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Could North Koreans ever really invade America?

In the 1984 film Red Dawn, the Soviet army destroys Washington, D.C. Cuban spies, posing as immigrants, cross in from Mexico and disable America’s strategic air command; Russian paratroopers occupy the town of Calumet, Colo., and a group of patriotic high school students enact guerrilla warfare against the invaders. While not plausible, it at least existed within the realm of possibility.

Fast forward to the 2012 Red Dawn remake, which opened last week: North Koreans, featuring shadowy assistance from Russians, paratroop in and invade Spokane, Wash. Assuming that North Korea actually wanted to invade the United States; would it have the ability to
do so?

I spoke with several North Korean experts, who tried to wrap their head around the idea.

“It is silly, ridiculously silly,” says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and the author of several books on North Korea.

The country “has no ocean-going navy, and no air force capable of delivering troops on distances more than few hundred kilometers” nor does it have the logistics to support such an operation, he said.

“Boy, where to begin,” said David Wright, an arms control expert.

He cited the difficulty the United States had sending troops across the Pacific to Japan during World War II. With what ships and planes would bankrupt North Korea send troops to the United States? And how would the dozens or hundreds of North Koreans manage to incapacitate the U.S. army for long enough to invade a city? Wright does not know.

Joe Bermudez Jr., a defense analyst and expert on the North Korean military, walked me through the steps as to how North Korea could possibly transport troops into the United States. Emphasizing that this estimate is “stretching fantasy as far as we could,” Bermudez says that they could move a few hundred people to the United States. “That would really be about it,” he said. He estimates North Korea has roughly 70 submarines of various classes; approximately 20, the Soviet Style Romeo Class submarines, which could host roughly at the most roughly 2 dozen soldiers each, potentially have the capability of reaching the United States. (Bermudez added that they could move more troops if they had assistance from the Chinese, or in Red Dawn’s case, the Russians).

North Korea’s missiles theoretically “have the basic capability to reach the United States with a basic warhead, but they haven’t demonstrated that,” Bermudez said, as he struggled to explain how North Korea could cross the Pacific and invade. North Koreans “could kill an awful lot” of South Koreans and Americans on the Korean peninsula, he said – just not elsewhere.

Lankov, in an e-mail, said that if the Germans made a movie about being crushed by Luxembourg, or Russians making a movie “about their country being crushed by the invading Georgian hordes, it would make a significantly more believable story line.” Even Venezuelan troops taking over the United States would make for a much more probable film, he added.

Barry Posen, director of the MIT Security Studies Program, pointed to then-Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell’s 1991 quote about how, as the Soviet Empire was collapsing, he is “running out of demons” against which to orient U.S. forces. Islamist terrorists are too asymmetrical an enemy in popular imagination to function as an invading force, and the Chinese are “frenemies” – the original version of the Red Dawn remake featured invading Chinese, but the studio feared this would alienate Chinese moviegoers, so it digitally replaced all Chinese flags and imagery. “We are left with the zombies and the Borg (both simply ourselves) and for now, the North Koreans,” says Posen.

Lankov was less charitable. “I understand: it is an adventure and/or moral parable. Nonetheless, it is one of the most improbably story lines one can possibly invent.”

Wright tried to imagine armed North Koreans invading. He thought of several ways they might make it across the border, one of them involving the soldiers passing through customs, and then stopped.

“I don’t even know how much it makes sense to try to figure this out,” he said.

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