North Korea's conventional armed forces are growing weaker every year as training is abandoned for economic activities by troops and as weapons age from obsolete to war museum quality. Yet North Korean continues to threaten the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) with destruction.
A successful northern invasion of South Korea increasingly requires North Korea to focus on weapons of mass destruction to completely cripple the South Korean army with a massive nuclear and chemical strike; and to successfully insert tens of thousands of commandos to disrupt the ROK army from deploying.
In that case, North Korea's army might be able to manage a road march into Seoul against scattered opposition--if the officers can keep their troops from stopping to loot South Korean malls on the line of march.
And North Korea is on the path to nuclear weapons, has lots of chemical weapons, and keeps lots of conventional artillery to pound Seoul within range of that city. So Seoul could be heavily damaged even without crossing the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with an invasion.
We do worry about this bombardment threat:
"If North Korea decides to use their long-range artillery, which they have so many pieces of, Seoul would be in direct range," Captain Harry Lu of the U.S. Army's 37th Field Artillery Regiment said.
"So our mission here is to make sure we destroy that artillery before they can cause any more damage to the greater Seoul metropolitan area." ...
In bellicose rhetoric, North Korea routinely threatens to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames" and the city was reduced to rubble in the 1950-53 Korean conflict, which ended in a truce, not a treaty, meaning the two sides are technically still at war.
Because of these factors, I think that our war plans are evolving to go north of the DMZ; and that these plans include three main lines of attack:
A decapitation strike on North Korea's command and control to paralyze their armed forces:
Massive joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises are a spring ritual on the Korean Peninsula guaranteed to draw a lot of threat-laced venom from Pyongyang. This time, not only are the war games the biggest ever, but the troops now massed south of the Demilitarized Zone have reportedly incorporated a new hypothetical into their training: a "beheading mission" against Kim Jong Un himself. ...
They are targeted attacks to eliminate an adversary's leader, or leaders, in an attempt to disrupt or destroy its command chain as soon as a crisis breaks out or appears imminent. They are seen as particularly effective against enemies with a highly centralized command focused on a small group, or one leader. With the leader out of the way, the thinking goes, it's a lot easier to take the rest of the enemy's forces down — or at least keep them from maintaining a coordinated and sustained offensive[;]
A limited invasion north of the DMZ by South Korean forces keep the North Koreans too busy to focus on the third part below and to carve out a no-launch zone to protect Seoul from bombardment by all but the longest range North Korean missiles (hello missile defenses!); and
A joint South Korean-American lunge with a specialized unit into North Korea to grab nuclear missile facilities to avoid relying on air power to destroy the nukes (but we'll try while the troops are on the way, with missile defenses on land and ships spinning up to protect the region until the troops are standing on the ground. Heck, it could be a layered defense starting with American fighters loitering over the North Korean missile sites (although I was thinking about Iran at the time).
And we would retain the amphibious threat to expand a move north:
About 55 U.S. marine aircraft and 30 U.S. and South Korean ships, including the USS Bonhomme Richard and USS Boxer, which carry AV-8B Harrier attack jets and V-22 Osprey aircrafts, took part in the assault on beaches near Pohang city, the U.S. navy said.
"They will penetrate notional enemy beach defenses, establish a beach head, and rapidly transition forces and sustainment ashore," the U.S. military based in South Korea said in a statement before the exercise.
That's what I'd plan for, anyway, were I Lord of PACOM.
As an aside, when you hear that these exercises have record numbers of troops involved, don't forget that including an American aircraft carrier task force adds many thousands of sailors to the total count.