There are four primary military threats to going to war with North Korea. The most significant is their artillery. They have thousands of pieces within range of the South Korean capital of Seoul – and can hurl an estimated several hundred thousand shells an hour into the city once they get started. A lot of South Koreans live in Seoul, my brother-in-law lives in Seoul, so do most of the other 30,000 US troops in Korea. It’s this artillery threat that has made normal conventional methods of dealing with North Korea difficult. Any selectively targeted conventional strike – the oft touted ‘just kill the ICBM on the launching pad’ risks a very quick response of artillery fire.
The second military threat is with the North Korean’s believed 6-8 nuclear weapons. They’re not large. They have no deliver systems. But close only counts in horse-shoes, hand grenades and nuclear warfare.
The third military threat is with China – any US forces approaching too close to the Chinese border, or worse crossing their airspace, might provoke a massive retro replay of the worst US military battlefield defeat in 40 years. This was the famous miscalculation in the Korean War – when US troops reached the border with China expecting them to stay there only to be pushed back all the way to the 38th Parallel.
The final military threat from North Korea is the army itself. Despite it’s size I rank it lowest of all four because for the past thirty years this army has been built to fight the *last* Korean conflict: an infantry based war of attrition across a fixed piece of no-man’s land in the DMZ with limited close air support. Also my belief is that paranoid dictator regimes like Kim’s do not produce a strong fighting force. Too many intelligence agencies watching everyone and each other, too much fear and paranoia of saying the wrong thing, too much cronyism and favoritism rather than promotion based on merits – all of these bleed the military dry as a cohesive fighting force.
So how do we go about this?
Build Up to War:
We’re Americans – we don’t need a plan for what happens after Major Operations End do we?!? =) Seriously though I think North Korea is different from Iraq in a few key ways.
1) We have an ally in South Korea who desperately wants to unify the peninsula, and there is not the kind of long term simmering ethnic conflicts you have in Iraq.
2) There is no historical background or religious motivation for the kind of suicide bombing, willing-to-die-if-I-at-least-kill-you guerilla activities we see in Islamic countries occupied.
3) Likewise it’s unlikely that foreign Jihadists or Mujahedeen coming to North Korea’s aid – and even if they do – they’ll have as hard a time blending into the population as I would.
4) North Korea has no major natural resources that others are going to be willing to fight over. The only value North Korea has geopolitically is that it’s North Korea, one North Korea and South Korea become simply: Korea – I think most of the world, after its a fati accompli will just shrug and say “Okay, moving on.” (See China-US below).
5) Believe it or not we have learned a lot from Iraq about what to do and what not to do.
6) The North Korean population are in very desperate straits. It makes sanctioned Iraq under Saddam look like candy land. I just don’t think, once you’ve broken the militaries back and deposed Kim – you’ll see the energy to pick up arms and resist if the other option is regular food and healthcare.
So how do we handle the massive rebuilding and humanitarian relief operations that would follow any war like this? To put it bluntly – you don’t.
In South Korea the US has a partner who is willing, ready and able to take the lead in rejoining the two parts. I think the US can provide valuable advice & leadership – but the fewer US boots in North Korea the better China will feel about things. It becomes a “Korean” matter – we simply removed the barrier to reunification. Afterwards it plays along the lines of East German and West German – lots of ‘issues’ to work out, but they’re worked out internally. It will take years, and there may very well be guerilla insurgencies ala Iraq but I think the population of North Korea is at that point of near complete devastation that allows effective rebuilding without *too* much resistance. The occupation would be as much the world’s largest humanitarian relief mission as anything else. I see 2-4 years here – with rapidly decreasing need for US fighting troops – though lots of aid etc.
Those who have gotten this far with even the barest knowledge about China are probably banging your head against the monitor and saying “WTF about China!” It seems almost impossible that China would let this happen on its doorstep. This is where I think a cohesive long term plan and diplomacy are critical, as well as a little humility and realization of our capabilities.
Remember our goal is to get out of Korea completely. To paraphrase Gingrich I think China would give us little help, but little trouble. A disintegrating North Korea on its borders is a refugee nightmare they’d rather not have. The China of today is not the China of 50 years ago. Plus Kim has repeatedly embarrassed Beijing. As long as the US was clearly pulling out of the Korean peninsula: including our bases and military assets, after the successful unification – I think China will vote with its dollars and raise a hue/cry, but do little.