Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Thoughts on WSJ's "The Next Korean War"

Kevin's Incestuous Amplification and Robert's Marmot's Hole have my respect for being very quick on the uptake about Korean news, and for providing perceptive snap analysis of developments. They both have more background in Korean history and politics than I do, and it shows.

But today, I may be lucky.

I'm going to attempt to publish a point-by-point commentary of an article pointed out by Kevin, but about which neither Kevin nor Robert has published a full commentary. WILL I BE FIRST TO DO SO? Certainly, I'll be least substantive, but here goes nothing.

The WSJ OpinionJournal article, titled "The Next Korean War" by R. James Woolsey (CIA Dir., 93-95) and Thomas G. McInerney ("a retired three-star Air Force lieutenant general and former assistant vice chief of staff, is a Fox News military analyst"), outlines a possible peninsular conflict scenario.

My first comment, even before I begin quoting, is that the article directly addresses a point that's been hammered into our consciousness since the beginning: Seoul will be reduced to powder by NK artillery within 48 hours, and casualty rates will number at least up to a million. This is important because Seoul is the economic and political center of South Korea. Destroying it might not destroy the leadership (I'm sure they have a Saddam- or Dick Cheney-style escape pod prepared), but it will mangle the South Korean economy to the point of unrecognizability. Post-1953 ruins all over again. Though the article doesn't leave me reassured, I appreciate that it deals with this issue head-on and offers slightly more optimistic alternatives to the usual apocalypticism.

Shall we?

The White House had a shape-of-the-table announcement last week: North Korea would participate in six-sided talks with the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. This was welcome but it changes nothing fundamental. Kim Jong Il has clearly demonstrated his capacity for falsehood in multilateral as well as bilateral forums. The bigger, and much worse, news is the overall course of events this summer.

In early July, krypton 85 was detected in locations that suggested that this gas, produced when spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed into plutonium for nuclear weapons, may have emanated from a site other than North Korea's known reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.

So far, so good. Just the facts, ma'am.

There would be nothing surprising about a hidden reprocessing plant--North Korea has thousands of underground facilities. But if the reprocessing of the 8,000 spent fuel rods that the North Koreans took out of storage at Yongbyon last January--when it ousted international inspectors and walked away from the Non-Proliferation Treaty--has been completed clandestinely, then Kim Jong Il may already have enough material for several more weapons to go with the one or two he is thought to have from previous reprocessing.

"Thousands"? Though I'm inclined to believe this, I'd like to know how we think we know this. I'd also like a more specific figure than "several." Yes, I'm being picky. Deal with it.

But even if the krypton was emanating from Yongbyon, this still means that several additional bombs' worth of plutonium could be available a few months from now. Add this to Pyongyang's breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework by its secret uranium-enrichment program, and its boast in April that it would sell weapons-grade plutonium to whomever it pleased (rogue states? terrorist groups?), and it is apparent that the world has weeks to months, at most, to deal with this issue, not months to years.

OK, so the authors' first major point is: ESTABLISH URGENCY.

I agree with the assessment, and the probable time frame. Things are accelerating.

Interdiction of shipments out of North Korea will not stop the export of such fissionable material. Even if current efforts for nations to intercept North Korean shipping are successful, this would be completely inadequate to the purpose. The North Koreans' principal exports today are ballistic missiles and illegal drugs, both clandestine. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry recently noted, the amount of plutonium needed for a bomb is about the size of a soccer ball.

There is no reason the North Koreans would refrain from using air shipments, including those protected by diplomatic immunity, to smuggle and sell such material.

Next: Consideration and dismissal of a possible course of action. The plutonium in question can slip through whatever dragnet we devise. So the natural question (natural for me, anyway) is: how to prevent the plutonium from getting out?

In the midst of the just announced six-way talks, one fact stands out: The only chance for a peaceful resolution of this crisis before North Korea moves clearly into the ranks of nuclear powers is for China to move decisively. Indeed we see no alternative but for China to use its substantial economic leverage, derived from North Korea's dependence on it for fuel and food, to press, hard and immediately, for a change in regime. Kim Jong Il's regime has shown that agreements signed with it, by anyone, mean nothing.

What could induce China to follow such an uncharacteristically decisive course? North Korea's escalating nuclear aspirations run the risk of creating not one but four new nuclear powers in Asia. South Korea, Japan and probably Taiwan will find it very difficult to refrain from moving toward nuclear capability as North Korea becomes more threatening. Also, China must be clearly told that North Korea's long-range ballistic missile program and the prospect of its sale of fissionable material to terrorists make this a direct matter of U.S. security. Presidents Bush and Roh declared in May that they will "not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea."

As a reader, I'm a bit peeved that my question isn't answered directly here. Will pressure from China provide a guaranteed result? This isn't immediately obvious to me, so I mistrust the authors' reasoning. What the authors have done, in my opinion, is give another dismissal: the peace process isn't likely to result in anything. Quite the contrary: we'll see a proliferation of nuclear states. The rhetoric about not tolerating a nuclear NK is there, but without threat of force, little is likely to happen.

So maybe this is the authors' indirect answer to the question of preventing nuclear material from leaving NK borders. Their strong implication is that peaceful means lead nowhere.

Unfortunately, the reflexive rejection in the public debate of the use of force against North Korea has begun to undermine U.S. ability both to influence China to act and to take the preparatory steps necessary for effectiveness if force should be needed. The U.S. and South Korea must instead come together and begin to assess realistically what it would take to conduct a successful military operation to change the North Korean regime.

Here, we get to where the authors actually stand. I think they're right to recommend coordinated planning, but (1) isn't this happening already, somewhere? and (2) should/does/will this plan include the possibility of Chinese military involvement? "1950 all over again" MEANS "1950 all over again." A plan that leaves China out of the equation is shaky at best.

However, I agree with the contention that public rejection of military options is undermining our wiggle room. I also appreciate the authors' implication that South Korea and the US should consult together about SK's defense. A constant background issue has been whether the US in fact takes SK seriously (at least in SK eyes).

I'll go slightly off-point here and bring in the issue of US troop deployment in Korea. I think it's high time we left. I think it matters little, thanks to modern tech, whether we're right at the epicenter of peninsular conflict or a few hundred miles away. I don't see the Iraq war as a legitimate model on which to base Korean conjectures, except in one respect: when Turkey denied us passage at the start of Gulf War 2, we proved that denial was immaterial to our ultimate goal. In the end, the push to Baghdad went ahead, and it was fast. I think that something similar could happen on the peninsula, and while we'd be dealing with a tougher people and more mountainous terrain, we'd also be dealing with a geographical area far smaller than Iraq's.

The question is: what ramifications would there be if the US left the peninsula completely? You'd have an angry and frightened SK, to be sure. There'd be money issues, which we're seeing already as Rumsfeld begins moving our troops southward. There'd be UN flak, since technically, the troop presence in SK is a UN presence, not merely a US presence. If we left the peninsula, it's possible you'd have a hungry NK thinking that, just maybe, it could effect a blitzkrieg scenario and grab SK before it knew what was happening. But the positives would be: tens of thousands of US troops do not get slaughtered in the first 48 hours of conventional conflict. An initial NK push might thrust deep, but we'd have both the troop strength and the patience to repeat the Korean War scenario (faster and better this time), landing in/flying over NK, cutting off the NK troops who made it southward, forcing a retreat.

Effectively speaking, I don't think the authors' scenario is fundamentally affected by a complete US withdrawal from the peninsula. The possible gain would be that NK feels a misplaced sense of complacency-- "Whew, they're gone." Possibly. If it then chooses to push across the DMZ, it will do so at its peril, and it will lose.

OK, back to our muttons.

It is not reasonable to limit the use of force to a surgical strike destroying Yongbyon. Although the facility would need to be destroyed, the possible existence of another plutonium reprocessing plant or of uranium-enrichment facilities, or of plutonium hidden elsewhere, makes it infeasible to limit the use of force to such a single objective. Moreover, military action against North Korea must protect South Korea from certain attack (particularly from artillery just north of the DMZ that can reach Seoul). In short, we must be prepared to win a war, not execute a strike.

Here, the authors are granting that "limited war" is not feasible. Whatever incursion we make will result in all-out conflict; the authors differ from no one in saying this, so theirs is a "we may as well go balls to the wall" acknowledgement of reality.

U.S. and South Korean forces have spent nearly half a century preparing to fight and win such a war. We should not be intimidated by North Korea's much-discussed artillery. Around half of North Korea's 11,000-plus artillery pieces, some of them in caves, are in position to fire on Seoul. But all are vulnerable to stealth and precision weapons--e.g., caves can be sealed by accurate munitions.

In an attempt to assuage my fear, the authors note that, yes indeed, the US and SK have been fleshing out possible conflict scenarios. Which begs the question: why did they mention the need for US-SK coordination at the beginning?

I agree with the authors' feeling that US war tech has vastly improved since 1991. Afghanistan (we'll leave aside the larger question of how well that project's going) was scary proof that hiding in mountain retreats is no longer as safe as it used to be. The same tech applied to flat, wide-open Iraq accounted in large part for our puny losses. And yeah, because I live in Seoul, my first concern would be how to nip the artillery issue in the bud.

So I have no trouble with the authors' focus on the artillery question. I do, however, have issues with how quickly we could clamp down on NK artillery. Whether we pull southward or pull off the peninsula entirely, we increase our response time to a NK initiative. This means Seoul still gets 500,000 shells per hour fired at it, at least for a few hours. Let's say four. That's 2 million shells. Assuming we have an 80% accuracy rate in locating and destroying the NK emplacements, that would leave around 1200 artillery pieces firing at Seoul. Do the math: if 6,000 artillery pieces can fire a projected 500,000 rounds per hour into Seoul, that's about 83 shells per piece per hour. If 1200 (20% of the original 6000) pieces remain after an initial strike, you've still got 99,600 shells per hour if they somehow keep up the insane 83 shells/piece/hour rate-- let's round down to 90,000 so I don't scare you too much. If this goes on for 24 hours, with 2 million shells in the first four hours, and 90,000 shells per hour for the next, oh, 16 of the remaining 20 hours, that's 3.44 million shells striking Seoul in a 24-hour period.

[NB: The 500,000 shells per hour figure is not made up. How sustainable this rate is, I don't really know. Need sources? Wanna fact-check? Type "500,000 shells per hour"-- with the quotation marks-- into your Google search window. Guess what pops up. Also note: I'm no weapons expert. Whether artillery can fire at that rate is beyond my ken (though I'm sure I could find out). If, however, we speak in terms of "artillery capability" and grant the 500,000 shells/hour figure has weight, then the math is the same if we're knocking out 80% of that "capability," however many actual pieces of artillery are involved, and whatever their actual firing rates are.]

In the authors' scenario, after we've done the math, has Seoul then been saved by our precision weaponry? Keep in mind as well that NK troops will be moving rapidly across the border; taking whatever's left of Seoul will be one of their objectives. The refugee stream, a nightmarish repeat of the first war, will clog traffic arteries and allow South Koreans to fall prey to these troops (yes, there will be SK troops defending the place; I haven't forgotten them). Many of the 20-some bridges (rail and car) across the Han River may be down after the initial bombardment. Expect a lot of people to be on foot. That's my personal plan, by the way. Fuck the subway, the express bus, and the taxis. This off-white boy's hoofin' it. All hail Rockports!

Massive air power is the key to being able both to destroy Yongbyon and to protect South Korea from attack by missile or artillery. There is a significant number of hardened air bases available in South Korea and the South Koreans have an excellent air force of approximately 550 modern tactical aircraft. The U.S. should begin planning immediately to deploy the Patriot tactical ballistic missile defense system plus Aegis ships to South Korea and Japan, and also to reinforce our tactical air forces by moving in several air wings and aircraft carrier battle groups, together with the all-important surveillance aircraft and drones.

I'm all in favor. The North Koreans won't be. Expect more saber-rattling.

A question to ask yourself at this point, given that the Wall Street Journal skews conservative, is whether we as a nation are being psyched for war. Despite Colin Powell's recent disingenuous avowal that we don't seek regime change in NK, let's face facts: we do. Dubya wasn't lying when he declared he loathed Kim Jong Il, and I join him in that loathing. The Kim dynasty has erased anything recognizably Korean about North Korea, and because of that, I hate them, and I don't buy for a minute the idea that SK and NK are "brothers." The family reunions are touching, but that generation, the generation that vaguely remembers past solidarity, is dying out. What remains is the sound and fury of propaganda and political rhetoric. What we see in those nighttime satellite photos of a shamefully darkened NK next to a bright and robust SK is a dragon slashed in two, and you get only one guess as to which half represents the dragon's brainless hindquarters.

The goal of the planning should be to be prepared on short notice both to destroy the nuclear capabilities at Yongbyon and other key North Korean facilities and to protect South Korea against attack by destroying North Korean artillery and missile sites. Our stealth aircraft, equipped with precision bombs, and cruise missiles will be crucial--these weapons can be tailored to incinerate the WMD and minimize radiation leakage.

Here's hoping. And what about the inevitable NK human wave?

The key point is that the base infrastructure available in the region and the accessibility of North Korea from the sea should make it possible to generate around 4,000 sorties a day compared to the 800 a day that were so effective in Iraq. When one contemplates that the vast majority of these sorties would use precision munitions, and that surveillance aircraft would permit immediate targeting of artillery pieces and ballistic missile launch sites, we believe the use of air power in such a war would be swifter and more devastating than it was in Iraq. North Korea's geriatric air defenses--both fighter aircraft and missiles--would not last long. As the Iraqis understood when facing our air power, if you fly, you die.

I'm in love with the first sentence of this paragraph.

However, "swifter and more devastating" might be straying into overconfidence. South Korea is over 70% mountain; I think the North is less so, but it's still pretty lumpy. The people aren't going to surrender to the first jeepful of journalists they see; to the contrary, the mere smell of Starbucks from a distance will spur them onward to Seoul-- if for no other reason than to get some real java.

I agree, though, that NK faces death in the air. But see, this is where things get sticky. What if aerial dogfights are led to occur in Chinese airspace? I wouldn't put it past Kim to order his pilots to die over China. So far, the authors' scenario says nothing about Chinese military action, and I think the North's attitude toward China will be, "If you don't wanna get involved, we'll MAKE you get involved."

[I wonder, though, with Russia's significant change in alignment, whether China might feel hesitant about acting with Putin looking on in disapproval...?]

Marine forces deployed off both coasts of North Korea could put both Pyongyang and Wonson at risk of rapid seizure, particularly given the fact that most of North Korea's armed forces are situated along the DMZ. With over 20 of the Army's 33 combat brigades now committed it would be necessary to call up additional Reserve and National Guard units. However, the U.S. forces that would have the greatest immediate effect are Expeditionary Air Forces and Carrier Battle Groups, most of which have now been removed from the Iraqi theater.

Yes, this is good. NK, if it had wanted to spring across the border while we were distracted by Iraq, missed a big chance. That it hesitated in doing so may be significant. There may be some intensive self-assessment going on in Pyongyang.

NK knows that, if it engages, it will lose. Its primary purpose, to the extent that Kim Jong Il is a human being who wants only to survive, is to prolong the current situation as long as possible.

And NK has factored in, I think, the potential for more armed states. An arms race in such a confined space merely makes the game more complicated, but from NK's point of view, the more complicated, the better. Nukes in the hands of SK and Japan will be a distracting factor and will generate a larger geopolitical debate-- a debate from which NK can simply step back and sneer. Once again, far larger countries will have been puppeteered into perpetual fecklessness, because the Japanese will have painful memories of what nukes can do, and meanwhile the Chinese will beware of samurai bearing nukes (whoops-- can't forget Taiwan).

The South Korean Army is well equipped to handle a counteroffensive into North Korea with help from perhaps two additional U.S. Army divisions, together with the above-mentioned Marine Expeditionary Force and dominant air power. We judge that the U.S. and South Korea could defeat North Korea decisively in 30 to 60 days with such a strategy. Importantly, there is "no doubt on the outcome" as the chairman of the JCS, Gen. Meyers, said at his reconfirmation hearing on July 26 to the Senate.

This will happen at far, far greater cost than the Iraq effort. The John Henry story was an illustration of human toughness in the face of the Machine, and it applies on the peninsula. This is, I repeat, a tough people. Yes, even the South Koreans gone soft are pretty damn tough. Conflict will be bloody. Many, many lives-- and livelihoods-- will be lost. There is no such thing as a "neat" scenario, and I fear that is what the authors may be trying to push here.

We are not eager to see force used on the Korean peninsula. It is better to resolve this crisis without war. However, unless China succeeds in ending North Korea's nuclear weapons development--and we believe this will require a change in regime--Americans will be left with the threat to our existence described by Secretary Perry when he recently said that the North Korean nuclear program "poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities."

Yes, "it is better to resolve this crisis without war"-- a mantra that gets interpreted different ways, depending on whether you're a South Korean, a North Korean, a Chinese, or an American. Can China succeed in ending nuke development in NK? I doubt it. The NK government has proved its ruthlessness many times over; if becoming a nuclear juggernaut means allowing a few million more citizens to starve, so be it. NK has also shown its willingness to bark at China when things don't go its way. Is it inconceivable that it might turn from China completely and run into the comforting embrace of, say, the Islamists?

We can hate it that we are forced now to confront this choice. But we should not take refuge in denial.

True, we shouldn't. But I wish this article took into consideration the threat posed by the Chinese, the potential for a bloody repeat of 1950, and a recognition that, barring a miraculous leap in war tech, NO scenario that includes the saving of Seoul is likely to actually save it. There's also the Great Unasked Question re: NK's possible use of nukes on the peninsula, or against a neighbor like Japan.

So my feelings on this article are mixed. Like the authors, I share a certain pessimism about the prospect of peaceful solutions. As NK grows hungrier, it will grow more desperate. The situation cannot remain a stalemate forever. The next question becomes the ancient one, where Korea is "the bone between two dogs": will the peninsula swing Communist or capitalist? China is motivated to see it swing Red; the US wants it true blue. I don't foresee a peaceful answer to this dilemma; at best, there will be diplomatic delays of the inevitable.

Evil thought: Maybe it's better just to end the standoff now?

But this leads to the uncomfortable corollary question: will the US make this decision regardless of the South Koreans' wishes?

Because the prospect of massive death in a short period is very real, I am hesitant to say anything more. Let better minds than mine figure it out.

UPDATE: Go to this link on OpinionJournal and read the WSJ reader responses to the article.

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