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24 April 2017, Gateway House

Military option in North Korea too risky

As the United States considers its policy options towards North Korea it must understand that Pyongyang has been thinking about military conflict for decades. It too will have military plans and they could pose major challenges for the U.S. This is why China and South Korea–and U.S. regional experts too–prefer the diplomatic route

Visiting Professor, Department of War Studies, King's College, London

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As the United States strike force, led by the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, eventually arrives off the Korean coast, Washington is considering policy options. “Strategic patience” under recent presidents was an admission that all policy options had failed. It is certainly time for a new approach before North Korea is able to attach a reliable nuclear warhead to an accurate long range missile. A negotiated settlement facilitated by China is feasible and would be infinitely better than a military conflict.

The new approach will be limited by how little Washington knows about the North Korean regime. Donald Gregg, who was both CIA Station Chief, and later, US Ambassador in Seoul, once commented that “North Korea is the longest-running intelligence failure in the world”. Knowledge of North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and missile programmes has doubtless improved since the 1990s, but the probability is that nobody understands, not even do the Chinese fully understand the Pyongyang regime’s intentions and how it might react under pressure.

Furthermore, it would be quite wrong for Washington to assume that it can dictate the timing of any military option. The North Koreans have had decades to think through their military plans. This is not always understood. A South Korean specialist on North Korea once told me that the annual “Foal Eagle” (formerly “Team Spirit”) exercises, involving the Americans and South Koreans, and the desk-top war gaming (“Key Resolve”), tend to start with an act of North Korean provocation and result in the allies winning a war within days, with the only serious debate being how far short of the northern border the allies should stop their advance to avoid alarming the Chinese government. Operational Plan 50-27 (as it is known) may underestimate Pyongyang’s ingenuity and the determination of North Korea’s huge army to resist the allies’ advance northwards. Heavy casualties could be expected on both sides.

So what do we know of North Korea’s political aims? Traditionally, going back to the days of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, they were threefold; the unification of the Korean peninsula; the removal of all foreign forces; and regime survival. South Korean experts believe that these objectives remain broadly the same today although, in the West, most observers consider that the survival of the regime and its extensive privileges have become the overriding objective.

For much of recent history the U.S. and allied governments believed that the North Korean intention was to trade its nuclear capability for full sovereign recognition from the international community, a non-aggression pact with the U.S., and an assured supply of energy and foreign aid. But around the start of the present decade it seems that Pyongyang changed its policy. Why would it seek such a sophisticated range of capabilities–uranium and plutonium nuclear options and a suite of missiles, from short to long range, just to negotiate them away? So retaining a nuclear capability has become key to regime planning. Perhaps the Kim dynasty has learned the lesson of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi: that if you give up your WMD capability you risk being overthrown.

WMD might be useful to gain global attention but it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which North Korea would actually use a nuclear weapon except as a last resort. Pyongyang does not wish to destroy the South because it ultimately wants Korean unity. Japan and its US bases are more tempting targets, but an attempted strike would almost certainly be intercepted and would bring about the Kim regime’s destruction. So it is likely that Pyongyang has conventional military objectives too.

There is a tendency in the West to underestimate North Korea’s conventional capabilities. This is understandable given the age of much of Pyongyang’s Soviet-era equipment. However Seoul, South Korea’s dynamic capital city of over 10 million inhabitants, provides a wealth of military opportunities for North Korea, only 45 km south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and within range of North Korean artillery. With an estimated 12,000 artillery pieces just to the north of the DMZ, Pyongyang could inflict considerable damage in the hours before the United States Air Force (USAF) and counter-batteries successfully silence them.

However, the option that most worries some South Korean officials involves irregular warfare; such as a surprise clandestine attack to take control of the governmental and commercial centres of Seoul, the two airports (Incheon and Gimpo), and other strategic locations. North Korean Special Operations Forces (SOF), from the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which numbers somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 well trained, equipped and highly motivated troops, could employ a range of clandestine methods to reach their objectives. One of their main routes would be via the remaining infiltration tunnels under the DMZ, of which between 15 and 22 are believed to exist.

There is a long history of North Korean SOF operating in South Korea in counterfeit uniforms. Removing hostile forces from a modern city centre without incurring unacceptable levels of civilian casualties will not be easy. Seoul is no Grozny, Baghdad or Mosul. Almost all the major global companies have a presence there with significant numbers of expatriate and local staff. With employees trapped in Seoul and unable to leave the country there would be considerable pressure on Washington to de-escalate the situation.

It is little wonder therefore that South Korea favours a diplomatic solution to the North Korean problem. China also wishes to avoid the chaos of a military conflict with a mass of impoverished North Korean refugees crossing into China; nor does it want a unified Korea with U.S. troops installed in Pyongyang. Such a prospect may finally persuade the Chinese that it is time to exert intense pressure on its wayward ally. The basics of an agreement exist. China could guarantee North Korea’s survival as a sovereign state in return for internationally verified nuclear disarmament and a U.S. agreement eventually to withdraw its troops from South Korea. Few South Koreans nowadays favour unification because the costs would be ruinous; several times more than the unification of East and West Germany. A preference on all sides to explore the Chinese diplomatic option may well explain the Carl Vinson’s leisurely progress to the region.

Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, a former British diplomat and a member of the Chatham House Council. 

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Gregg is quoted in The Two Koreas by Don Oberdorfer (Little Brown 1997) page 60.

For the best account of North Korea’s WMD programmes see North Korea’s Weapons Programmes: A net assessment (IISS London 2004)

For North Korea’s conventional capabilities see North Korean Security Challenges: A net assessment (IISS London 2011) and The Military Balance (IISS London 2016)

Can North Korean Special Purpose Forces Successfully Conduct Military Operations against the United States and South Korea? by Major Samuel M. Allmond (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 2003)

The Next Korean War: Conflict with North Korea Could Go Nuclear – But Washington Can Reduce the Risk by Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press (Foreign Affairs April 2013)

North Korea’s Military Threat: Pyongyang’s Conventional Forces, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Ballistic Missiles by Andrew Scobell John M. Sanford April 2007

North East Asia; A pressing need for discreet diplomacy by Tim Willasey-Wilsey. Gateway House. 12 April 2013

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