang to adopt launch-on-warning and all-out nuclear attack doctrines that create the risk of massive escalation in a crisis. North Korea is already signaling an interest in such destabilizing doctrines.51

The head of the US Indo-Pacific Command has expressed doubts about N Korean denuclearisation plans. (AAP) Source: SBS


Indeed, in April 2022 Kim Yong Jo, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, released a statement condemning comments by the outgoing South Korean defense minister who talked about preemptive strikes against North Korea. In her statement, Kim Yong Jo gave what appears to some to be a declaration of North Korean nuclear doctrine:

If a situation arises in which South Korea chooses military confrontation with us, our nuclear armed combat forces will unavoidably be compelled to carry out their mission.

The primary mission of nuclear armed forces is to, above all, prevent being drawn into such a war, but once they are in a war situation, their mission will turn into the elimination of the other side’s military power at a single stroke.

One’s nuclear armed combat forces are mobilized to seize the initiative at the early stages of a war, completely break the other side’s will for warfare, prevent a prolonged war, and preserve one’s own military power.

If the situation comes to such a pass, a terrifying attack will be launched, and the South Korean military will have to be prepared to face a horrible destiny that is close to its total destruction and annihilation.52

kim yo jong
Kim Yo Jong (KCNA)


There is much for wargame designers to unpack in those few sentences. “The primary mission…is to…prevent being drawn into such a war…” sounds like classic deterrence theory. “[B]ut once they are in a war…their mission will turn to elimination of the other side’s military power…” sounds like a counterforce strategy. “[S]eize the initiative at the early stage of the war…” almost sounds like preemption. A nuclear use strategy that escalates to the widespread use of tactical nuclear weapons early (preemptively?) in a cross-DMZ conflict is not designed into Next War: Korea. Who’s going to be the first wargame designer to put that in a wargame?


Thinking About the Unthinkable

As it stands, the nuclear use rules in Next War: Korea mirrors many other games in that “the game ends when the nukes start flying.” Series Supplement #2 rule 3.2.7 “Assured Destruction” directs the North Korean player to roll the die (d10 read 0-9) every time a Nuclear Attack Marker is placed. If the die roll is less than or equal to the number of markers currently on the map, “the game ends immediately with the nuclear destruction of North Korea. Technically, the [North Korean] player loses the game.”53

The “Assured Destruction” rule in Next War: Korea does not address either Kim Yong Jo’s early/preemptive nuclear use statements nor the possibility that North Korea might launch a nuclear strike against the US homeland. The “Assured Destruction” rule may actually be quite appropriate for an operational-level wargame where players represent the military command and not the national political leadership where the decision to use—or not use—nuclear weapons resides. If one subscribes to the suggestion that North Korea will only use nuclear weapons when in a regime-ending situation, then the approach presented in Next War: Korea may be sufficient and acceptable, but in doing so one must acknowledge that the rule neatly sidesteps, by ignoring, both Kim Yong Jo’s statement and the challenge of a conflict on the Korean peninsula expanding into the homeland.

A recent study published by the Nautilus Institute of Security and Sustainment looked at nuclear use cases on the Korean peninsula. They tell us that there are many, many different cases in which nuclear weapons might be used on the Korean peninsula; and not all of them end neatly:

The nuclear use cases posited in this Report span a range of cases, with a range of ultimate outcomes. In one case, a nuclear detonation is attempted but is not successful, and the adversary that is the recipient of the attack exercises sufficient restraint that no counterattack with nuclear weapons occurs. A variety of cases are provided where conflict involves a nuclear weapons detonation, in most cases followed by a nuclear counter-attack in which diplomacy results in the exchange being “limited” to a few targets. In some of the cases described it is hard to see how a conflict would result in anything short of global (or near-global) nuclear war.54

Should wargamers worry about how to game a nuclear war with North Korea? Studies of nuclear wargames in the Cold War indicate that wargames are well suited to studying the rare phenomenon of use and nonuse of nuclear weapons. A study report from a 1968 Department of Defense wargame noted that if one expects decisonmakers to approve the use nuclear weapons anywhere, it would be in a wargame where, “if you lose[,] it’s not for keeps”55

Advocates of Extended Deterrence56 tell us that our “Deterrence by Punishment”57model is sufficient to deter Kim Jong-un and he would never use a nuclear device against the U.S. homeland because it would most assuredly be the end of his regime. This, however, is not what some worry about. Brad Roberts points to this passage in the November 2018 National Defense Strategy Commission report:

The United States must develop new operational concepts to achieve strategic advantage, including addressing the ability of aggressive regimes to achieve a fait accompli against states on their periphery, or to use nuclear or other strategic weapons in ways that would fall short of justifying a large-scale U.S. nuclear response.58

Paul Davis and Bruce Bennett, writing in Nuclear Use Cases for Contemplating Crisis and Conflict on the Korean Peninsula for The Asia-Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) tell us:

Thinking about the unthinkable has become more challenging as high-end war has expanded to include massive long-range precision fires; cyberwar, anti-satellite weapons; high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) bursts; and mass-destruction attacks by chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.59

Few of those “unthinkable” challenges are addressed in Next War: Korea or other modern Korean War wargames. Davis and Bennett point out that professional Cold War wargames offer some insight:

Although high-level wargames during the Cold War with players akin to civilian national leaders (“elite wargames”) showed extreme reluctance to use nuclear weapons (Pauly, 2018), the boundaries among conflict levels have blurred. In some wargames today, highly competitive players (not necessarily proxies for policymakers) will escalate in ways that seem to them limited but that appear otherwise to the adversary.60

A literary example of unintended escalation is Jeffrey Lewis’ The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel. Here [spoiler alert] an off course South Korean jetliner is shot down by the North, South Korea responds by launching (non-nuclear) missiles into North Korea, the U.S. President tweets, and North Korea attacks the U.S. with nuclear weapons.61

Wargaming out a “a strategic exchange,” be it in cyberspace or using nuclear weapons, is far beyond the peninsula-focused operational wargame found in Next War: Korea. Indeed, many wargame designers struggle with how to design any cyberspace wargame. As previously noted, Next War: Korea attempts to deal with cyberwar with the “Cyber Warfare Rules” in Next War: Series Supplement #1. While some might want to game out a missile defense scenario, it might just be yet another extreme “hypothetical” in light of critics such as the Union of Concerned Scientists who declare missile defense as useless.62 It may be worth the time to explore older Cold War nuclear conflict games to see if they can be updated or adjusted to offer any potential insights. The professional wargaming community is doing so;63 is it time the hobby wargame community made a contribution?

Then again, maybe, just maybe the hobby wargame community is not the best place to test theories of nuclear deterrence. This has been known since 1960, when Stanford researcher Harold Guetzkow noted that in nuclear wargames played with undergraduate students, one third ended in thermonuclear war.64 This is in marked contrast to a study of 26 “elite wargames” held between 1958 and 1972 of which only two escalated into any nuclear use.65 In a postgame critique of a 1963 elite wargame, MIT wargaming pioneer Lincoln Bloomfield remarked, “If you want thermonuclear war to break out in a game, get some high-school students in and you get thermonuclear war. But with responsible people you get ambiguous, gray, shadowy situations…”66


Korea – Take 2

Professional wargames are not about predicting the future, but developing insight and a better understanding of the world around us. As James Lacey and Tim Barrick remind us, “One must be very careful when using a wargame for predictive purposes.”67 That said, the insights they gained in a recent wargame on the Ukraine is enlightening:

After our first wargame, we had the luxury of looking backward to determine the accuracy of the game’s predictions. The results were good enough to give us confidence to employ the game to look into a more distant future. Still, this is a wargame, and real-life human interactions in the bloody cauldron of war can easily confounder team’s predictions. Still, the game presents a set of interesting possibilities, all of which require more thorough examination by policy experts, tasked to prepare answers to a problem that seemed absurd in late February 2022—that Ukraine would be holding its own against the Russian colossus a year hence.68

Recall the current DIA assessment of two “overlapping challenges:” an infantry and artillery-heavy conventional force for attacking South Korea and a ballistic missile force, potentially armed with nuclear weapons, that can reach bases on the Korean peninsula and into the region but also as far away as the U.S. homeland. As this retrospective romp through Next War: Korea and other wargames shows, those wargames deliver a fair-to-excellent depiction of the conventional threat—mostly a look into the past. To look forward with these games is more of a challenge. In terms of ballistic missiles, the treatment of such systems in these games are more “miss” than “hit” with the hits being more “in the area” than depicting precision impact modern missiles bring to the battlefield. When one looks at nuclear weapons, the treatment of tactical nuclear weapons is almost as uneven, and the off-peninsula reach and political impact of the weapons is all but ignored.

If we really want to understand how a future Korean War may impact our future, we need to get busy designing wargames that better depict the rapid military developments on the Korean Peninsula. Significantly, this means there is a need to better show the use and impact of ballistic missiles in theater campaigns. Alas, we may also have to once again look into the nuclear abyss, long thought left behind with the end of the Cold War.

President Yoon Suk-yeol (R) and U.S. President Joe Biden hold a joint news conference after their summit at the presidential office in Seoul on May 21, 2022. (Yonhap)


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  1. If you are so inclined, I recommend downloading ATP 7-100.2 North Korean Tactics from Headquarters, Department of the Army to more fully investigate North Korea battlefield tactics. See ATP 7-100.2 NORTH KOREAN TACTICS, Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Department of the Army, July 2020
  2. See “Wargames and the 1991 Iraq War,” http://www.hundredyearswar.com/Books/WargamesHandbook/9-7-iraq.htm
  3. North Korea Military Power, Washington, D.C.: Defense Intelligence Agency, September 2021, p. 1, https://www.dia.mil/Portals/110/Documents/News/North_Korea_Military_Power.pdf. Accessed Dec 15, 2021
  4. North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength, Washington, D.C.: Defense Intelligence Agency, October 1991, p. 58, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/1991/knfms/knfms_toc.html. Accessed Dec 15, 2021
  5. Billingsley, Gene, “Standard Rules: 4.0 Initiative-Design Note,” Crisis: Korea 1995, Hanford: GMT Games, 1992, p. 6
  6. Billingsley, Gene, “Advanced Rules: More Design Notes,” Crisis: Korea 1995, Hanford: GMT Games, 1992, p. 32
  7. Bermudez, Joseph Jr., North Korean Special Forces, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, Second Edition 1988
  8. Billingsley, Gene, “Advanced Rules: More Design Notes – The Air Game,” Crisis: Korea 1995, Hanford: GMT Games, 1992, p. 32
  9. Kamps, Charles T. Jr., “Korea ’95: The Next War in Korea,” CounterAttack Magazine, Issue No. 4, Oakland: Pacific Rim Publishing Co., March 1993, p. 21
  10. Ed note: we previously interviewed designer Mitchell Land here at Armchair Dragoons https://www.armchairdragoons.com/articles/interviews/5-questions-with-next-war-series-designer-mitchell-land/
  11. Minnich, James M., The North Korean People’s Army: Origins and Current Tactics, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010, pp. 67-68
  12. Land, Mitchell, Next War: Series Supplement #1, Hanford: GMT Games, 2017
  13. As quoted from DIA; I would argue that the list that follows is far from “few.”
  14. North Korea Military Power, p. 6
  15. Open Nuclear Network, Viewbook of DPRK 10 October 2020 Parade, https://oneearthfuture.org/research-analysis/viewbook-dprk-10-october-2020-parade. Accessed Dec 18, 2021
  16. Xu, Tianran, Brief on the Defence Development Exhibition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Washington, D.C.: Open Nuclear Network, 18 October 2021, p. i, https://oneearthfuture.org/research-analysis/brief-defence-development-exhibition-democratic-peoples-republic-korea. Accessed Dec 18, 2021
  17. North Korea Military Power, p. 6
  18. Mazarr, Michael J., Gian Gentile, Dan Madden, Stacie L. Pettyjohn, and Yvonne K. Crane, The Korean Peninsula: Three Dangerous Scenarios, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/perspectives/PE262.html. Accessed Dec 19, 2021
  19. Mazarr, et. al, p. 8
  20. Marzarr, et. al, p. 12
  21. Bomba, Ty and Joseph Miranda, Drive on Pyongyang, published in Modern War Magazine #5, Bakersfield: Strategy & Tactics Press, May-Jun 2013
  22. Marzarr, et. al, p. 14
  23. Marzarr, et. al, p. 15
  24. Land, Mitchell, Next War: Series Supplement #2, Hanford: GMT Games, 2019{/efn_note] in many ways this situation might be better depicted in a game using Volko Runke’s COIN system of asymmetric factions vying for control of nukes. Given the numerous factions (three North Korean, South Korea, The United States, Japan, China, and the rest of the international community) that may be a “wargame too far” but nonetheless an interesting problem. Then again, even COIN might not be suitable, leaving us to explore reskins of games like Diplomacy24Calhamer, Allen B., Diplomacy, Baltimore: Avalon Hill Game Co., 1959. “A classic game of pure negotiation.” https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/483/diplomacy
  25. Holland, Amabel, Westphalia, Detroit: Hollandspeile, 2019. “Westphalia concerns the diplomatic negotiations and military campaigns that brought an end to the Thirty Years War and Eighty Years War. The question isn’t a matter of who “wins” the war – that was decided a long time ago. Instead, each player seeks to arrive at a settlement that meets their own political, confessional, and economic goals. These goals are not mutually exclusive: if multiple players meet their victory conditions, they all win. The trick is, if all six players manage to meet their goals, then the game goes to a scoring round, and only one player wins.” https://hollandspiele.com/products/westphalia-1?variant=31355808743529
  26. Harvey, Eric R., Dragon and the Hermit Kingdom: The Second Korean War, Modern War Magazine Issue #45, California: Decision Games, 2019
  27. Foundations for Military Strength, p. 62
  28. North Korea Military Power, p. 26
  29. North Korea: The Foundations for Military Strength – Update 1995, Washington, D.C.: Defense Intelligence Agency, October 1995, https://irp.fas.org/dia/product/knfms95/1510-101_toc.html. Accessed Dec 15, 2021
  30. North Korea Military Power, p. 26
  31. Harvey, Eric R., DMZ: The Next Korean War, Modern Battles Folio Game Series, Bakersfield: Decision Games, 2010
  32. Harvey, Exclusive Rules 20.0 “Scenarios”
  33. North Korea Military Power, p. 6
  34. North Korea Military Power, p. 22
  35. Land, “3.1 Nuclear Weapons Points,” Next War: Series Supplement #2, p. 18
  36. Roberts, Brad, On Theories of Victory, Red and Blue, Livermore Papers on Global Security No. 7, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Center for Global Security Research, June 2020, p. 4, https://cgsr.llnl.gov/content/assets/docs/CGSR-LivermorePaper7.pdf. Accessed Dec 15, 2021
  37. Roberts, p. 43
  38. On IPM see Advanced Series Rule 28.0 “UN Resolutions” and Game Series Rule 14.0 “UN Resolution Veto.” On retirement see Game Specific Rule 17.0 “2nd Edition Design Notes.”
  39. Lind, Jennifer and Daryl G. Press, “Five Futures for a Troubled Alliance,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. 33, No. 3, September 2021, p. 357
  40. North Korea Military Power, p. 48
  41. Bond, Larry, Red Phoenix, New York: Warner Books, 1989
  42. Lind, et al, p. 361
  43. Erickson, Andrew S., Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) Development” Drivers, Trajectories and Strategic Implications, Washington, D.C.: The Jamestown Foundation, 2013
  44. Congressional Research Service, Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons, RL35272, Updated March 16, 2021, p. 8
  45. Panda, Ankit, “A Call to Arms: Kim Jong Un and the Tactical Bomb,” The Washington Quarterly, 44:3, 7-24, p. 9
  46. Carter, Donald A., Forging the Shield: The U.S. Army in Europe, 1951-1962, Washington, D.C.: Center for Military History, 2015, p. 310
  47. Bennett, Bruce W., Kang Choi, Myong-Hyun Go, Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., Jiyong Park, Bruce Klingner, Du-Hyeogn Cha, Countering the Risks of North Korean Nuclear Weapons, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation/The Asian Institute for Policy Studies, April 2021, p. 36
  48. North Korea Military Power, p. 26
  49. Panda, pp. 11-12
  50. Marzarr, et. al, p. 2
  51. Rodong Sinmun, “Kim Yo Jong’s Press Statement Decries Seoul Defense Minister’s Remarks,” 5 April 2022
  52. Land, Next War Series Supplement #2, 3.2.7 “Assured Destruction,” p. 19
  53. RECNA-Nagasaki University, Asia Pacific Leadership Network, Nautilus Institute,, “POSSIBLE NUCLEAR USE CASES IN NORTHEAST ASIA: IMPLICATIONS FOR REDUCING NUCLEAR RISK”, NAPSNet Special Reports, January 27, 2022, https://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/possible-nuclear-use-cases-in-northeast-asia-implications-for-reducing-nuclear-risk/
  54. Pauly, Reid B.C., “Would U.S. Leaders Push the Button? Wargames and the Sources of Nuclear Restraint,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Fall 2018), p. 158
  55. Extended deterrence involves discouraging attacks on third parties, such as allies or partners.” See Manzaar, Michael J., “Understanding Deterrence,” RAND Perspective PE-295-RC, 2018, p. 3 (https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE200/PE295/RAND_PE295.pdf)
  56. Deterrence by punishment threatens severe penalties, such as nuclear escalation or severe economic sanctions, if an attack occurs. These penalties are connected to the local fight and the wider world. The focus of deterrence by punishment is not the direct defense of the contested commitment but rather threats of wider punishment that would raise the cost of an attack.” See Manzaar, “Understanding Deterrence,” p. 2
  57. Roberts, p. 2
  58. Davis, Paul K. and Bruce W. Bennett, Nuclear Use Cases for Contemplating Crisis and Conflict in the Korean Peninsula: Reducing the Risk of Nuclear Weapon Use in Northeast Asia, Seoul: Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, 2021, p. 6
  59. Davis, p. 6
  60. Lewis, Jeffrey, PhD, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel, Boston: Mariner Books, 2018
  61. See “US Missile Defense: Unproven, unaccountable, and unhelpful for reducing the nuclear threat” at https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/missile-defense
  62. Mohan, Janani, “Gaming Nuclear Deterrence,” Harvard International Review, Vol. XL, No. 3 (Summer 2019), pp. 33-35
  63. Pauly, p. 187
  64. Pauly, p. 161, 170-171
  65. Pauly, p. 187
  66. Lacey, James, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick, “The Wargame Before the War: Russia Attacks Ukraine,” War on the Rocks, March 2, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/03/the-wargame-before-the-war-russia-attacks-ukraine/, Accessed May 4, 2022
  67. Lacey, James, Tim Barrick, and Nathan Barrick, “Wargaming a Long War: Ukraine Fights On,” Modern War Institute, April 4, 2022, https://mwi.usma.edu/wargaming-a-long-war-ukraine-fights-on/, Accessed May 4, 2022

One thought on “Wargaming the Next Korean War

  1. Well written and researched! If there is a conventional conflict alone the North Koreans will get schwacked. Its starving army likely is not as good as Saddam’s formerly “elite” Republican Guards units, which at least had some actual combat experience before the US Army and Marine Corps pulverized them. You don’t discuss much about South Korea’s excellent military forces, who will do the brunt of fighting as US forces are basically a tripwire to ensure US involvement. As we have seen in the Ukraine, morale is critical, and any North Korean forces that make it across the DMZ will probably defect as soon as they see the stark difference in the South Korean way of life, which most rank-and-file in the NK Army probably can’t imagine. North Korea better hope their nukes work.

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