The recent sinking of a South Korean (ROK) corvette, with the probable deaths of several dozen sailors, brings to focus the fraught situation on the Korean peninsula. Now the cause of this incident – North Korean (DPRK) torpedo or tragic accident – is not yet clear. Moreover, the two sides have a long history of border clashes – the current hot-spot over the Northern Limit Line, claimed by the ROK but disputed by the DPRK, has already seen three armed clashes in 1999, 2002, and 2009. The Korean War never really ended (the DPRK actually withdrew from the 1953 Armistice in 2009), and the North has pursued a strategy of periodically ratcheting up tensions to extract concessions from South Korea and the US. So this latest near-crisis is neither unexpected nor exceptionally destabilizing. As with the Cold War nuclear standoff, though the chances of any one trigger setting off an escalation to all-out war are small, they do accumulate over time.
Welcome to North Korea!
The Democratic People’s Republic is, as is well known, neither democratic (elections are fixed), popular (it is run by a small clique), or even a republic (Kim Jong-il succeeded his father Kim Il-sung to become “Supreme Leader”, and his son Kim Jong-un is slated to take over in 2012). Its political economy is essentialy based on the Asiatic mode of production – “held in thrall by a despotic ruling clique, residing in central cities and directly expropriating surplus from largely autarkic and generally undifferentiated village communities” (Martin & Wigen, 1997). These surpluses are used to buy the loyalties of the ruling elites who plan the DPRK’s self-sufficient economy (Juche) and uphold the “military first” (Songun) policy, as a result of which the DPRK is by far the most militarized state in the world – around 5% of its population are in the Korean People’s Army, on which the state has lavished a third of its entire gross product since the 1970’s. What emerges is an apotheosis of industrial totalitarianism, a “hermit kingdom” that manages to develop ballistic missiles and nukes, but can’t even feed its people – permanent dearth occasionally dips into outright famine, such as in 1995-98 when around 12% of its population starved to death.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that the DPRK is weak or unstable. Though its system of personal rule is brittle, a combination of coercion and legitimizing propaganda suppresses popular uprisings from below and open struggles amongst the elites. Consumer poverty has not preempted the sustenance of a 1.1mn-strong military, with some NBC capabilities, that is nearly twice the size of its southern adversary (not only in manpower, but also tanks, artillery pieces, warships, and fighters). This military buildup serves two complementing imperatives of the regime – 1) preserve the political dominance of the ruling elites centered around the Kim dynasty and upper echelons of the Party and military-industrial complex, and 2) pursue Kim Il-sung’s policy of “reunification through military force under DPRK conditions” that consitutes the legitimizing basis of the regime’s permanent war economy.
["Welcome to North Korea" documentary about the extent to which the Kim family's personality cult has taken over society].
Contrary to popular opinion, the North Korean regime is essentially stable. It survived its baptism of fire in 1950-53, the collapse of the Soviet Union (and of its subsidies) in the early 1990’s, and a devastating famine in 1995-98. It is merely authoritarian regimes, like Iran or China, which tend to be the most unstable. On the other hand, North Korea is a throughly totalitarian society, in which all information about the outside world is limited and dissenting voices are sent off to vast political prisons. Though hardship, dearth, and black markets may undermine the DPRK, there is always China to provide a last bulwark against disintegration. China has no interest in seeing the DPRK collapse, since doing so 1) may unleash a destabilizing flood of refugees and 2) much more importantly, its successor state will probably align with, or be absorbed by, South Korea, which is a regional rival and a firm ally of the US. The Chinese will do everything in their power to avoid a scenario in which a united Korean peninsula points like a dagger into their heartlands. Hence, as long as the DPRK’s rulers are united in their will to perpetuate the system, it will not collapse of its own accord.
This simple equilibrium, however, is complicated by outside Powers and the DPRK’s strategic culture. As Nicholas Eberstadt notes, North Korea is “deeply dissatisfied with the current configuration of the international chessboard and fundamentally committed to transforming it”, and the pursuit of nuclear weapons is one way to further these objectives. First, they help the regime legitimize itself domestically. Second, they are believed to deter South Korea and the US from launching preemptive strikes (senior figures in the DPRK have acknowledged outright that the example of Iraq is a great incentive to acquire nuclear arms).
Third, some elements of the Korean leadership may believe that nukes would deter the US and Japan from interfering in a renewed Korean War. Though the DPRK must realize their technological inferiority before South Korea, they may believe that in the absence of US reinforcements and airpower, their own advantages in sheer mass, special forces and infiltration, and NBC weapons may enable them to break through the DMZ and overrun the South. Unlikely? Maybe. But North Korea’s penchant for brinkmanship and unclear level of rationality means that the possibility must not be discounted. Really, all it takes is one low-level hothead to unfreeze the Korean War.
There is no question that North Korea is, if not planning, at least actively preparing for war. Despite its permanent economic hyper-depression, military mobilization remains as high as ever. Nationalism is cultivated, the South portrayed as a “puppet” of American imperialism. North Korea’s side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has 500-600 SCUD missiles, which can deliver chemical agents, and 11,000 artillery pieces in hardened dugouts, capable of firing up to 500,000 rounds per hour. This volume of fire is capable of leveling much of Seoul, potentially causing hundreds of thousands of casualties (millions if nuclear weapons are used), and severely damaging the first of the South’s three defensive lines. Whereas in 1994 some 45% of Korea’s military manpower was located at the DMZ, by 1998 it had grown to 65% (and 80% of firepower) and more than 70% today. Tunnels have been dug underneath South Korea fortifications and the North boasts a 100,000-strong special forces, the biggest in the world. At least in public, the DPRK unwaveringly believes in its own military superiority.
Preparing for War
Assume the recent naval incident spirals out of control in the next few weeks. I’m not saying it will – that’s very unlikely, based on past precedent – but let’s just assume it. Though North Korea is as opaque as ever, there are indications that domestic crisis is brewing. Recent attempts at currency reform have failed, triggering what may be imminent hyperinflation (the mastermind behind this reform is rumored to have been executed). Furthermore, there are the challenges of the upcoming leadership transition. An increasingly paranoid DPRK leadership, facing the specter of unrest and renewed famine, decides that a war may be the way out of their increasingly untenable predicament. They begin to prepare a blitzkrieg against the South.
Though the military balance on the Korean peninsula was tipped towards North Korea throughout the Cold War, the situation was reversed in the early 1990’s as the ROK acquired new, modern equipment that was no longer needed by NATO on the Central European Plain. Even as South Korea’s economy continued its relentless surge into a leading global position, the North’s collapsed into a hyper-depression from which it has not emerged twenty years later. By 1998 it was estimated that though North Korea had the equivalent of 5 heavy US divisions, compared to South Korea’s 3.75, this slight margin was more than closed when one accounted for the latter’s better logistics, support equipment, and prepared defensive positions (not to mention 37,000 US troops and aeronaval forces). The tables had turned and it is like that by then the South could have defended itself even without outside support.
Fast forward another ten years to today. The North is now slightly better off than it was in the crisis-wracked 1990’s, having transitioned from militarized Marxism-Leninism to militarized neo-feudalism (nowadays, the Party has withered away and it is the Army that runs the economy). The gap between North and South is greater than ever. The ROK is now an advanced industrial economy, with the region’s third most powerful economy and military (behind China and Japan). On the other hand, the DPRK is the apotheosis of the late Industrial Age national security state – it has plenty of tanks, schools, spies, radios, bunkers, patriotic songs, etc, but lacks the information infrastructure that is indispensable for remaining competitive in the Information Age. As long as it retains its Juche system, it will continue slipping ever further behind.
However, one (dis)advantage of being disconnected and living in a personality cult is that you become pretty confident about your own strength. So back to our scenario of North Korea’s war preparations in April 2010. They will conduct a campaign of strategic deception, or maskirovka, to conceal their true intentions. Even as stockpiles of fuel, munitions, and spare parts are built up on the DMZ, relations with the South will appear to be better than ever.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that the DPRK has the dubious distinction of being America’s “most watched” country. American reconaissance satellites keep a permanent watch on the hermit kingdom and target lists are continuously updated. The primary concern nowadays is to detect North Korean missiles being prepped and fueled, so that the US is capable of intercepting them before launch if it so chooses. But suspicious signs of the buildup will likely be detected, and confirmed for certain hours, if not days, in advance.
The DPRK’s air defense system is extremely dense, and many artillery positions are concealed and/or hardened. However, the system’s obsolesence makes it ineffective against stealth or high-flying warplanes, and it can be easily jammed by modern electronic countermeasures. Though hardened, the ensuing lack of mobility makes them easy game for the precision-guided bunker busters that the US has in abundance. And it is doubtful that concealment will do the North Koreans much good when any armchair general can identify hidden artillery positions on Google Earth!
What may happen is that an hour or two before North Korean tanks are slated to begin rolling south, on receiving confirmation of an imminent invasion, the USAF and Korean Air Force will launch massive spoiling attacks on North Korea’s DMZ artillery positions, C&C nodes, airfields, critical infrastructure, and supply depots. Below is one scenario of a “Surgical Air Strike” from the 2003 report Stand-Off with North Korea: War Scenarios and Consequences by two analysts from the Center for Defense Information that gives some idea of the immense significance of US air power.
Six B-2s each armed with 80 500-lb JDAMs sequentially launch from Guam. The strike is coordinated with several divisions of B1-s with 12 JDAMs per aircraft and F-117s with two laser-guided precision-guided weapons per aircraft, taking off from other bases in the region. These strikes would be deconflicted with the launch of more than 300 Tomahawk cruise missiles from the various cruisers and submarines positioned in the Pacific. Six additional B2s, flying out of their homebase in Missouri, time their arrival closely behind – loaded with 24 1,000lb JDAMs or 16 2,000lb JDAMs. One thousand targets could be destroyed prior to sunrise. This would prepare the battleground for ground forces to rapidly sweep to the North under a protective close air support umbrella of tactical aircraft from two carrier battle groups and other aircraft and assault helicopters in the South.
The F-117 was retired in 2008, but is now being replaced by the much more capable F-22 Raptor. The scenario remains valid. However, it actually referred to a long-planned surgical strike designed to take out the North’s nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and decapitate its means for artillery retaliation. Obviously, the overall damage will not be as crippling to the North if the US and ROK have advance notice of only a few hours. Nonetheless, America’s bomber forces are at permanent readiness, there is an uninterrupted carrier battle group (CVBG) presence near the Korean peninsula, and the their target lists are always up to date. The preemptive air strikes will substantially weaken the Northern assault given their poor air defense and logistics.
At this point, control of the Combined Forces Command (CFC) of the ROK and the US is transferred onto an American general from Korea. (Though there is an agreement to let South Korea have wartime control from 2012).
Korean War 2.0 – The Tanks roll South
It begins. As North Korean generals become aware that their adversaries have jumped the gun on them, they will order the DMZ artillery to immediately open fire on the South’s first defensive lines, which has 8 out of its 19 divisions, and on Seoul, so as to create a flood of panicked refugees that would clog nearby roads, hampering resupply efforts and reinforcements. There may be initial wave of poor-quality troops (e.g., perhaps conscripted from its 200,000 political prisoners) to clear the minefields and soften up the ROK’s defense lines. Special forces units begin infiltrating the enemy rear, with the help of incursion tunnels beneath the DMZ.
Soon after, the DPRK’s four pre-positioned Army corps begin to move south along the “two major avenues of approach that lead toward Seoul, via Kaesong and Munsan nearer the west coast, and Chor’won and Uijongbu further inland”, as well as smaller operations “along the east coast from Kansong to Sokch’o as well as the Taedong mountains further inland”. Heavily influenced by Soviet military philosophy of the 1970’s-80’s, the North Korean plan is to use infantry supported by armor – emphasizing strategic surprise, mobility, and concentration of firepower, in tandem with special forces operations in the enemy’s rear – to rapidly overrun the South’s defense lines and reunify the peninsula “under DPRK conditions” within 30 days, before the ROK can fully mobilize or bring in heavy American reinforcements.
The breakthrough will be very hard for the KPA to accomplish, since they will face multiple prepared, unbroken, and amply manned defense lines across the DMZ. They will be continuously reinforced by an allied operational reserve that includes the US 2nd Infantry Division and two of the three South Korean mechanized divisions. A rapid North Korea breakthrough is very unlikely – historically, “advance rates were rarely more than four to five kilometers a day… when armies in World War II tried to drive through prepared defenses”.
As noted previously, the war will be very costly, in both blood and dollars. In 1994, when war seemed imminent, senior US military leaders estimated that in the first ninety days there would be “52,000 US military personnel killed and wounded, along with 490,000 South Korean military casualties… as well as ‘enormous’ DPRK and civilian casualties”. Furthermore, up to 80,000-100,000 American citizens could be killed, the war would cost the US 100bn $, and “the destruction and interruption of businesswould cost a trillion dollars to the countries involved and their immediate neighbors”. And this assumed that North Korea didn’t go nuclear, in which case costs would rise by another order of magnitude.
This was back in 1994. Sixteen years later, South Korea and the US have greater potential for minimizing their casualties thanks to technological developments, such as the following:
The United States has been working upon this problem for some years, and an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD) was mounted on the Peninsula in 1996-97 for this very purpose. The Precision/Rapid Counter – Multiple Rocket Launch ACTD, completed in 1997, apparently successfully developed and demonstrated all weather, day/night “precision deepstrike capability” to neutralize the rocket launchers and heavy artillery deployed north of the DMZ.
Whatever the costs of the war, however, it is almost certain that North Korea will fail to attain its objectives. Given the much better equipment, training, surveillance assets, and battlespace knowledge of the Combined Forces, as well as the parlous state of the North Korean military (e.g. its fighter pilots only get 10 hours of training per year, as opposed to 200+ hours for American pilots), its antiquated weapon systems (e.g. the main North Korean battle tank is based on the Soviet T-62), and its economic base (only has enough fuel reserves to sustain operations for 2-3 months), there is little doubt that South Korea will hold its defensive lines. Perhaps a few vanguard KPA detachments will penetrate to within sight of Seoul’s suburbs – where they will be bewildered at the puppet state’s relative prosperity – but that is the best that North Korea can realistically expect.
What if North Korea uses tactical nukes to break through the South Korean defense lines, similar to some Warsaw Pact plans for the conquest of Western Europe? This is a possibility, though not a particularly high one. Both DPRK nuclear tests “fizzled”, i.e. they were unsuccessful, indicating that their nuclear devices are quite primitive and not properly weaponized. (Building a nuclear device is pretty easy, making it reliable and mating it to a robust delivery system is the hard bit). This does not bode well for them given that most estimates indicate that the North only possesses a dozen or so bombs. More importantly, any offensive use of nukes by the DPRK will likely be met by a devastating response from the US; certainly that is the case if they manage to strike Japan or Hawaii (though that is a very remote prospect given that DPRK missiles are liquid-fueled, easily-detectable, and take a few days to “prep”, making them sitting ducks for the USAF). So despite the rhetoric, the DPRK is only probably going to “go nuclear” when it begins to feel it is losing – for instance, in a last-ditch attempt to seize Seoul before the South launches a strong counter-offensive with American reinforcements, or by “nuclear mining” the road to Pyongyang .
“Given the mass of combat power the U.S. and South Korea have available, both in forward stationed forces and in reserve, exposed invasion forces that became slowed or halted would be in dire straits from the defense lines in front of them and to their flanks, as well as indirect fire from artillery”. The Combined Forces will rapidly achieve full air superiority over the North Koreans, and will be able to inflict a lot of damage with minimal interference. US reinforcements will pour in by sea and air, and advance elements of heavy divisions will appear by Day 30. This will set the ground for the third phase of the war – the conquest and destruction of the DPRK as a political entity.
Korean War 2.0 – The March to Pyongyang
The allied war plan, Operations Plan 5027, calls for a “regrouping phase after halting the initial invasion” (expected within 7-10 days of the start of the North Korean offensive), around the “layered defense lines north of and around Seoul”, to be followed by a full-scale counteroffensive whose ultimate objective is Pyongyang and the reunification of the peninsula under the Republic of Korea. This invasion will be preceded by heavy B-1 and B-52 bombardment before the allied advance and the use of amphibious Marine operations to “cut the DPRK’s narrow band in two”.
This advance is expected to encounter fierce resistance. Practically every adult in North Korea has military training and the country has been devoting the bulk of its resources to defense since the 1970’s. Finally, much of the North Korean terrain is mountainous and less favorable to America’s hi-tech assets than the flat deserts of Iraq. Below is a summary of the views of one Chinese military analyst, Zhen Xi, writing in the 1990’s, on how he believes North Korea can defend itself.
NORTH KOREA CAN DEFEAT AMERICA
Chinese military authors also appear to devalue the effectiveness of U.S. forces in a future Korean scenario. According to a colonel at AMS, several factors ensure U.S. defeat “if in the next few years a Korean War erupted.” His main points are:
- The United States will not have 6 months to deploy and train forces. Instead, “the Korean People’s Army will surprise attack South Korean air bases, ports and communication lines.”
- “U.S. casualties will not be as low as in the Gulf War. . . . On the Korean peninsula, the population is dense, with river networks and mountains, roads are few, unsuitable to armor . . . casualties will be extremely high.”
- “North Korea’s mountains are wrapped in clouds and mist; it will be difficult for the U.S. Air Force and high-technology weaponry to give full play to their vast superiority.”
- Temperatures of negative 40 degrees centigrade “provide excellent conditions” for guerilla warfare.
- North Korea will not allow the United States to land in the rear.
- U.S. forces lack numerical strength. During the Korean War, U.S. troops reached over 400,000, but the result was not victory. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the Vietnam War American forces were 663,000 and had great technical superiority, but the result also was defeat. U.S. forces in year 2000 will be 70 percent of today.
These are all more-or-less valid points, but there are a number of caveats that must be taken into account in such an analysis.
First, it should be borne in mind that the bulk of the military mass will now be provided by South Korea, which has around 5mn men in the reserves and a massive industrial base of its own. The most important US contribution will be its surveillance and reconaissance capabilities, air and naval power, and amphibious operations. Such a single-minded emphasis on the US is misplaced.
Second, whereas in the 1980’s the KPA was a motivated and able force, it is far from clear whether that is still the case. There are numerous reports of metastasizing corruption within the DPRK reaching to the highest levels of government. As happened in 2003 Iraq, it may even be possible to bribe some North Korean generals into non-interference or surrender.
Third, likewise it is not at all clear that the general North Korean population will willingly fight for the regime, at least not with the fanatic zeal one sees in DPRK propaganda. Yes, the hermit kingdom remains, by and large, a very closed society. However, hundreds of thousands have emigrated into China, and millions have now been exposed to videos of life in South Korea. Since the early 2000’s, VCR’s have become accessible to better-off North Koreans, along with black-market DVD’s of South Korean dramas and films. Observers report a (relative) relaxation of social controls – not for lack of effort, but simply because the resources available for surveillance have plummeted along with everything else – and increasing disillusionment with the government.
Fourth, another very important thing is that the DPRK’s fertility rate has been at or below the replacement level rate of 2.1 children per woman since the 1990’s. Historically, only high-fertility nations have been able to sustain intense guerilla campaigns or “people’s wars“, since the death of a son is far more tragic – and economically ruinous – when he is your only one. Moreover, most of the troops invading North Korea will be fellow Koreans – yet another disincentive for waging an uncompromising resistance struggle.
Fifth, the importance of the allied technological edge must not be underestimated. When you are losing five or ten soldiers for every one of the enemy’s, the will to fight becomes incredibly sapped. And those are the likely ratios when low-category North Korean units come up against the advancing Combined Forces.
I am not saying that the march to Pyongyang will be like a walk in the park. At least initially, the Korean People’s Army and its military reserves will put up a fight, and as mentioned above, facing the certainty of its own demise, the regime may not shy away from unleashing any nuclear capabilities they may have. Nor are the South Koreans going to be particularly restrained – one authority on the matter informs me that the South Korean officer class hates the Northern elites, and will probably “take no enemies, anyone associated with the party (which means all officers) will be eliminated”. However, there is no way that even a big guerrilla army – poorly trained, logistically-challenged, and armed with antiquated 1950’s/60’s-era Soviet weaponry – will be able to halt the advance of a modern military enjoying advanced space-based surveillance systems and complete air and naval superiority. An eventual Combined Forces victory is assured, unless…
The Specter of Escalation
Crossing the DMZ with the intention of toppling the DPRK and replacing it with a government allied with or integrated into South Korea will put a whole set of new dynamics into play. Though China has no intention of aiding North Korea in aggression, it views the establishment of an American bridgehead on its Manchurian border with trepidation and may intervene under extreme circumstances, such as an all-out American and South Korean drive for “regime change” in Pyongyang.
If this were to happen, all bets are off. China will probably be able to roll back the invasion forces to the DMZ. After all, it managed to do this in the 1950’s, when it was much more militarily backwards relative to the US. Now, it will have a big preponderance over land, while its new “carrier-killing” ballistic missiles, submarines, cruise missiles, and Flanker fighters are now, at some level, able to deny the seas off China to the US Navy, while its anti-satellite tests and cyberwar prowess means that the American dominance in space and information ought not be taken for granted either. Now I am not saying that the People’s Liberation Army comes anywhere close to matching the American military; however, it might well already have the ability to defeat it in a local war on China’s borders. If China is successful, it will re-establish North Korea as its own protectorate, although under someone more rational and reliable than Kim Jong-il (though needless to say this will also completely sever its economic relationship with the US and cause a severe, but temporary, economic contraction due to the collapse of its export sector).
There will be a cascade of consequences elsewhere. Taiwan may use the opportunity to declare independence, provoking a second war in the region. Though the US says that it will not come to Taiwan’s aid if it does this unilaterally, America will probably change its mind if it is simultaneously embroiled in an intense local war with China on the Korean peninsula! Other actors opposed to American hegemony may view this as a chance to undermine the overstretched superpower. For instance, Russia could orchestrate a new war against Georgia and China may even persuade Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz in exchange for security guarantees and technology transfer. All these dominoes going down may even precipitate the collapse of the increasingly fragile Pax Americana.
But this is all speculation. I will end this article on something a lot more fundamental – the fact that North Korea is running out of time. Having abandoned the aptly-named “sunshine policy” (1998-2008) towards the DPRK, today’s South Korea has ambitious plans for a military modernization designed to achieve full-spectrum superiority over its northern neighbor by 2020. This involves making the ROK Army more network-centric, acquiring top-end ABM and space capabilities, and increasing automization (e.g. gun sentries). North Korea is digging underground to conceal its military assets, but these efforts are in a race against improving bunker-busting bombs and underground imaging technology. On current trends, it is quite likely that by the 2020’s, North Korea will even lose its ability to pose a credible threat to Seoul. Even if, against all odds, the DPRK manages to develop nuclear-tipped, solid-fuel ballistic missiles – i.e., which can be prepped for launch within a few minutes – they will be rendered irrelevant by the proliferation of advanced ABM systems in the Western Pacific. This means that North Korea’s “window of opportunity” to reunify the peninsula is closing fast (if it was ever open in the first place). If it is to have the smallest, non-zero chance of success, it has to strike very soon. Is North Korea’s recent bellicosity and abrogation of the 1953 Armistice mere coincidence?
Now I should stress again that the scenario I have painted is not likely to unfold as I predict. Quite simply, for all its bluster, the North Korean regime may well simply be too fearful of its domestic position, too satisfied with its creature comforts, too post-ideological and disillusioned, to risk undergoing the ultimate trial of its own strength and intelligence – war. But it is not impossible.