North Korean Men Cross DMZ (and plant land mines)

By now, you’ve read that South Korea’s government has accused the North Korean military of sending soldiers across the DMZ to plant mines near South Korean guard posts, an act that blew the legs off two South Korean soldiers last week.

The two South Koreans, both staff sergeants, triggered the mines last Tuesday just outside their post, within the South Korean half of the 2.5-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone, a buffer separating the two Korean armies.

One lost both legs in the first blast, involving two mines. The other soldier lost one leg in a second explosion as he tried to help his wounded colleague to safety, the ministry said. [N.Y. Times]

The mines in question were box mines like this one, a copy of a Russian TMD antipersonnel mine.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.47.20 AM

[via AFP]

South Korea says it has ruled out “the possibility they were old mines displaced over the border by shifting soil patterns,” but I admit that when I first read the report, I wondered about this. After all, in June, Yonhap reported that North Korea was planting more mines along the DMZ, not to maim or kill South Korean troops, but to maim or kill its own troops, who might want to imitate the embarrassing cross-border defection of a young North Korean soldier in June, the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that morale in the North Korean Peoples’ Army is flagging. This is also the rainy season in Korea — albeit an exceptionally dry one. Still, if the mines were triggered in low-lying areas, it might be possible that summer rains washed them downhill to where the ROK soldiers triggered them.

On further examination, however, an accidental explanation seems unlikely. South Korea claims that the mines were placed on “a known South Korean border patrol path,” and “just outside the South Korean guard post, which is 1,440 feet south of the military demarcation line.” That’s a long way for three mines to travel together, completely by accident, to a place right along a trail and next to a ROKA border post. Worse, the mines “exploded as the soldiers opened the gate of a barbed-wire fence to begin a routine morning patrol,” and were planted “on both sides of a barbed-wire fence protecting the post.” Most of the DMZ is double fenced, and a large mine wouldn’t wash through a fence line.



Finally, the incident happened near Paju. Along most of the DMZ in that area, the South Korean side is uphill from the North Korean side. Water doesn’t usually wash mines uphill. Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.43.36 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 6.44.10 PM

[Google Earth]

These facts strongly suggest that the placement was deliberate. The U.N. Command seems to agree, and “condemns these violations” of the 1953 Armistice. It’s only the latest illustration of the folly of any call for peace talks with a government that won’t abide by an Armistice, or for that matter, any other agreement. There is, of course, a calculated strategic objective behind North Korea’s support for advocates of a peace treaty. Both Pyongyang and its apologists want sanctions lifted before North Korea disarms, and probably whether it disarms or not. (Pyongyang demands that we lift sanctions immediately because sanctions don’t work, of course.) By preemptively giving up their leverage before Kim Jong-Un disarms, the U.S., the U.N., and South Korea would effectively recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear-armed state.

But if calls for a peace treaty are mostly confined to the likes of Code Pink and a few extremists, undermining the effect of sanctions with financial aid for Pyongyang remains politically popular in South Korea, and amounts to almost the same thing for North Korea’s nuclear program. Just as North Korean troops were planting the mines that maimed the ROK soldiers, a coalition of far-left types and business profiteers called on the South Korean government to lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea, known as the “May 24th Measures.” South Korea imposed those measures in 2010 after Pyongyang, with premeditation and malice aforethought, torpedoed and sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 of its sailors. Of course, the May 24th measures still exempted the largest South-to-North money pipe, the Kaesong Industrial Park, which blunted the sanctions’ deterrent effect. If North Korea had complied with South Korea’s demand for an apology, we’d have known that the deterrent was sufficient, and some limited, financially transparent, and ethical re-engagement might have been appropriate. 

It gets worse. Yonhap is now speculating that the man behind this latest incident is none other than Kim Yong-Chol, head of the Reconnaissance General Bureau. In that capacity, General Kim was featured prominently in “Arsenal of Terror” for directing a campaign of assassinations (most of them unsuccessful) of refugee-dissidents in South Korea and human rights activists in China, and for being behind the Sony cyberattacks and threats. Yonhap also says that Gen. Kim was behind the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks of 2010, although I’ve also heard Kim Kyok-Shik’s name mentioned. President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

Clearly, then, there is still a need to deter Kim Jong-Un and his minions, to show them that they will pay a price for their acts of war. August 15th will be the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation, and there has been much speculation, not discouraged by Pyongyang, that Pyongyang will celebrate it with some major provocation. At this point, the least-informed reporters covering Korea will seek comment from the least-informed North Korea “experts,” who will say there’s nothing we can do about this, short of (the false choice of) war. By now, of course, all of them should know that this is just plain wrong

Today, South Korea’s military is speaking through clenched teeth, using words that sound like threats of war. Major General Koo Hong-mo, head of operations for the Joint Chiefs, says, “As previously warned on many occasions, our military will make North Korea pay the equally pitiless penalty for their provocations.” The Joint Chiefs themselves have said the North will “pay a harsh price proportionate for the provocation it made.” (Can a price or penalty be both proportionate and pitiless? But I digress.) A spokesman for the South Korean military said, “We swear a severe retaliation.” Tensions are already high in the Yellow Sea, the site of North Korea’s deadly attacks of 2010.

Asked what kinds of retaliation will be taken, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok declined to elaborate, only saying that “The substance cannot be disclosed now, but we will wait and see.” Kim highlighted that the military will ensure the punitive action is taken against North Korea because the country’s responsibility for the mine detonation has been clearly proven. [Yonhap]

I certainly hope South Korea doesn’t launch a military response when the U.S. government is such an unsteady guarantor, and when the deaths of a few dozen (or a few hundred) conscripts and civilians on both sides will hardly give Kim Jong-Un any pause and do little to deter him (but much more about that later this week). In fact, I suspect this is more empty talk. I would like to think, however, that South Korea has a more serious response than this in mind:


[South China Morning Post]

South Korea Monday resumed a propaganda loudspeaker campaign along the tensely guarded border in retaliation for the detonation of a North Korean mine in the demilitarized zone last week, the Defense Ministry said.

The loudspeaker broadcasting, a kind of psychological warfare against the communist North, started during the evening on that day and continued on and off down the road in two spots along the border, the ministry said.

“As part of retaliation for North Korea’s illegal provocation, our military will partly carry out loudspeaker broadcasting along the military demarcation line as the first step,” according to the ministry. [Yonhap]

As a defense doctrine, the notion of shouting to a few hundred conscripts within earshot is very nearly the opposite of “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” As a deterrent, it’s ludicrous. And as an American taxpayer, I can only ask myself: if South Korea isn’t serious about its own defense, why should we be serious about its defense?

Any fool can see that the profiteers and appeasers who’ve dictated the terms of South Korea’s security policy and relations with North Korea have not only made their country less safe, but brought it to the brink of war. A military response would be ill-advised and disproportionate, and would only kill a lot of people who are utterly expendable to those responsible for this attack. If the South Korean government is serious about deterring the next provocation, it should not limit its voice to a few unfortunate conscripts along the border; it should open the medium-wave spectrum to subversive broadcasts to all of the North Korean people, and fund services like Radio Free North Korea and Open News that produce those broadcasts. And yes, it should suspend operations at Kaesong for a few months — or better yet, permanently — to impose a financial price on those responsible for this attack.

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Does this mean we’re paying for THAAD for South Korea?

The United States has wrapped up its survey of candidate sites for its advanced missile defense (MD) system to be deployed in South Korea, with a final decision likely to be made before their annual defense ministers’ meeting in October, sources said Monday.
Washington has made no secret that it is considering deploying a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, an integral part of its MD system, to South Korea, citing evolving threats from North Korea. [Yonhap]

Does the “it” mean that U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for that expensive missile defense system, even as South Korea — burdened with far less public debt per capita than this country — continues to reduce the size of its own military? Well, apparently it does mean that.

But take some comfort in this — if you’re not South Korean, that is: South Korea, under pressure from the ChiComs and the neo-Soviets not to deploy THAAD, is saying that the system is only for the protection of U.S. Forces Korea. Tough luck, people of South Korea.

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South Korea’s missile problem, and ours

For the last year, the South Korean government has been saying that it considers a North Korean attack a very real risk, and it has also said that if attacked, its retaliation will be swift and severe. Its President, Park Geun-Hye, recently expressed concern about a North Korean “misjudgment,” and touted the U.S.-ROK military alliance as the best deterrent against that. As recently as this week, she has been warning her army of the dangers of “complacency.

I don’t have access to the intelligence that President Park has, so I have no basis to either affirm or question her premise. Part of this is probably deterrent bluster, but I doubt Park would bluster without some basis. I’ve always thought President Park was a smart and shrewd politician. In South Korea, appeasement is still politically popular — up to a point — although it’s not as popular as it was a decade ago. Still, I doubt that a politician as shrewd as Park would fabricate a threat that wouldn’t serve her political interests. (I’m sure others will disagree; so be it).

Today, I fear that the risk of a miscalculation that leads to war is greater than most North Korea watchers appreciate. Last month, Park told her top military commanders to return fire if attacked, without even waiting for her permission. What Park said next was not only slightly terrifying, it was also a perfect response to Secretary Kerry’s ill-advised comments about North Korea being “quiet,” especially because her comments preceded Kerry’s:

“There are also large concerns in the international community about (the North’s) preparations for a fourth nuclear test,” she said during the luncheon at the presidential office. “The gravity of the situation does not allow for the least bit of carelessness in maintaining our defense posture.” [….]

“I have complete faith in the judgment of our military,” Park said. “If there is any provocation, I expect all of you to respond strongly in the initial stages and punish (the North).” [Yonhap]

One cause of the recent rise in tensions is North Korea’s recent surge of tests of SCUDs, FROGs, and Nodongs — which we’ve known about for years — and of volleys of larger multiple-launch artillery rockets, which are a newer (and arguably, greater) threat. Thanks to The Wall Street Journal‘s Alastair Gale and other sources, we can identify some of these as 300-millimeter rockets of a new (to North Korea) type based either on a Russian design that can (in its native form) carry thermobaric weapons, or a Chinese or Pakistani variant that can probably carry chemical warheads. These weapons extend the range of North Korea’s artillery to cover all of Seoul, and most likely, Osan Air Base and the large Army post at Camp Humphreys, too.

[Indian Army 300-millimeter Smerch multiple-launch rockets.]

Over the weekend, during the “so-called” Pope’s visit, North Korea fired five new missiles that,

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Insiders debate North Korea’s EMP capability

The simplest electro-magnetic pulse or EMP weapons are, put simply, nuclear weapons detonated at high altitude. A high-altitude nuclear blast would overload and destroy electrical circuits and infrastructure, and create blackouts over wide areas for extended periods of time. Imagine your life without the internet, telephone, electricity, or cars — in short, being part of a 21st Century population trying to sustain itself with Colonial Williamsburg technology — and you get the idea. Without the means to recover from that sort of attack quickly, a modern society can’t survive for long.

The Heritage Foundation has published this background paper on the EMP threat, which itself links to this study commissioned by Congress, which examines the threat in more detail. Although I’ve read some of the predictions about the potential consequences of an EMP strike that sound exaggerated, I do think EMP is a danger we should take seriously with respect to our defenses, and also, our capacity to recover our infrastructure after an EMP attack.

Last month, former CIA Director James Woolsey made some members of the House Armed Services Committee nervous when he warned, “There is now an increasing likelihood that rogue nations such as North Korea … will soon match Russia and China in that they will have the primary ingredients for an EMP attack.”

For South Korea, the EMP threat could be particularly dire. The ROK has one of the world’s highest population densities, and its defense is as dependent on technology as the rest of its society. I’m not surprised, then, that the South Korean military is denying that North Korea has EMP weapons … at least for now.

Meanwhile, another writer suggests that our own EMP weapons could help restore our failing military deterrence of North Korea.

One way to threaten preemption even without missiles is to further develop a non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapon that could neutralize missiles on the launcher.  Because North Korea will soon develop road-mobile missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons, the further development of non-nuclear EMP systems capable of taking out, say, a 50-square-kilometer joint fire area, would also shift the cost-benefit calculus against North Korea. [Patrick Cronin, The Diplomat]

There is very little (but some) publicly available information about non-nuclear EMP weapons. According to Global Security, the U.S. military may even have used them against the Iraqi military in 1991.

The use of non-nuclear EMP doesn’t raise the same concerns about nuclear escalation and clouds of radionuclides drifting over, say, China. On the other hand, South Korea is almost certainly far more dependent on technology, and thus far more vulnerable to EMP warfare, than the North. The area south of the DMZ is heavily populated, whereas the area to the North is thinly populated and technologically backward. Whether a first use of EMP is really a good idea depends on unknowable facts, such as the imminence and scale of the threat we’d be preempting, the capability of the weapons, and the likelihood that North Korea could respond in kind.

For a more scaleable form of deterrence, I’m much more comfortable with this idea, myself.

While North and South Korea agreed some years ago to forego psychological warfare against each other, the North is a flagrant purveyor of vitriol and falsehood.  Surely the alliance can better saturate the North with uncomfortable facts—from pictures of Kim Jong-Un’s luxury houses side by side with North Korean gulags, to video lectures by North Korean refugees who have managed to escape the world’s most oppressive regime.

In fact, I don’t see any good arguments against doing these things in response to North Korea’s tests of SCUD, 300-millimeter rockets, or ICBM engines. If one of our goals is to slow the rate of North Korea’s progress toward acquiring an effective nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t it make sense to convince Kim Jong Un that that progress also carries risks, and that time isn’t on his side?

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Can Park Geun-Hye prepare Korea, and the world, for reunification?

Yesterday, Yonhap reported that an unusual billboard had appeared in Times Square in New York: “Korean Unification would be an immeasurable BONANZA for any nations with interests in the Korean Peninsula.” To most of the Americans who read it, the billboard will seem odd, but Korea-watchers will recall when Korean-Americans took out similar ads in the United States, about things that matter much less. Beneath the paywall, we learn that “[t]he ad was set up by Han Tae-gyuk, a 66-year-old Korean-American man, at his own expense,” because Han “wants to publicize the importance of Park’s recent message on the future of the two Koreas.”

(Update: Here’s an image of the “billboard.”)

We could speculate as to whether the Korean government prompted or encouraged Mr. Han, and that is also remarkable if you knew the Korea I knew just over a decade ago. Lately, President Park herself has taken to promising Korea’s neighbors (read: China) that they will share in a “jackpot” when the day of reunification comes:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that the Korean unification would be a blessing not only for the Koreas but for neighbors as well, citing investment opportunities in the communist North. Park made the remark during a question and answer session after a keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. She said unification of the two Koreas would be a “jackpot” for all of Northeast Asia.

“I think unification will be a great benefit for neighboring countries,” Park said, adding that unification will touch off massive investments in North Korea, mainly infrastructure projects, and revitalize investments in neighboring China and Russia too.  “As unification can provide the Northeast Asia region with a fresh growth engine, I think unification will be a jackpot not only for South Korea, but also for all neighboring countries in Northeast Asia,” she said. [Yonhap]

In case you think Park is talking about some hippie-drum-circle fantasy that preserves the North Korean political system, read on:

Park also said that unification would also be meaningful in that it will free North Korean people from the starvation and human rights violations they suffer under the communist regime. Park also said the best way to predict the future is to map out your own future. She added that she is trying to make unification happen by creating the right conditions for a peaceful unification, rather than just sitting by and waiting for it.

If you didn’t read that last passage carefully, reread it and measure the immensity of all that it implies. Read it as if you were in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Chongjin.

In a possibly related development, the Unification Ministry has just launched a (Korean-language only) portal ( to “provide comprehensive information on North Korea ranging from politics and the military to economy and social issues,” including “information on more than 290 high-profile North Korean officials, as well as information on geographic features of the isolated country.” Secretary of State John Kerry also says he will raise the topic of reunification during an upcoming visit to China, something he wouldn’t have done unless President Park had asked him to so.

So who is this woman, and what has she done with the consistently cautious, visionless, and pragmatic Park Geun-Hye we all thought we knew, and for whom a narrow majority of South Koreans votedShe sounds like John Bolton … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

~  ~  ~

Officially, Park Geun Hye’s policy toward North Korea had been something called “Trustpolitik.” (Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.) If you read Park’s “Trustpolitik” manifesto closely, however, it’s tougher than its gauzy label suggests. It isn’t Sunshine 2.0, and it isn’t about taking risks to earn North Korea’s trust. Instead, it puts the onus of earning Park’s trust on Kim Jong Un, because it is his government, after all, that has repeatedly broken its commitments. Trustpolitik is about holding North Korea to its commitments and to international norms, and it is about imposing consequences when the North breaks them. It is a sober, grouchy policy that fits South Korea’s mood today. Above all, it is passive. It isn’t about forcing change. It’s about reacting to change it can’t believe in. Cynical, calculating, hard-nosed, and reactionary — that is the Park Geun-Hye I know, but assuredly do not love.

By contrast, Park’s talk of reunification isn’t passive. It might even be revolutionary, and not in the usual trite way you’re used to hearing in car commercials. It’s selling the biggest change in Korea’s political status since 1945. Depending on exactly what Park has in mind, you could call it “bold,” “ambitious,” “historic,” or “grandiose,” or just a lot of talk. I could be reading what I want to see here. Like any good politician — or psychiatrist — President Park shows us an inkblot and lets us see our own fetishes in it. (If you want an especially cynical view, please see Dr. Foster-Carter’s.)

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that reunification of the Koreas would be immensely costly. This wisdom has persisted because (a) it supports the argument that favors a gradual, negotiated reunification, and (b) because it happens to be trueA declining percentage of South Koreans say reunification will benefit their country, and few think its benefits will be worth its costs. The leader of the Democratic Party, which has recently triangulated toward the political center, must think that Park is overreaching, and that his party can gain an advantage on this issue:

He especially expressed reservations about President Park Geun-hye’s analogy of reunification as a “jackpot,” claiming it painted too rosy a picture of reunification and gave the false impression that it could happen anytime. “For reunification, the process is very important,” Kim said in his address to the National Assembly. “Without consistent cooperation for reconciliation and efforts and steps to improve ties, the ‘reunification is a jackpot theory’ can easily be misunderstood as an impending sudden change.” Kim stressed that his party is against reunification by absorption due to the enormous costs and confusion it would bring to society. [Yonhap]

But what that really means is more indefinite preservation of the status quo, at an incalculable cost to North Koreans, and to the security of both South Korea and the world.

There is no question that reunification will be costly and painful in the short term, although the South would be able to impose a degree of gradualism if the Kim Dynasty falls tomorrow by controlling the movements of people, money, goods, and property until the two economies reintegrate.

In the long term, however, Park is right — reunification promises to be an engine of spectacular growth, prosperity, and power for both Koreas. Once the overburden of the North Korea’s dysfunctional political system is stripped away from its natural and human resources, its wealth will be unlocked by the South’s economy, capital, and legal system, and North Koreans will be able to earn a living wage. And also, to live.

How can President Park expect to win votes campaigning for something that scares more South Koreans than it inspires today? She certainly hasn’t communicated any specific plans for achieving “peaceful” reunification or economic integration recently, except as small throwaway ideas. So what is Park thinking with her talk of reunification? Are these her first cautious steps toward beginning a national conversation about reunification, in the hope that she can make South Koreans think differently about it? Is she preparing the diplomatic and political ground for something she believes is inevitable, and that will be revealed to us in due course?

~  ~  ~

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it would be presidential malpractice to fail to prepare for what expert opinion sees as increasingly likely, whether South Koreans are mentally prepared for it or not.

Uncertainty about North Korea’s regime has grown since the downfall of Jang Song-thaek, who was the country’s second most powerful figure, a U.S. congressional think tank said. Jang’s demise in December indicates the “boldness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un, which could lead to more provocative and unpredictable actions in the future, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases,” it said in a recent report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.” The CRS pointed out the sudden purging and execution of Jang, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was unusual because of his elite status and top-ranking posts. It completed “nearly a total sweep of late ruler Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, signaling Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of authority in Pyongyang,” said the CRS. [Yonhap]

The U.S. military says that it is “updating its contingency plans for a possible regime collapse in North Korea,” and ordering “detailed planning” for “a rapidly changing situation that would require stabilization of the peninsula,” but not all of the plans are so passive. Robert Beckhusen points to this fascinating article in “Special Warfare,” a publication of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, about last year’s joint “Balance Knife 13-1” exercise, between U.S. and ROK Special Forces, which tested their readiness to act “if tasked to conduct unconventional warfare in the Korean Theater of Operations.” And by “unconventional warfare,” the Army means “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The exercise included “a reassessment of infiltration methods and the various risks the [Korean Theater of Operations] poses to each,” and examined such practical problems as evacuating wounded, traveling in mountainous terrain, finding food in a starving country, and communicating without a communications infrastructure. It also discussed the tactical and logistical challenges of supporting an insurgency inside North Korea. A small sample:

Many ROKSF soldiers still have family in the north that they may or may not maintain contact with. These divided families provide strong relationships that transcend NK ideology and can serve as a foundation for the development of a loyal resistance organization.

The Balance Knife exercise was held within the context of the big annual exercise called Foal Eagle, which also stressed readiness for “combined unconventional warfare.” The willingness to acknowledge and talk about supporting a (still hypothetical) North Korean resistance is essential to preparing ourselves to support one, should one emerge. (And when one does emerge, it’s almost certain to emerge suddenly.)

All of this planning and training is still in its infancy. It should be viewed as nothing more than prudent contingency planning for events we can’t anticipate. In other words, U.S. and ROK forces are preparing for what we weren’t prepared for when events in Libya and Syria took us by surprise. In both cases, the length of the conflict was inversely proportional to the quality of the outcome. If there is some low-risk alternative that can influence the outcome of a North Korean civil war, we won’t be able to do it if we haven’t planned and trained for it.

For now, of course, there is no North Korean opposition of real significance, so any discussion of whether and how to support one is entirely speculative. But if you still haven’t read Bruce Bennett’s RAND study of the problems we’ll face when the regime collapses, you’ll understand why we can’t afford to ignore the question. Simply put, South Korea doesn’t have enough manpower to reestablish order in the North. (I’ll add that America may well decline — and probably should decline — to contribute that manpower.) Enabling indigenous forces to resist the regime and reestablish order in “liberated zones” could make the difference whether Korea is re-stabilized under a unified government or becomes a source of chaos and great-power conflict. The only plausible way to stabilize North Korea is to enlist the North Koreans themselves. We are far more likely to form those alliances if we being to “engage” the North Korean people, and persuadable demographics within the security forces, now. The decisions North Koreans make within the first 72 hours of a crisis could determine the course of Korea’s history. For example, the emergence of a strong, pro-South Korean opposition in the North would reduce the risk of a Chinese intervention and great-power conflict dramatically. It would also reduce the odds that South Korea asks the U.S. to help occupy the North.

Certainly there is room for argument about how Korea reunifies. That argument may soon begin in earnest. But there is no higher objective for the Korean nation-state than to form one free Korea — reunification under an independent and representative government. For the sake of her nation, I hope President Park will undertake this campaign as carefully and methodically as she undertook her campaign for the presidency. If she manages it, she will easily eclipse her father’s place in history.

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Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.


Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:


For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

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N. Korea says Park GH’s father “smelled of elderberries,” S. Korea responds with “large wooden badger” plan

I don’t know about you, but I sure got tired of Park Geun Hye’s hippie Earth mother act last summer, after North Korea started making nice, right after banks all over China and Europe started blocking North Korean accounts. Thank God that’s over with. We’re back to steaming reactors, spinning centrifuges, war drums, nasty taunts, and all the things we’ve grown to love and miss about North Korea. The North was uncharacteristically quietly during August’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, but for reasons known only in Pyongyang, it’s having an apoplectic fit over another one being held now:

On Monday Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Pyongyang regime, called the exercise a “bellicose attempt to escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula […] by openly threatening it with nukes,” referring to the presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. (The U.S. has a policy of neither confirming nor denying whether its ships are equipped with nuclear armaments.)

A North Korean military spokesman said that the U.S. would be “wholly accountable for the unexpected horrible disaster” that faced its “imperialist aggression forces.”  [Time]

Anyone want to start a pool on when KCNA puts up banners calling for Park’s disembowelment?

Referencing Park by name, rather than using the more neutral “chief executive” moniker, the spokesman warned the president that she was steering the Korean peninsula back into a period of dangerous “confrontation”. The commentary, carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency, was largely a response to a speech by Park on Tuesday urging Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. The president had also talked up the development of a military deterrent capability that would render the North’s nuclear weapons “useless”. [….]

“If Park and her group conspire with outsiders under the pretext of leading (North Korea) to ‘change’ … and force it to dismantle nuclear weapons, it will be little short of digging their own graves,” the NDC spokesman said. “There will be no bigger fool and poorer imbecile than the one who schemes to side with a nuclear-wielding robber and urge one’s own kinsmen to lower a knife first,” he added.  [AFP]

See also Yonhap and Sky News. But at least they aren’t threatening to strike first.

“If our enemies try to threaten us in the slightest, the country will launch ruthless pre-emptive strikes of annihilation,” the CPRK said. [Yonhap]

How to explain the very different reaction? Well, one cause we can eliminate is the exercise itself, given the muted reaction to Ulchi Freedom Guardian. If there’s one thing we should know about North Korea by now, its mood is driven by its own hormonal cycle. No one really knows what’s driving that cycle, but I’ll offer some possibilities.

If you forced me to guess, I’d cite the need to keep the military on high alert and forward deployed as Kim Jong Un sacks the head of his armed forces for the third time since December 2011 (or so say a lot of journalists who don’t really know if that’s true or not). [Update: See also Aidan Foster-Carter’s take–“this is not normal,” although previous reports of Kim Kyok-Sik’s demise have been (possibly) wrong.]

Money is always a reasonable guess, although the signs of financial distress aren’t that clear. Yonhap is reporting that North Korea’s exports to China rose 8 percent (compared to last year) in the first eight months of this year, “thanks to higher exports of coal, ores and woven garments,” while its imports fell by 6 percent. As always, we have to begin by observing that we have no idea if these figures are even accurate before we speculate about what they mean. It could mean that the blocking of some of North Korea’s offshore accounts has caused them to shift toward paying for imports with raw materials instead of cash. North Korea also sounds pretty desperate for hard currency from foreign investment, but what else is new?

This part, however, is much easier to explain: they’ve restarted the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, and said for the umpteenth time that they will never give up their nukes. I speculate that this is because they want them some nukes.

The National Intelligence Service informed lawmakers of the restart, ruling New Frontier Party lawmaker Cho Won Jin said by phone yesterday. Lawmakers were also told that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told his cabinet he plans to seek reunification with the South by force in three years, Cho said.  [Yonhap]

Did you read that last sentence carefully? If you’re reading it from Seoul, no, I don’t have a spare room, unless you’re related to me.

Running the reactor at Yongbyon would mean the North is making good on promises made in April to restart the facility as part of efforts to produce energy and improve its nuclear armed force. The United Nations Security Council has imposed strict sanctions on the North in a bid for it to return to negotiations and abandon its nuclear ambitions. [Bloomberg]

Chris Hill was not available for comment. So what is the South Korean government doing to send a stern message it won’t give cash or concessions in response to North Korean threats? It’s asking us to give the North cash and concessions for (or at least, in the immediate aftermath of) North Korean threats. According to Yonhap, South Korea “will begin talks with the United States next month on whether to entitle its goods made in North Korea to advantageous tariffs under their bilateral free trade agreement.” But Kaesong’s Trojan Rabbit strategy is a conclusive failure. Why double down with a Trojan Badger?

The idea of giving Kim Jong Un free trade benefits would certainly draw furious opposition in Congress, and frankly, I doubt that the administration (State Department notwithstanding) would even support it. It does, however, prove the premise of my own opposition to the FTA, as agreed. Skeptics–you know who you are–said this could never happen. The idea of extending free trade benefits to North Korea–benefits that not even Japan has–when North Korea continues to nuke up, sell chemical weapons technology to Syria, and threaten us is crazy talk, of course, but anything South Korea asks our government to do is self-evidently possible.

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Democracies don’t shoot their own people for trying to leave

The ROK Army has given its explanation for why its soldiers shot a would-be South-to-North defector, and that explanation is completely unsatisfactory:

Asked if the soldiers’ response was excessive, Brigadier General Cho Jong-sul at the briefing said: “It was legitimate. In a combat area like this, anyone who ignores our soldiers’ repeated warnings and tries to run away to North Korea will get shot.”

The ministry said Mr. Nam was carrying a South Korean passport, which showed that he had been deported from Japan in June after his attempt to seek a status of political refugee there failed. [WSJ, Korea Real Time]

What’s completely missing from this answer is any justification for the use of deadly force, especially against someone who was obviously too unstable to be carrying anything of intelligence value. (Unstable people are often those who test the limits of society’s tolerance of individual freedom, and if you doubt me, just google “9/11 truth.”)

Certainly Nam Yong-Ho could have found a better place and time to flee than in the middle of a tense combat zone surrounded by land mines, but in different circumstances, his choice might have been treated as a universal right, in the same way that 25,000 North Koreans exercised their universal right to flee South (a choice that countless others died trying to make).

By swimming to North Korea, Nam wasn’t harming anyone but himself–in fact, one could argue that his departure might well have done South Korea more good than harm. Freedom of movement is supposed to be one of the things that distinguishes South Korea from North Korea. Democracies don’t shoot their own people for trying to leave.

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ROK Army shoots, kills man attempting to swim to N. Korea

I’ll withhold my criticism until I know a few more facts, but I can’t immediately understand why South Korean troops had to shoot and kill a South Korean man who was swimming the Imjin toward North Korea.

This would not be the first South-to-North defection, but I don’t know why one the loss of one more nut or fugitive would be a great loss to the South. If the South doesn’t address the appropriateness of the use of force, it will weaken calls for North Korea to treat would-be defectors from North Korea differently.

By day’s end, we should know more than we know now. I’d like to know whether this was really necessary.

Update:  The more I read, the harder I find the ROK Army’s explanation to accept as a sufficient justification. I can’t see punishing soldiers who followed the rules of engagement they were given, but the army should review its rules of engagement for incidents like this one.

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Who will defend South Korea? And why?

Even as President Lee’s government stokes fears of another North Korean attack, we’re seeing a steady stream of reporting that he may drop his demand that North Korea apologize for the attacks of 2010 before there would be any direct bilateral talks. So far, Lee has thrown cold water on those reports, all of them anonymous and all of them seemingly indicative of some internal debate in the ROK government. Here’s the latest such report.

That this should be a matter of debate is hard for me to fathom — and I hope you’ll forgive the choice of that word. If the premeditated murders of 46 South Korean sailors, four of its civilians, and a village don’t even rate a simple apology, it’s hard to see why any young South Korean would put his life on the line to be the next sacrifice. Yes, soldiers implicitly accept the risk of the sacrifice of their lives, but that is not a forfeiture of their honor, or the value of their humanity. And for all the talk about his supposed hard-line positions, one precondition President Lee has never quite attached to Kim Jong Il’s money supply is the return of several hundred South Korean POW’s the North has been holding since 1953. In some ways, much too little has changed since the shameful days of Roh Moo Hyun.

All of this sends a powerful, if indirect, message about the value South Korea attaches to the lives of the young men who defend it. It might just be that a few of those young men have gotten that message:

In a sign that the country might be failing to instill patriotism into the minds of young people, about 44%, or 892 students, said they would “flee the country” if a war with North Korea broke out. Only 15% said they would “join the war or help the country in other ways.

Funny, their World Cup cheering section sure sounded brave.

Perhaps I’m making this more complicated than it really is. Maybe 44% of young Koreans are just cowards, typical shallow kids, or — God forbid — hippies. I doubt that many of them have given the matter serious thought. I suppose it’s ultimately up to the people of South Korea to elect a government worth dying to defend, and then deciding to put their lives on the line to defend it. Most of this is a matter for the Korean people to settle for themselves, but then you wonder: if they could run, where do you suppose they would run? And why do young South Koreans assume they would be able to run? Who do they assume will be guarding their backs as they board the planes they assume will fly, from airports they assume won’t be under fire? Do they assume that their inalienable right to spend “their” war guess-where will be defended by other Koreans of lower class and status? Or is the assumption that the Americans will bear this burden? Does it serve America’s interests, or South Korea’s, that so many Koreans harbor such false hopes and assumptions, and fail to understand that it is they who must preserve what distinguishes their lives from the wretchedness of Chongjin? My standing to object to these assumptions begins when the Second Infantry Division fights to hold Munsan while the flower of Korea’s youth flees to Irvine. As a practical matter, of course, that isn’t going to happen, but it’s worth asking why so many young Koreans expect it to.

The problem I continue to see with too many young South Koreans is that they’ve built dependency on America into their calculations about national and personal survival. Perhaps some know that one infantry brigade isn’t enough to stop the North Korean army, and that large-scale reinforcements are by no means assured in this political climate, but I doubt it. I suspect that the very visibility of our military presence in Korea reinforces Korea’s sense of dependency more than it reinforces South Korea’s defense. For all of the nationalism Korea has exhibited in recent years, it still suffers from an insufficiency of self-confident independence (in fact, I doubt that these things are unrelated). To change this attitude, South Korea will have to invest in a modern, professional army in which its people can invest their sense of security and their national pride. But the temptation to appease North Korea remains an impediment to this, because at the core of a professional army is a culture of respect for every young man and woman who serves in its ranks. In a professional army, the life of every young soldier must be considered priceless, and the taking of each life is a potential casus belli.

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If You Must Bomb, Bomb Their Palaces

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.

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Victor Cha: “There is a real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula.”

So begins a very sober assessment from a man not known, to put it mildly, for his erratic mood swings or his turbulent creative energy. If anything, I think Cha understates the gravity of the situation. North Korea — by the way, it was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 — has already sunk a South Korean warship, shelled a South Korean island, killed and maimed Marines and civilians, and turned the survivors of the impact zone into South Korea’s first population of war refugees since 1953. How is that not already war — even if it’s still unilateral and limited? Yet with each provocation, another limit is crossed. Cha is also right that South Korea has an urgent need for a way to deter the next escalation, which might be as unthinkable as the last ones still seem. He then gives a persuasive explanation of how conventional deterrence has lost its meaning:

President Lee Myung-bak is forced to respond with calm and measured actions every time the North provokes. The pat responses to the island shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan — of enhanced military readiness, exercises with the U.S., and diplomatic sanctions — do not work. The reality is that Pyongyang’s provocations are getting more deadly, and that Seoul’s strengths are its vulnerabilities: The more affluent, educated, and cosmopolitan South is far more wedded to the peaceful status quo than its northern neighbor, and therefore is forced to tolerate provocations even if they kill soldiers or civilians. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sees this vulnerability and will continue to exploit it to extort concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. This is a losing strategic spiral for the South. It will soon feel compelled to break it.

When the South Koreans respond to this or future provocations, it will likely be a serious but pinpointed display of military force. The purpose would be to stop the cycle of North Korean provocation through deterrence, but it could very well ignite a major war.

Which brings us to where Cha gets it wrong. Notwithstanding this persuasive deconstruction of conventional deterrence, he still argues that we can only restore it by flooding South Korea with American targets soldiers (long ago, I was one of them). Then, almost as an afterthought, Cha argues that we seek the permission of the spineless Ban Ki Moon and the duplicitous Hu Jintao to do what Article 51 of the U.N. Charter clearly authorizes anyway. But this is a fool’s errand. I think Victor Cha is an honest, decent, and intelligent man, but here, he seems to personify a foreign policy establishment that wasted so many precious years leaning on the only two policies it ever seems to have thought of — conventional military deterrence, which North Korea has clearly circumvented; and diplomatic appeasement, which North Korea has so profitably exploited.

It has finally occurred to most people that we need ways to deter Kim Jong Il. Belatedly, we have learned that financial sanctions can actually hurt his regime, although there’s no clear evidence that they’re working better than China’s malicious, double-dealing efforts to undermine them. North Korea’s apparent desperation might mean that sanctions are working just fine. But if you forced me to guess, I’d side with Carolyn Leddy and guess that China, South Korea’s very own Kaesong Industrial Park, and other sources of income are diluting their potency. I doubt, then, that we’re applying sanctions with the thoroughness, determination, or patience necessary to really inhibit Kim Jong Il’s capacity to provoke, threaten, proliferate, or oppress. Similarly, I do not believe that Kim Jong Il cares particularly that the International Criminal Court might eventually get around to indicting him as a war criminal, given the relatively towering magnitude of his crimes against humanity inside North Korea itself. At best, this would be yet another embarrassment for Kim’s Chinese sponsors, but then, no visible sign of conscience seems to inhibit China’s sponsorship of Sudan, Burma, or Iran.

Stated bluntly, deterrence is about making your enemy afraid of hurting you. But Kim Jong Il does not fear war, and given his health, I do not think he even fears death, so long as death does not come this way. What I believe Kim Jong Il fears has no English word that expresses the idea quite so well as “Götterdämmerung.” He fears the spiritual and historical apocalypse of his deiocracy, and his messianic place in its history. Are we prepared to attach that consequence to his atrocities? Because if we are, and if we’re not yet out of time and luck, we can restore deterrence after all.

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Doug Bandow Still Wants USFK Out

You’d think that the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong should have a lot of people questioning what deterrent value American ground forces really add in South Korea now, in light of the risk of having them within North Korean artillery range, and the great expense to American taxpayers. So amid the questions about how to respond — and the bad decisions of former presidents have brought us to point where we don’t really have many ways to respond — Doug Bandow reminds us to ask why American soldiers are in South Korea at all.

My view may not be quite as extreme as Bandow’s. I can see reasons to keep an Air Force and Navy presence there, because those provide us with stand-off power-projection capabilities and secure the other end of a logistical pipeline, should we decide to intervene on our own terms. I certainly don’t agree with Bandow that South Korea’s dependence on us is more shocking than North Korea’s many atrocities, or China’s abetting of those. South Korea lets America subsidize its defense for the not-at-all-shocking reasons that it saves South Korea money, and because the Pentagon is willing to pay. But Bandow is correct that South Korea can and should bear the cost of conventional deterrence. Each new North Korean outrage makes it more indefensible that South Korean money is instead going to Kim Jong Il’s regime, through such failed experiments as the Kaesong Industrial Park. What Bandow doesn’t say and may not know is that every Friday night in Hongdae is a disaster-in-waiting for our political position there, the potential trigger for a Chung Dong-Young presidency (you say it can’t happen?). Such a development would do far more harm to South Korea’s freedom and security than the redeployment of the Army from South Korea.

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Shots Fired at the Border

“Two shots were fired from a North Korean military guard post (GP) toward our GP around 5:26 p.m., and we immediately returned fire with three shots as under the rules of engagement,” the official said. “There was no damage from the North Korean shots.”

The GPs are 1.3 kilometers away from each other. The official said after returning fire, South Korea twice issued warnings that the North had breached the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. [Yonhap]

Right. Because they wouldn’t have known that otherwise.

“It hasn’t been confirmed whether the North Korean military took an aimed shot,” the official said. “The United Nations Command (UNC) will send a special investigation team to determine whether North Korea had violated terms of the armistice.”

It doesn’t look like there were any casualties, at least on the southern side. The South Koreans forces have gone on alert, just in time to ruin a lot of weekend leaves (sorry, guys). The North Koreans, no doubt, are already at the range for extra marksmanship training. Not that most North Korean soldiers tend to have big weekend plans anyway, given that their main off-post entertainment option is pillaging nearby farms. And hopefully stealing enough corn to trade for some meth.

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North Korean Spy Ring Infiltrated ROK Army, Obtained War Plans

Andy Jackson talks about that South Korean general under investigation for spying for the North. Oh, and apparently, he gave the North Koreans their own copy of the best parts of OPLAN 5027.

A government official told the JoongAng Ilbo that the investigation will likely expand because more suspects were linked to the case. “Aside from Park and Kim, there were at least five people involved,” the source said. “The authorities are looking closely at them and some will soon face a formal probe.

None of the additional suspects were in active service, the official said, but were all related to the military directly or indirectly, hinting at a possibility of a retired military officer’s involvement.

Another government official confirmed the complexity and magnitude of the case. “It’s not as simple as we first thought,” he said.

More here. This is why I’m not especially keen on selling the South Koreans advanced systems like the F-15, Patriot missile, and Global Hawk UAV. Sure, I’d like South Korea to have an independent defense and let us leave, but the more stories like this I read, the less I trust them with our state-of-the-art systems.

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New North Korean War Plan: Grab Seoul, Negotiate

Via the Joongang Ilbo, North Korea’s on-the-shelf invasion oplan no longer calls for invading all of South Korea, but in recognition of stronger U.S. and South Korean military capabilities, now calls for quickly occupying Seoul and then negotiating favorable terms.

With the new plan, the North would concentrate its early fire on Seoul and neighboring areas, where most of South Korea’s social and economic infrastructure is located.

“North Korea would try to occupy Seoul early,” the source said. “And from there, it could either try to go farther south, or try to negotiate [for a cease-fire] from an advantageous position.

I’m sure Selig Harrison would call this progress.

A military expert who requested anonymity said the North took cues from the Gulf War in 1991 and Iraq War in 2003. Iraqi forces had armored vehicles similar to the North’s, but they were destroyed by the U.S. military’s precision strike weapons. North Korea, in other words, has concluded that if its mechanized units engaged in old-fashioned combat without extra help, they would be no match for the more sophisticated U.S. weapons systems.

As part of the change, North Korea has bolstered its frontline mechanized corps with extra mechanized divisions, the military source said. Also, the frontline corps have each received an extra light infantry division, and light infantry battalions on the front have been expanded to regiments.

There may also be a recognition here of North Korea’s logistical limitations — that is, its general inability to sustain an invasion with long, exposed supply lines.

I certainly don’t claim to be a military expert, but I’ve studied enough history to know how other armies have beaten back similar attacks from Kursk, to the Seelow Heights, to An Loc, to Grozny, even when badly outnumbered by their attackers. History shows that these blitzkrieg tactics bog down quickly when thrown into restricted terrain with well-prepared defenses held by a well-trained, well-armed opponent. That’s particularly true when the defender holds air supremacy. Thus, even the reduced expectations seem unrealistic. North Korea could probably do severe damage to Seoul on Day One, but by Day Two, most of its longer-range artillery capable of hitting Seoul would be silenced, and allied air power would be seeking out North Korea’s more numerous, shorter-range tactical artillery sites and its more elusive and dangerous short-range ballistic missile launchers.

It’s one thing to damage a city, another thing to take it. If this report is accurate, the North Korean strategy still depends on the use of mechanized and motorized conventional forces, which would have to cover 40 miles of highly obstructed terrain with no air cover and under assault from American and South Korean air power. North Korea has few heavily armored main battle tanks, and even these stood up poorly to such light infantry weapons as the RPG-7 in Afghanistan and Chechnya. The majority of North Korea’s tanks are lighter amphibious models designed for the easy fording of rivers, but with such light armor protection that even .50 caliber machine guns would grind them up.

Again, assuming that this report is accurate, it suggests that South Korea ought to accelerate long-delayed plans to upgrade its helicopter gunships, the most efficient way to destroy vehicles in crowded urban areas. It also suggests that the ROK should invest in a large number of inexpensive anti-tank weapons for its infantry and plenty of close-quarter training in their use.

With all that said, even if the new report is a case of a new hypervigilance, that’s certainly a healthier attitude than the dreamy complacency that has dominated South Korea recently. I take for granted that a North Korean invasion could be stopped before it reached Seoul, but whether it would be — and with a minimum of casualties — depends on how well the ROK army trains and equips itself.

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