Bottom line first: This is a bad situation with no easy way out. We cannot give the North what they want. They may not be able to back down. The big danger is not that they will launch a nuclear attack (although there is a small possibility that might happen) or even a major ground assault on the South. The big danger is they might launch a limited conventional attack that killed thousands of South Koreans and Americans. Then we would have a land war on our hands that we are not prepared to fight. And we might get there not through calculation or even mis-calculation but by accident. Finally, there is another possibility – remote but real – that would post a threat to the survival of the United States. So this is not a problem we can “hope” away.
I will try to be short, but the situation is complex. North Korea:
· Has a large, well equipped land army. But if they lay it out in the open in order to attack, the US will destroy it with precision weapons. Good start . . . but how do you finish it without the massive commitment of ground troops?
· Has a respectable air force, although without much flying time and experience. We could sweep it from the skies. Then what? Forgive and forget? How do you punish a dictator without hurting innocent people?
· Has some submarines – quiet enough to have sunk a South Korean ship 3 years ago. They might hit a US or Japanese ship. We would probably respond by taking out most military targets. Surely they know that – so how have they planned to respond?
· Probably has thousands of agents prepared to infiltrate or already in South Korea - they could not win a war, but they could create a lot of havoc and kill many people. Our victory would look like a loss.
The really big deal in this situation is that North Korea has many artillery tubes buried in the mountains – all within range of Seoul and other populated parts of South Korea. They could easily cause tens of thousands of deaths and injuries and taking them out would be difficult and time consuming.
They probably do not have a nuclear weapon yet – but they might.
They probably could not reach the US with a missile – but they might.
And IF they have a nuclear weapon – they might reach South Korea or Japan with a missile or in some other way.
· Has a large military – much larger than the US forces in Korea, although in theory under US Joint Command. They were hit twice in the last 3 years and have vowed to retaliated this time – or even preempt if they see an attack forming. The reputation of the new Prime Minister hangs on the ability to deter North Korea from attack, and the ability to wage a sharp, quick response if deterrence fails. Might they do this without coordinating with the US?
· Has powerful self-defense forces in the area, but would be hard pressed to hurt North Korea.
· Still – if they are hit, would their leaders stand by and wait for the US to act, or take action of their own?
· And if US bases there were hit, there would be new pressure for them to be moved.
· Always plays both sides against the middle.
· Shows no indication that they want war, but they are happy to see the US distracted, powerless, and with its shoelace in the sprocket.
· Also, China is at odds with Japan over island claims. They might tell us they would help convince their ally North Korea to back down, if we lean on our ally Japan to surrender the islands. The would put the US in an even worse jam.
Why would North Korea cause this crisis?
· They stage some sort of crisis every year during annual US/South Korea military exercises.
· But this year sounds and feels different.
· The new leader, Kim Jung Un, is young and inexperienced. He may be trying to prove himself to his generals. Or someone may be controlling him behind the scenes. Or he may really think he can get what he wants. He may believe he can hurt the US or cause it to back down, making his country a world power. We don’t know.
What does North Korea want?
Well . . . that’s not clear either.
· What they say they want is respect and a good economy, and they think the route to those two things is a program to build (and share) nuclear weapons technology.
· Kim Jung Un appears to be trying to move forward with this plan – maybe for internal consumption - by testing missiles and warheads.
· The US coordinated new UN sanctions as a result, and he may regard this as a direct threat to his rule – humiliation in front of his generals may be unacceptable. So he feels driven to make the US back down to reinforce his position.
· It is also possible that US secret negotiations (the North has demanded direct negotiations for years) and the US military drawn down have left him with the impression that we would not respond if he pushes the envelope. Our President keeps saying that force is never the answer and the only road to peace is diplomacy. (He said this again last week in Israel.) If Kim Jung Un took us at our word, and moved offensively expecting us to bend to his will in negotiations, then he is now exposed with no way out except a humiliating withdrawal. So he probably wants a way out of this jam and forward with his plan at the same time.
OK -- now what?
· The US top priority is preventing a nuclear threat from developing from North Korea, or any place where they share their technology (like Iran). And our announced strategy is negotiation and sanctions coupled with military withdrawal and drawdown. Given our budget situation, this would not be easy to change.
· While the US searches for something to give, and North Korea tries to decide what it will accept, somebody could make a mistake that pushes everybody over the edge.
Sounds challenging, but like nobody wants war. That’s good. Is there a possible interpretation that is worse?
· Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is a flash of energy released by a nuclear detonation that overwhelms and destroys electronic circuits. IF it works as advertised, then a single nuclear weapon detonated over a large city might destroy every electronic device for many miles around.
· The North Koreans have apparently detonated some type of nuclear device.
· The do have a multistage rocket that has put some type of “package” in orbit.
· If the North Korean plan is not to create nuclear weapons and missiles for leverage, but a couple of EMP weapons for attack, then the United States might be facing a real threat to its survival.
This last point is unlikely but a real possibility, and explains why the US is moving additional forces into the region. It cannot afford to let this challenge go unanswered.
(By the way, the US does have a defense against this specific threat – a type of missile interceptor based in the US as an outgrowth of the old Ronald Reagan “Star Wars” plan. Whether we have enough to cover all types and directions of attack from North Korea is questionable, and additional interceptors were scheduled for purchase in 2009 and deployment this year. President Obama canceled the additional interceptors when first elected to office. The new Secretary of Defense has ordered a replacement buy to begin immediately. Those weapons will be deployed in 2017. The money for these additional West Coast interceptors has been diverted from plans to field similar interceptors in Europe to protect against Iranian attack.)
Is there a lesson here?
Yes. Talking is better than fighting. But we have been talking with North Korea for 60 years – three generations. Diplomacy without military power behind it is a waste of time. And eventually you run out of time.