Gwynne Dyer: A war in Korea?

The U.S.-South Korean military exercises will continue until the end of this month, and the North Korean threats to do something terrible if they do not stop grow more hysterical by the day. Last week the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.

On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan”, that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Austin, Texas. (Why Austin? Doesn’t he like indie rock?) It was a scene straight out of the villain’s lair in an early James Bond movie, except that they’d forgotten to set it in a cave.

These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department is just to ignore them. North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturised nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability. But the politics of the situation demands that the U.S. government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.

So next year the U.S. government will spend another billion dollars or so to place 14 more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And on March 29, it sent two B-2 bombers all the way from Missouri non-stop to drop bombs on some uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang that it can.

It’s all still just a charade, a spring display of military capacities by two rival armed forces that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if the logic of both international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to the increasingly rabid North Korean threats. But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is quite serious.

Anybody who tells you he knows what is going on inside the North Korean regime is a liar, but there are a few safe assumptions. Real decision-making power on war and peace almost certainly lies with the senior ranks of the North Korean army, not with young Mr. Kim or the Communist Party. It’s also clear that Kim, new to power and insecure, feels the need to look tough, just as his father did when he inherited the leadership from Kim’s grandfather.

And nobody in the North Korean regime knows how things work in the rest of the world. They may even be genuinely afraid that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises, although they have been held annually for decades, are this time only a cover for a plan to attack North Korea. After all, the regime’s founder, Kim Il-sung, concentrated his forces under cover of military exercises in just that way when he invaded South Korea in 1950.

The North Korean military doubtless understand that they must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but they may believe that their dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for them to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation. And they do have rather a lot of conventional military force at their disposal.

Kim Jong-un’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily— the U.S.-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing— and he may ultimately feel obliged to do something to restore his credibility. It would probably be just a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional war.

It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea. North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. Moreover, South Korea is compelled to defend well forward because holding on to Seoul, only 50 kilometres from the frontier, is a political imperative. That makes it quite vulnerable to breakthroughs.

The North Koreans would attack south in a three-pronged thrust, accompanied by Special Forces operations deep in South Korean territory, just as they did in 1950. The geography gives them few alternatives.

U.S.-South Korean strategy would also echo 1950-51: contain the North Korean attack as close to the border as possible, and then counter-attack up the west coast on an axis heading north through Kaesong to Pyongyang. That would once again be accompanied by a big amphibious landing well behind the North Korean front, this time probably at Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast.

Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction. The world has not seen such a war for more than 50 years now.

We really don’t need to see it again.

Comments (10) Add New Comment
Robinottawa
Good article, as usual. Thanks.
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Sam
North Korea's greatest deterrent is 24 million starving people. No one wants the responsibility that comes with blowing on that house of cards.
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Blob Chapman
You all are missing one point...who says that they have to launch a nuclear warhead into the US...when they can hand deliver it?
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JohnCan
If it came to war I don't think the North would do any better than last time. In truth, I suspect they would do much worse.

As a rule dictatorships aren't good at war. That sounds odd since it's mostly dictators that start and wage them. They have military regimes and bigger armies, and they love uniforms and parades and all the rest. They're always saying how mighty they are, yet when you look at democracies and dictatorships at war you see the dictators usually lose, even when they're the bigger side.

There are several reasons. The first is that a dictator's army is there primarily to keep their own people in line, not to fight other armies. Without a popular mandate they need this power base. Thus while a dictator's soldiers can beat up unarmed civilians, when facing other soldiers they often wilt because it's not what they are for. Dictatorship also engenders corruption and incompetence in its military. The military itself is a threat to the regime so its loyalty is more important than its effectiveness. Dictatorship is especially corrosive to military leadership, which is there for the perks of power and promoted for fellowship. Thus instead of a professional officer class it's a facet of the ruling class. The junior ranks are similarly perverted. Since countries ruled by dictators are usually poorer, many enlist simply for a better job. Once in uniform they are brutalized and abused, which is not good for character, and they in turn abuse regular people, acting more like gangsters than soldiers. They also see more clearly that the regime is on the take, so if it comes to war they ask why they should lay down their lives for such a bunch. They know the conflict is usually not about cause or country, only big shots trying to be bigger. Their officers may threaten them with decimation, but they still break sooner in battle.

The militaries of democracies don’t suffer these issues so badly. No, they are not angels, just better managed, led, equipped, trained and motivated.

North Korea did well at war in 1950, but that's mostly because the South wasn't in much better shape. They are now, while the North hasn't changed much in the ensuing decades. The rot above the 50th parallel has set in profoundly. Thus I don't think they’ll fight.
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Noah
The missiles are no worry, we have intercept missiles.
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Robert
The North Koreans beat the South Koreans and U.S. forces at the beginning of the war. It wasn't until the insertions of UN forces that North Koreans were driven back to the Chinese border. Then the North Korean allies, People's Liberation Army, joined the war and kicked the UN forces butts back to the 38th parallel. We lost that war and will lose the next one. China warned us once and warns us again, that North Korea is a buffer that keeps U.S. off their flanks. It's not about North Korea, it's about China.
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McRetso
The critical difference is that, while the DPRK is basically as capable as it was during the first war, the ROK is much more capable and China is much less likely to want to intervene, given its economically interdependant relationship with the US. China also considers the DPRK to be an embarrassment to Communism, and only props is up to avoid having to deal with the refugees and the bad precedent the fall of another Communist regime might set for Chinese dissidents.

Air power is far more important now than it was in 1950, and while the US and ROK have large, modern air forces, the DPRK still flies mostly MiG-21s and, given its poverty, likely cannot afford very much fuel with which to train its pilots. Once the US and ROK have cleared the skies, the North loses all hope of a conventional victory.

@Robert: No.

The "UN" forces were overwhelmingly American, with only limited representation from the UK and the ANZACs.

Northern forces beat the south because the south had neither tanks nor aircraft, and very little artillery. The first US troops to arrive had been working desk jobs in Japan and had never seen combat.

Once the main US force arrived, the DPRK was no match for them. The Chinese proved that they were able to move US and allied forces off of positions, but they were unable to destroy their units. The Chinese also needed considerable numerical superiority to win, and tended to take considerably greater casualties.

The war ended in a stalemate, with a return to pre-war borders and a negotiated settlement after two years of stalemate.
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David English
"It is we who are isolated from North Korea, not the other way round." as quoted by Didi Kirsten Tatlow (http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/north-korea-not-crazy-but...)

Rings true... we get a news clip about how it's the industrial complex north of the DMZ that really counts, and the next thing we know it's closed. We get a news report about how we're not worried because their military is not redeploying, and now they redeploy. North Korea is not isolated from the world; they know what's going on. It is we that are isolated from North Korea and have no clue. Very Sun Tao.

Personally, I wouldn't put it past them to forward deploy a few nuks in US cities, maybe even arrange for one to be set off by "terrorists." Let the terrorists claim responsibility while the world hesitates to respond... until things are more certain, at which point it's too late. We'd probably, in hindsight, see hints of the plan in that oh-so-funny missile strike map. That would be a very North Korean thing to do. But, I'm just guessing like everyone else.

This all rings of Japan before WWII. Economically backed into a corner, some say they had no choice but to attack. Sooner or later, something has to give on the Korean peninsula. It might be sooner.

In any war, North Korea will eventually lose. The US has its South Korean deployed trip-wire troop that guarantee it will be committed to a big war if anything really starts. Being allies, the rest of us will probably get involved too. China would probably come in to end it, taking over the north for everyone's good, eventually. Still, I wouldn't be overly comforted by all the talk about ballistic missile defense systems... they weren't designed to stop container ships.
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cassius
The first victim of a loony war between the US and the North would be the South Korean economy. This isn't the 1950s. The South Korean economy is a giant. Hyundai Kia, LGM. All would be destroyed. The economic repercussions are incalculable. Then there's a risk of war with China if the Americans should invade the North. Not possible? Is there any sign that Obama is any brighter than his predecessors? If you find any proof, please enlighten me. Certainly, spending $2 billion to combat a non-threat is proof positive he is, as Bugs Bunny would say, a "maroon." We'd be in it too. Harper, Trudeau Jr., Mulcaire, the lot would support a bloody war against the guys with the funny hats.
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Robert
Australia, Belgium, Canada, Columbia, Ethiopia, France, Great Britain, Greece, Holland, Luxemburg,New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, Philippines, Greece, India, Norway, Sweden contributed forces to the UN during the Korean War.
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