The Best Video Games Can’t Predict What Kim Jong-Un Would Do To Win War

It is curious that there are far more games on a Soviet invasion of West Germany that never happened than a Communist assault on South Korea that actually did. It is even more curious that there haven’t been more games on a Second Korean War, given how volatile the region is.

The Demilitarised Zone between the two nations is the most heavily armed border in the world. The two Koreas together are only about the size of Nebraska, but they have close to two million soldiers, 10,000 tanks, and enough firepower — even without North Korea’s nukes — to turn the peninsula into a wasteland.

The spectre of war has hovered for 60 years, but the dogs of war are barking more loudly than ever, incited by hard times in the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea’s economy has collapsed, its people have been reduced to eating grass, and its latest rocket ended up in the Yellow Sea instead of outer space. So we have a desperate regime that, like the high school juvenile delinquent, believes that bluster and threats will terrify the world into meeting its demands.

At the same time, South Korea is taking a harder line against North Korean artillery barrages and attacks on South Korean warships, and it won’t take much in the way of malice or miscalculation to ignite a conflict. The First Korean War was a UN “police action” (as Alan Alda complains in “MASH”, “If this is a police action, where are the cops?”). The Second Korean War could be anything from a targeted strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, to all-out regime change by US and South Korean armies, to a “what the hell, we’re going down, let’s throw the dice” invasion of South Korea by the North.

Can wargaming illuminate a Second Korean War? To some extent, yes.

All-out war would be intense, bloody, and most of all, big.

For flight sims, it’s easy. Find the flight sim of your choice. Find a game that lets you pit the latest F-15s, F-16s and stealth bombers against 1970s and 1980s Soviet — and Chinese-made aircraft flown by pilots who can barely get their planes in the air. That’s the air war over North Korea (or all five minutes of it).

Shooter games can be anything that lets you pit top-of-the-line Western equipment against older Soviet and Chinese tanks and rifles. I’m not going to bother with an arcade game like Invading North Korea. As for Homefront, what can I say? If you believe in a North Korean invasion of California, then you also believe that he invented the hamburger.

Strategy games offer the most insights into what a Second Korean War might be like. While North Korea would love mano-a-mano combat between the fat, lazy imperialist mercenaries and the heroic Korean People’s Army soldiers, the US isn’t about to oblige. Aircraft will rain down smart bombs, including bunker-busters to destroy weapons and installations inside mountains.

To get the flavour of this, try Hornet Leader. It’s not a flight simulator, but a 2D air strategy game that challenges the U.S. player to plan an air campaign of multiple strikes. The graphics are blah and the turn-based gameplay may be a little dry, but it probably offers a deeper glimpse into a Korea air war than many flight sims. The air war won’t be decided by dogfights but by careful mission planning to hit key targets while avoiding an ageing but still lethal air defence system (the Modern Air Power series from HPS Simulations is also worth checking out).

For the ground war, the deepest game is Raging Tiger, designed by Pat Proctor, a US Army lieutenant colonel who’s currently fighting in Afghanistan. Raging Tiger looks like the kind of computer simulation that real military professionals use, and unfortunately it plays the same way. This is a very complicated tactical (platoon and company), pausable real-time game with a lot of detail in terms of planning artillery barrages, issuing units the appropriate standard operating procedures, and so on. Easy or visually appealing it’s not, but if you want to see modern combat through the eyes of a military professional, this is the game.

An easier introduction to a Korea ground war is Korea ’85, part of HPS Simulations’ Modern Battle series. It is a turn-based, battalion-level design that includes a giant 180-turn campaign game. There is a fair amount of repetitive mouse-clicking as you try to move and fight with hundred of units, but one thing that Korea ’85 shows very well is just how many troops and hardware are packed into the DMZ. All-out war would be intense, bloody, and most of all, big. America has become accustomed to small wars fought by a squad here, a platoon there, to the point where our own generals wonder whether we have lost our big-war skills.

Yet the caveat here is that while wargaming does best at covering the kinetic side of war — how far can a cannon shoot, how many inches of reinforced concrete can a bunker-buster bomb penetrate — it doesn’t tend to cover the “soft” factors as well. The Raging Tiger game has rules for refugees and collateral damage, but for the most part, these games focus on combat. Yet the South Korean capital of Seoul is within artillery range of the DMZ, and North Korea has the largest artillery force in the world. Surely that will affect Korea’s strategic decisions. China may be tired of propping up its unruly North Korean client, but the last time American troops approached the Yalu River, Beijing sent 300,000 “volunteers” to fight them.

One reason why wargames were invented was so that commanders wouldn’t be surprised by what happened on the real battlefield. But we can pretty sure that whatever happens in Korea, it won’t be what we expected.

Michael Peck is Games Editor at Foreign Policy Magazine and a writer for Training & Simulation Journal at Defense News

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