I don’t know about you, but when North Korea decided to shell South Korean homes and kill South Korean civilians in South Korean territory, my balance of risks shifted. We’ve always known that if U.S. and South Korean forces attack North Korea, North Korea would respond by trying to kill as many American and South Korean civilians as possible. Estimates that this would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties are probably worst-case scenarios, but a toll of several thousand Koreans and several hundred Americans seems probable. The fact that North Korea has used thermobaric weapons against a civilian population is proof that they’re willing to use indiscriminate force, although it’s oddly comforting in another sense. I’d have expected “the poor man’s atom bomb” to cause far more casualties.
In the past, most of those who’ve called for strikes against North Korea sounded like people who’ve never lived in or particularly cared about South Korea, and who hadn’t thought through the likely consequences of things it felt good to call for. But now, there are thoughtful, well-considered arguments that a quick strike against North Korea’s artillery and missiles might actually be necessary to deter more provocations and save lives. This isn’t a view I’m prepared to support — in part because of the fear of civilian casualties on both sides, and also because I still question whether involvement in a North-South war really advances or protects America’s vital interests, especially when so few Americans correctly estimate just how ambivalent the South Korean people themselves are about the North’s aggression against them. Yet North Korea is emerging as one of the greatest threats to the security of the United States because of its proliferation potential. Every instrument of our global power has failed to suppress that threat so far, including military deterrence, interdiction and containment, and of course, decades of diplomacy.
Today, the idea of a lightning campaign of preemptive air strikes is no longer a view I’m ready to summarily dismiss, but it’s not an idea anyone should support without knowing the answers to a few questions that aren’t available without the right security clearance and a retrospectoscope.
Artillery emplacements in cliffs overlooking the inter-Korean maritime boundary, via the Chosun Ilbo
First, how quickly we could silence all 10,000 of those artillery emplacements? And how many of their missiles could we take out before they were launched? The experience of SCUD-hunting in Gulf War I doesn’t encourage me, and North Korea’s extensive system of tunnels would probably conceal many of those missiles for an eternity. Since North Korea probably would fire at least some of those missiles, how confident are we that the PAC-3 Patriot batteries will stop all of them? Is the answer “very?” Because they’ll probably carry chemical or biological warheads.
North Korean artillery emplacements
Would North Korea activate its substantial Fifth Column in the South, or its Special Forces, to carry out terrorist or WMD attacks? Would its air force launch suicidal air raids, using obsolete aircraft operating from underground hangars and runways, in a modern analogue to the kamikaze attacks that proved so effective in World War II? If we were successful in meeting each of these challenges, what about North Korea’s best cross-DMZ delivery systems — the tunnels? How are we ever going to know which blue Bongo truck came from the warehouse with the exit ramp?
Given those risks, isn’t it still wiser to exhaust other alternatives first? Given that the North Korean regime wouldn’t last a year without Chinese money, have we really reached the limits of our capacity to pressure China to force the Kims’ disarmament and abdication? In addition to sending the carrier group, can we finally get serious about sanctioning the Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea? Opponents of sanctions have recently suggested that North Korea’s aggression means that sanctions have failed, something they curiously failed to conclude about two agreed frameworks during the two decades when they clearly did fail. I reach the opposite conclusion. North Korea’s willingness to take greater risks now may be a sign of its rising desperation to restore its extortionate relationship with South Korea and the United States.
Our diplomatic options against China aren’t exhausted, either. What if an unnamed, high-level U.S. diplomat were to tell David Sanger of the New York Times that the United States has decided to support the sovereign right of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to have nuclear weapons? Why couldn’t a senior Pentagon official convene a meeting of the defense ministers of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore to discuss the creation of an integrated missile defense system, or even a regional defense alliance?
Finally, we have not even begun to discuss asymmetric military options. Even ten years ago, the North Korean people would not have been prepared to oppose their government, even if given some reasonable hope of success, but I believe that has changed. For anyone willing to consider the risk of a direct strike against North Korea’s military — and this includes President Lee Myung Bak, who speaks of it openly now — why is it too provocative to talk about training, equipping, and arming a few of those 20,000 North Korean refugees now living in the South to wreak chaos along the most remote and rugged parts of the borderlands between North Korea and China? Can anyone explain to me why it’s out of bounds for the United States and South Korea to arm a North Korean opposition, yet it’s not out of bounds for China arm the janjaweed? Or to blithely underwrite a regime that commits mass murder against its own people, exports nuclear technology to Syria, and which sinks the ships and shells the homes of its southern neighbor? Of course, building an insurgent infrastructure would take time, but if North Korea continues to escalate its provocations, it’s long past time to begin building the capacity to directly pressure the regime.
South Korean artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, via the Chosun Ilbo
Is there some way we can reduce North Korea as a threat to the South and to the United States without the messiness of OPLAN 5027, and without turning North Korea into the next Outer Koguryo Semi-Autonomous Zone? Why not first try giving the North Korean people the guns they’ll need to take care of that part on their own? Would places like Chongjin or Hamhung really be worse to live in if they were more like Mogadishu, Kandahar, or East Saint Louis (sorry)? And wouldn’t the threat of exactly that be a more effective way to get the cooperation of the Chinese government than simply continuing our groveling appeals to its beneficent nature?
I don’t suggest that this approach is completely free of the same risks, but it has the advantage of being more incremental. This makes it far more useful as a tool of diplomacy, should people finally decide they need to negotiate with us in good faith. It also presents less of a risk of escalation to full-scale war. Kim Jong Il doesn’t have long to live and doesn’t care if anyone else does either. When he sees a lot of bombs falling on the weapons he built and emplaced so painstakingly and at the cost of so many lives, he’ll conclude that OPLAN 5027 has been activated, and he’ll see his immediate choices as being to use those weapons or lose them. Far better that he face something that doesn’t look like GÃ¶tterdÃ¤mmerung to him. Better yet, the beginnings of civil unrest in his rear would force the North Korean army to divert some of its best infantry to the interior and the north of the country, where they’re less of a threat to Seoul. This might also upset the force structure that’s built into North Korea’s military doctrine, since mechanized forces can’t operate effectively without infantry to protect them. Until now, China has seen North Korea as a cost-free way to plague and pressure American presidens. Far better, too, that China should face the choice of unrest on its doorstep or intervening in North Korea to fight a demoralizing and costly war of occupation, rather than that America should face the same thing in a far more distant place.
Today, it looks like North Korea has launched a low-intensity conflict on its own terms, a conflict that continues to escalate as its provocations go unanswered and shielded by China. If we can no longer escape conflict on some level, let’s at least fight asymmetrically, play to the weaknesses of our enemies rather than their strengths, and spare as many American and Korean lives as we still can.
Update: Popular Mechanics has some great links on the subject raised in this post. I think the de-bunking of the idea that North Korea would flatten Seoul in 30 minutes is particularly valuable.
The casual, and largely unsupported references to Seoul’s potential flattening punctuates the notion that Kim Jong Il is holding a city hostage. It recasts a complex strategic vulnerability as a cartoon: an entire city facing a perpetual firing squad. It also ignores physical laws, and the realities of modern warfare.
Barring the use of nuclear weapons or large-scale bombing runs, destroying a city requires an extended campaign of shelling and demolition, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since WWII. When the Chechen capital of Grozny was all-but-destroyed by Russian forces in 1999, it was the result of months of artillery and missile bombardments, as well as air strikes. There’s no doubt that North Korea’s massive deployment of artillery, and potential deployment of roughly 300 ballistic missiles, could wreak havoc on Seoul and its population. What’s clear, however, is that a sudden barrage of shells and missiles would only mark the beginning of a battle for the city, not an apocalyptic fait accomplit.
The point about Grozny is an excellent one. I’d add that it took weeks of sustained and unimpeded aerial and artillery bombardment to drive Djokar Dudaev’s forces out of his “Presidential Palace,” the former Communist Party Headquarters. Even then, most of the building’s structure remained intact until the Russians demolished it. We tend to think of Dresden, Hamburg, Stalingrad, or Berlin when we think of what artillery does to cities, but those were actually the effects of sustained saturation bombing from the air, using in excess of 1,000 heavy bombers per raid, loaded with incendiary bombs that started firestorms in cities built of brick and wood. Today’s reinforced concrete structures would not suffer the same type of catastrophic damage when hit with artillery, particularly if counter-battery fire and air strikes limited the duration of the North Korean barrage.
But again, this isn’t to deny that a second Korean War would be a horror. It’s just that I’m more afraid of what North Korea’s chem, bio, and terrorist capabilities could do to Seoul than its artillery. If war does come, a lot of us are going to be in for quite a shock when we see how many South Koreans would actively assist the North Koreans. I tend to see both the threat and the best response in more asymmetric terms.