War in Korea Would Be 'Game of Thrones-Like,' Top Marine Says

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller speaks with Marines and Sailors of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command while in the Middle East Dec. 21, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps/SSgt. Phillip Elgie)
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller speaks with Marines and Sailors of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command while in the Middle East Dec. 21, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps/SSgt. Phillip Elgie)

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, Southwest Asia -- The commandant of the Marine Corps is clear: He's not looking for a fight.

But if war takes the service to the Korean peninsula, he wants Marines to know the daunting challenges they would face.

Speaking to deployed Marines at a base in the Middle East while on a Christmas tour of deployed units, Gen. Robert Neller sought to temper their enthusiasm at the potential of a future ground fight.

"Ever been to Korea? Korea sucks," he told the troops bluntly. "The people are wonderful; the country is tough."

At a number of stops on the trip, Neller addressed the major threats outlined by the Defense Department: Russia, North Korea, Iran, China, and violent extremism. Among the four nations, he noted, North Korea is the only one that can be assessed to have both capability and intent to take violent action.

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Some of the Marine Corps' most physically demanding bilateral training takes place in South Korea, where troops are subjected to freezing winter conditions, terrain climbs, and long hard marches in the cold.

And the memory of Battle of Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War -- nicknamed "the Frozen Chosin" -- serves as proof of the toll the elements can take on a fighting force.

"It's mountainous. Hot in the summer, cold in the winter. There's hills, narrow passes, very difficult," Neller said. "We have to think about how we fight."

To complicate the picture, he added, North Korea reportedly has rockets and artillery pieces targeting the United States' South Korean allies in Seoul and the surrounding region.

"The Greater Seoul area is home to about 30 million people," he said. "So when we hear people say we've got to go up there with Kim Jong-un and whip his ass, how would you do that without Seoul, Korea, coming under fire of hundreds and hundreds of artillery pieces?"

Neller likened the ensuing battle to a popular violent medieval-era fantasy book series that spawned an HBO show.

"It would be 'Game of Thrones'-like," he said. "And a lot of people would get hurt. I might be wrong, but it's a very complicated issue."

Since Marines do not know where they might be sent to fight, Neller called upon his troops to be mentally and physically ready for whatever might come -- particularly if it's conflict in an environment very different from the desert locations of recent conflicts.

"There's a lot of wargaming going on about Korea and how the fight might go," he said. "I'll say the fight never goes the way you think it's going to go; it always goes a different way. Which is why you can't be fixed in your mind. Part of our mental preparation as leaders, you have to read and study and think. [We need] a force that's mentally, physically agile enough to respond to the change."

All that said, Neller said victory is possible, even when faced with the challenges he outlined.

"So, I mean, would we eventually come out on top? I think we would. The North Koreans, we have certain capabilities that they don't have," Neller said. "But it would be epic."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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