Analysis | Knowledge is Power: North Korea and the Art of Preparation
- American Political Affairs Specialist, Chinese Affairs Specialist, The International Scholar
- Department Chair of South and East Asian Affairs, The International Scholar
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Every day Americans grow more worried about North Korea and the prospects of war. And why shouldn’t they be? North Korea has achieved nuclear strike capabilities with frequent intercontinental ballistic missile tests, threatened the American territory of Guam with a nuclear strike, and has recently gained the capability of striking the American mainland. Americans don’t need pundits to tell them how concerning this is. However, debate on whether the United States should go to war with North Korea in order to neutralize the nuclear threat has ramped up dramatically. This has been a serious possibility ever since President Trump threatened “little rocket man” with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Since then, the President has regularly undermined his own Secretary of State’s efforts to develop lines of communication with the North Koreans. This is only compounded by the alarming amount of talk regarding possible conflict coming from the Department of Defense.
It is easy to reminisce on Iraq at a time like this, when all of the pundits warned of the capabilities of Saddam Hussein and politicians lined up to vote the United States into war. In many ways, the current situation is a mirror of 2003 as the Bush Administration made it clear that they would invade in order to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities. In hindsight, it is common knowledge that Iraq had no working WMD programs and that most of them had been shut down following the Gulf War. It is also clear that Saddam pretended to have these programs in order to avoid conflict with Iran, with whom Iraq had an 8-year war in the 1980s, as well as to deter Israel. Though many in Congress, the media, the Pentagon and the White House treat North Korea and the neutralization of its WMD program with analogous terms, North Korea is nothing like Iraq.
To start with the clearest difference, North Korea actually has WMDs in various forms, ranging from biological and chemical weapons to intercontinental and regional nuclear ballistic missiles. This is juxtaposed with Saddam’s Iraq, in which a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty existed regarding his capabilities. In the lead up to the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, the CIA famously submitted evidence that Iraqi agents had gone to Niger to secure uranium that they intended to use in a WMD program. They touted a source known as Hardball, who claimed to have intimate knowledge of the Iraqi WMD programs, despite not having been in Iraq in more than a decade.[i]
North Korea is not the victim of such intelligence errors because the isolated nation has broadcasted its nuclear success. American intelligence has largely corroborated this progress. Ballistic missile tests have become more frequent since the change in leadership from Kim Jong-Il to his son Kim Jong-Un. Two such missiles have been fired over the Japanese Islands this year as well as the Pacific Ocean in tests to prove their ability. This comes in addition to nuclear tests that have been conducted within North Korea’s borders. When it comes to North Korea having nuclear weapons, we can rest assured the regime is not bluffing.
American politicians and pundits use these facts to justify their case for military intervention, claiming that North Korea represents an intractable threat to American and regional security. Some in the Pentagon and White House have declared it an impossibility for the United States to live within range of a nuclear armed North Korea. Others have posited that the United States will just have to learn to live with and operate around this nuclear armed state. However, North Korea’s intentions are exceptionally opaque to the point where outsiders know too little to draw serious conclusions.
To the extent that we can understand the regime’s motivations, we can at least be assumed that it is quite serious about its own survival. Many scholars posit that North Korea has pursued weapons of mass destruction in order to deter American military intervention. The New Yorker’s reporter Evan Osnos journeyed to North Korea before many of the recent tensions began to seriously escalate and spoke with a mid-level North Korean official on war with America. The official responded that even if only 5% of North Korea survived, they are still prepared to wage nuclear war with the United States. This underscores the most serious issue regarding the current discussion: a disparity in understanding and preparation.
Americans do not understand North Korea. Nor should they. There is no reason Americans should intuitively understand this pariah state. Yet, it is this lack of understanding that leads many to assume North Korea will be just like Iraq; that the military will stroll in, drop a few bombs, take out Kim Jong-Un, and declare mission accomplished. It is also the reason why there is such confusion regarding why North Korea is so hostile and reluctant to negotiate. However, seeking a more contextualized of North Korea’s motivations and views can help to clarify the situation.
North Korea sees the United States as an interloper in their domestic affairs. This is a fairly reasonable point as both North and South Korea have seen each other as provinces in revolt. The Korean Peninsula is exceptionally homogenous in culture, ethnicity, and language, making the current status of the peninsula unique in dividing up such a similar people. Such an unprecedented separation presided over primarily by foreign powers like the Soviet Union and the United States would not have happened without a third-party intervention.
This view of outsiders interfering in domestic affairs is only enhanced by the siege mentality that has been adopted by its people. China and the Soviet Union had frequently competed for influence by providing substantial aid packages to North Korea, refusing to even recognize South Korea as a nation. However, once the Cold War came to a close, the aid packages stopped coming. North Korea felt cut off, isolated, and abandoned by its allies. In the 1990s, both China and Russia recognized and began booming trade relationships with Seoul. This was a grave betrayal in the eyes of Pyongyang and has since shaped the DPRK position in the international arena.
This hardship was compounded by the massive famine that hit the nation from 1994 to 1998, known as the Arduous March. It is estimated that up to 3 million people died. Massive ecological destruction occurred as peasants cut down as many trees as they could for heat and many started to eat bark just to survive. However, relief came from old enemies as South Korea and the United States reached out and offered a new Sunshine Policy whereby North Korea would give up nuclear development in exchange for food, fuel, and light water nuclear reactors that could not be easily converted for weaponized purposes. This was a breakthrough in the relationship. New special economic zones were developed, such as a joint manufacturing facility at Kaesong managed by South Koreans but with North Korean workers. Families were reunited for the first time in decades and there was the serious possibility of peaceful reunification.
However, this quickly unraveled. The North Koreans thought the United States was shirking their side of the deal as oil shipments were not coming through as quickly as expected. The light water nuclear reactors were also nowhere to be seen as the US Government dragged its feet on delivery. Growing animosity was solidified after President Bush declared North Korea part of a destabilizing Axis of Evil, with Pyongyang seeing the United States as a dishonest broker. From then on out, the North Koreans leveraged its own rogue status to get what they wanted in the short term and came to believe that the outside world could not be trusted in any long-term scenario[i]. Regime survival became paramount as Kim Jong-Il took the cult of personality to disturbing levels that even his father Kim Il-Sung had been uncomfortable with. The nuclear program was restarted and progressed rapidly. If the outside world could not be trusted to allow for the continued survival of the Kim Regime, then it would have to ensure it itself.
American policies shifted during the Obama Administration to what has been referred to as strategic patience. With enough sanctions, the Americans hoped North Korea would ultimately give up its nuclear program. This entirely ignored the prevailing siege mentality in the nation as well as its deeply engrained ideology Juche, an initial communist school of thought that literally means “self-reliance”. The focus here is that the nation does not need others in order to be the best society it can be, capable of acting alone even in the face of extreme adversity. North Korea has become the closest system possible to an autarky, a self-sustaining system with little to no external inputs. Every sanction put in place and every restriction enacted only strengthened the resolve of North Korea and fed into its world view that the United States was actively engaged in a conspiracy to conduct regime change on the Korean Peninsula.
This brings the story to today as the United States seriously contemplates a preemptive strike against North Korea. It is important to not underestimate how North Korea sees itself. For years, the North Koreans have been the outsiders of the world locked up in their own country. This isolation only compounded their sense of otherness as they remember surviving famine, brutality, and the last war with the United States which annihilated their industrial capacity. What this ultimately means is that the North Koreans are devoted to their nation in a way that Saddam’s army was not. They are prepared to fight viciously because they think about all they have survived and do not view an event like nuclear war as insurmountable.
On the other hand, the United States has become quite cocky despites its own deficiencies. None can deny that American conventional capabilities are substantial, with the largest air force and navy in the world. However, these offset capabilities have not done much in advancing victory in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Army and Marines are regularly touted as exceptional military branches with superb capabilities and training that outmatches any other military. Yet that does little to deter dedicated jihadists from killing American personnel every year in insurgent attacks.
Casualty-averse behavior has consistently driven battlefield decisions in the War on Terror. Each military branch requires significant support in terms of logistics and CASEVAC (medical evacuation) that few other militaries expect. In terms of capabilities, American military planners keep preparing for a conventional war, like World War 2, while the rest of the world has since left those concepts in the dust, instead favoring asymmetric tactical decisions and strategizing for relative advantage. Absolutes no longer dominate the battlefield and neither does the American military. This renders deeply disturbing the regular cries of having the greatest military in the world.
With such serious divergence in understanding, both of the world and of their own respective capabilities, the United States and North Korea seem on course for war at the current rate of conflagration. This begs the question: is either prepared for such a struggle? To unpack this, it is important to look at military and technological capabilities, as well as alliance structures and geopolitical constraints.
The clearest distinction between the two sides is the United States’ clear industrial and technological advantage in any conventional conflict. With the most powerful air and naval forces on the planet, it is very easy to bring considerable firepower to bear against North Korean areas of control. This would be reminiscent of the Korean War when more bombs were dropped than in the entire Pacific Theatre of World War II. Cyber attacks would be crippling for any networked system, special operations forces can strike with pinpoint accuracy, satellites provide clear battlefield assessments, and missile defense systems ensure that a nuclear launch against the American homeland would be quickly swarmed. AC-130 gunships would rain fire on North Korea, and general technological prowess would decimate mass conventional fighters.
Unless those fighters can shoot back that is. North Korean soldiers are not Afghan insurgents but a modern (more or less) army capable of conventional warfare. They also do not lack morale like the Iraqis in 2003 who had already suffered a striking defeat against the United States during the Gulf War. American and South Korean military personnel can expect brutal fighting. Not to mention that technological advantages can also be weaknesses in any unconventional setting. The lack of cyber networks ensures that North Korea can launch crippling cyber-attacks against American information systems without needing to worry about retaliation. Air and naval forces would have to contend with guerrilla-swarm style tactics as low-tech submarines, mines, and anti-air missiles are utilized. Satellite oversight would depend on whether North Korea decides to launch ballistic missiles at them and invoke a new fog of war.
Special operations forces may hit targets, but every target hit creates a new level of chaos in an already completely unpredictable situation. These same units have also shown resentment when operating in austere environments with little logistical support, like Africa . The support these units are comfortable with would not be possible in a total war with North Korea. WMDs could be used to devastating effect as the Kim Regime deploys biological, chemical, and nuclear stockpiles in its fight for survival. Unlike many of the other nations the United States has warred against since World War II, North Korea actually retains the capability of fighting back in a conventional way, with over 7.5 million personnel to deploy. This is not to mention the high likelihood of insurgent attacks in areas the US comes to control by civilians still loyal to the regime. To expect that North Korea would hold anything back and not act with total resolve would be foolish.
However, advantages in asymmetrical capabilities and resolve are countered by North Korea’s lack of allies. Pyongyang is extremely isolated and it is unlikely anyone would readily come to its assistance, save for China. However, it is important to not rule China out as Beijing has made it clear it will act to preserve the status quo on the Korean Peninsula if the United States attempts to unilaterally intervene. The PRC has also noted that if North Korea strikes first, China will assist the United States. While many American strategists may think China will very quickly pile on once the shooting starts, it is important to take what the Chinese say at face value. After all, the last time American strategists discounted Chinese declarations, the American military soon found itself facing several hundred thousand experienced Chinese soldiers crossing the Yalu River. China has seen the American presence in South Korea as a dagger at its throat, so the prospect of a United Korea with an American military presence on its border is not an outcome Beijing is prepared to tolerate. Not to mention that China is much better armed and capable than it was 65 years ago. If the China element is treated callously, a shooting war with North Korea could very quickly become a shooting war with China.
Assuming that China is not an issue, the international weight of the world is on the side of the United States. Many in the region desire stability on the Korean Peninsula in a way that is beneficial for economic development as well as regional security. Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and NATO are all likely to immediately step up (though perhaps reluctantly) and contribute to the effort. The United Nations would also be an excellent forum to push and support such an intervention seeing as there is already precedent for it and assuming the Chinese are not in active opposition. Despite President Trump’s amateurism, American allies will be resolved to assist should a war break out.
South Korea is another critical factor as it would be on the front line in any war that occurs with the North. If conflict breaks out, South Korea will see tens of thousands of casualties, if not many more, in the first minutes as North Korean artillery shells Seoul. The country would have to immediately call up almost 5 million personnel to active duty for the war effort. The South Korean military has prepared and trained for this scenario over the past 65 years. Its personnel will be the ones moving up and establishing structures of governance and control in the north that will be necessary to ensure protection of logistics lines. With all of these different allies and the high likelihood of international support, the American coalition will have inertia on its side.
Yet, there is one final realm of consideration: geopolitical constraints. For the United States, this is a hamstringing issue. The American military is already actively deployed in dozens of countries with tens of thousands of personnel stationed in the Middle East alone. Operational exhaustion prevails. There are not enough pilots to fly planes, sailors working over a hundred hours every week in relative peacetime, and Marines not considered conventionally substantial. It is readily admitted that the vast majority of Army brigade combat teams are not combat ready. During the Invasion of Iraq, the American military deployed unprepared, with vehicles that were not armored as well as units lacking basic materials. The reason Operation Iraqi Freedom was successful was the ineptitude of the Iraqi Army. If that is the same hope for North Korea, with an American military that is stretched thin across multiple battlefields and continents, then the Pentagon better think again.
For North Korea, there are no geopolitical constraints. If it is to fight America it will be a war for survival with no second chances. Weapons of mass destruction, suicide attacks, and insurgent strikes are serious tools at the disposal of North Korean forces. They also retain the home field advantage, knowing the lay of the land better than anyone else. This is especially the case since no one has been allowed in the country without extreme levels of surveillance and control in the last 65 years. North Korean sleeper agents in South Korea and Japan are likely to begin guerrilla activity to hamper logistical support and operational follow through. When it comes to the North Korean war effort, America should be prepared to expect anything, seeing as the DPRK has had 65 years to prepare for the worst.
This is a very critical assessment of American prospects against the North Koreans but it needs to be. At this time, President Trump is regularly making threats of war against the North Koreans and the military leadership does not even try to hide their anticipation for war in Asia. This would not be particularly problematic if weren’t for the majority of American people unconcerned with the prospects of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The US is practically sleepwalking into a war, acting like it will be like the last few, with overwhelming military force prevailing. North Korea is a real enemy that intends to fight. If the United States is to fight, then it is necessary to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
The issue has taken off now that the United States has a President who believes belligerence solves problems. This is despite many State Department officials aiming to continue the Obama Era policy of strategic patience. As a result, people believe North Korea is an imminent threat to the United States that has to be destroyed now or never. That is just not true.
North Korea does pose a very serious concern but what we are seeing is an awareness lag. South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia have been living in the presence of a nuclear armed North Korea that could hit them. From what can be ascertained, the primary desire for the development of its nuclear program has been to deter the United States from endangering the regime’s survival. Despite recent tensions, South Korea has been able to open up a relatively successful dialogue with North Korea. However, we have seen little change from the new American policy of planning for a preemptive strike. Despite what the media and the President say, a preemptive military strike is not the only nor the best option on the table at this time. It is critical that the United States act patiently and strategically with this rogue nation.
Americans, both in the greater population as well as at the decision-making level, are neither prepared for the sacrifices of the next war nor its aftermath. The Korean Peninsula is an extremely tense environment with a complex history that is not going to be quickly and simply solved with a few bombs and bullets. Such a conflict will be brutally fought and it will take decades after any war for the region to be completely stabilized. The United States has been waging wars rather casually the past 30 years, not particularly worried about making sacrifices to win. A war with North Korea will require the very best of America and the enemy will be far more resolute than those faced recently. At this time, it is unlikely that Americans are culturally, economically, and politically prepared to change to the point where victory is possible. If the United States is not prepared to pursue victory, then it would be fruitless to start another savage war for peace.
All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.