Now that Victor Cha has written that another Korean War is a very real possibility, that risk has become a matter of accepted conventional wisdom. Some in South Korea seem to be waiting for an excuse to restore deterrence through bombing. This is probably a mix of bluff and bluster, but there’s no arguing with South Korea’s right to self-defense and its need to restore deterrence.
A lot of unthinkable things have already happened this year, and I certainly hope the next one doesn’t lead to all-out war. I’ve already addressed the horrors that would follow if it does, and those risks are the main reason why I still oppose strikes against North Korea. Yes, those risks might still be justifiable if confronting them is the only way to to prevent war and save lives, but on the other side of this cost-benefit ledger, the prospect of a few more corpses to dispose of probably doesn’t deter Kim Jong Il much. If there is good news here, it’s that I’m reasonably confident that Kim Jong-Il still fears all-out war. Given Kim Jong Il’s age and health, I suspect his fears are more invested in the survival of regime and legacy. All-out war means the end of all these things, and his life. Fortunately, no one really wants an all-out war.
But if it’s now necessary for us to consider our military options, and I think it is, let’s at least tie those options to our policy objectives. My friend Kevin Kim proposes an idea that merits serious consideration, but to which I add some important caveats:
George Carlin once said, “I leave symbols for the symbol-minded. While it might not be a deterrent, per se, I’d love to see SK knock down one major symbol per NK provocation. Flatten the Ryugyong Hotel, for instance, then start knocking down those Great Leader statues. Shell the stadium where the Arirang Festival takes place, powder the King Il-sung hall of gifts, blast away one leg of the NK Arc de Triomphe and let it topple, etc. If nothing else, such strikes would drive NK nuts. Whether they would demoralize the populace, embolden them to rebel, or solidify their loyalty to the Dear Leader, I have no idea, but if we think purely in terms of symbols, Pyongyang is a target-rich environment.
I’ve argued that Kim Jong Il seeks to provoke a limited war, so that he can unite his population behind the regime and against foreign enemies. To this end, the risk of absorbing some military and civilian casualties is hardly more of a deterrent than the risk of inflicting some. But any attack that strikes at the state’s spiritual legitimacy and the its most unpopular aspects would advance our interests in neutralizing North Korea as a threat. Speculate with me about what ordinary North Koreans still believe today:
– North Korean memories of the Korean War may rely, in part, on exaggerations of the horrors of U.S. bombing, but our bombing was in fact directed at cities full of civilians, was legitimately horrific, and would certainly be considered a war crime by today’s standards. If we’re trying to shape North Korean public opinion — and that is the single most dispositive factor in ultimately resolving our problems with North Korea — then we should do nothing to reinforce the state’s propaganda about indiscriminate American bombing. Because we are not like the North Koreans, we should avoid cities, hotels, and stadiums. Seeing such places damaged would only authenticate the very hatred, xenophobia, and humiliation the state exploits, and increasingly needs. And because soldiers are expendable to the state but precious to their families, we should seek to avoid military casualties, too.
– Ideally, the American role should be to stand by and deter escalation, while avoiding direct involvement. Let South Korea do the fighting and show its own strength and independence. American involvement only feeds North Korea’s nationalist propaganda.
– Admittedly, the idea of felling the biggest Kim Il Sung statue in Pyongyang had crossed my mind, too, but refugee surveys have convinced me that there’s still significant residual reverence for Kim Il Sung. For obvious reasons, I can’t quantify the degree of that reverence, and I suspect that its character is complicated by ambivalence. Still, I’d counsel restraint when it comes to statues and monuments to him. Similarly, symbols of anti-Japanese resistance should be off-limits. Plenty of South Koreans might also react against this.
– People listen to state broadcasting because it’s all most of them still have. But within days, rumors and Open Radio catch up with the state’s narrative, and a lot of people tend to believe what they hear from the outside. Generally, however, people are more likely to believe the first thing they hear. If you disable state broadcasting, rumors and Open News might have much more influence than they might otherwise.
– For anyone in the Pentagon who is reading this, let me helpfully offer that palaces would be ideal targets for several reasons. The first of these is that they’re big, blue and almost impossible to miss. Politically, they’re even more attractive. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that Kim Jong Il is generally hated, and that Kim Jong Eun is universally despised. Most of their palaces are in rural areas that have been cleared of civilians. I’d bet that the North Korean people would actually approve if they learn that KJI or KJU’s fancy palaces were bombed, particularly by the South Koreans. The North Koreans can’t even show video of the damaged palaces without highlighting the gross inequality of North Korean society and suffering an even greater propaganda backlash. Instead, we should use the occasion to show the world, including the North Korean people, how KJI and KJU live in splendor while everyone else lives in squalor. Finally, bombing palaces has the advantage of punishing the guilty instead of the innocent.
– I don’t think there’s much question that the Anjeonbu and Bowibu security forces are widely hated. Most North Koreans would likely approve of the destruction of their offices, which would have the added effect of weakening the regime’s capacity to control the population.
With this being said, we should be prepared for a wide variety of unpredictable consequences if the South strikes back, with or without American help. Some of these are obvious. One that I haven’t seen anyone discuss yet is that retaliation might set off a popular uprising. When hated regimes are attacked from the outside, a frequent consequence is that they’re attacked from the inside, too. It was the case in Iraq in 1991, where we paid dearly for failing to seize the moment. In the case of North Korea, defectors will tell you that they often wished for war. This was code-talk for the end of the regime, but it also reflected their belief that only American bombs could effect this result. Military retaliation could cause discontented North Koreans to think that this is their moment. They’re probably mistaken, and the consequences are certain to be tragic no matter what happens (this is North Korea). I suspect that the regime would eventually suppress this uprising, but that result is not assured if the military fractures.
We need to think through just how much support we’re willing to give anti-regime forces, particularly if those forces include mutinous military units. I would argue for as much support as possible — to include clearing out North Korea’s air defenses and dropping arms to anti-regime forces. For now, leave aside the moral obligation to stand with people who oppose tyranny. The more prolonged the uprising, the greater the deterrent effect on North Korea and China, which will gain a profound realization of our capacity to sow chaos and deliver their worst fears to them. The more prolonged the uprising, the more troops North Korea will have to divert from the DMZ, and the less the risk of a wider conventional war. If some elements of the rebellion persist, we then acquire a network of North Korean allies inside the world’s greatest intelligence black hole, along with the capability to influence events inside North Korea itself. Leveraging the effects of dissent vastly increases our bargaining power and may be the last hope for a diplomatic resolution to our problems with North Korea. Conversely, failing to support dissent will embitter North Koreans against us as it embittered Iraqis, and will dissuade anyone from challenging the regime for years.