Some problems have no easy solutions and how to deal with a North Korea that is again threatening war is one of them. A big problem is that any minor skirmish in this volatile region of the world could rapidly spiral out of control. Slightly smaller than the state of Mississippi the country has a population of over 24 million people and borders China, South Korea, and Russia. The interior of the country is mountainous, isolated, and sparsely populated. Following World War II, Korea was split in two with the northern half coming under Soviet-sponsored Communist control. After failing to conquer the U.S.-backed southern portion known as the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the Korean War (1950-53) the country has remained divided.
For over six decades North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has adopted a policy of ostensible diplomatic and economic “self-reliance” as a check against outside influence. Part of this policy is displayed by how North Korea has demonized the U.S. as the ultimate threat to its social system through state-funded propaganda coupled with political, economic, and military policies around the core objective of eventual unification of Korea under Pyongyang’s control. Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, was officially designated as his father’s successor and took control of the government following the death of his father in 1994. Kim Jong-un was publicly unveiled as his father’s successor in September 2010. Following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, the regime began to take actions to transfer power to Kim Jong-un who has now assumed his father’s former titles and duties.
Decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation have haunted North Korea and forced the country to rely heavily on international aid to feed its population since the mid-1990s. The DPRK began to ease restrictions to allow semi-private markets, starting in 2002, but then sought to roll back the scale of economic reforms in 2005 and 2009. North Korea has a history of being a regional bad boy with its military provocations, the proliferation of military-related items, long-range missile development, supporting unstable nations, and WMD programs including tests of nuclear devices. They have also developed long-range missiles capable of reaching targets in Japan and U.S. bases in Guam, Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.
North Korea’s massive but poorly trained and equipped military is ranked fourth largest in the world. They could cause significant damage in the early stages of an attack on its southern neighbor but any attack would ultimately be repulsed by superior U.S. and South Korean forces. Analysts say North Korea’s aging military would not be able to prevail long term in an attack against its southern neighbor. North Korean forces are arrayed along the demilitarized zone with 10,000 artillery pieces capable of reaching the south’s large modern capital of Seoul, Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst has pointed out the proximity of Seoul to the world’s most heavily armed border would let the North Koreans cause a lot of casualties and damage in the initial stages of an attack. Just last Friday Klingner told Fox News. “We can expect an [intercontinental ballistic missile] test this year with full capability within the next few years,” this confirms what many people have tried to ignore.
Any conventional attack from the North aimed at South Korea would likely begin with an artillery barrage, which could include chemical weapons. “They would try to overwhelm U.S. and Korean forces with volume,” Klinger said. Any initial assault would face about 28,500 U.S. troops and about 600,000 troops in the South Korean armed forces. “In the war game simulations eventually we prevail, but it’s World War I (levels of) casualties,” he said. While analysts say a full-scale conflict is extremely unlikely they note that the Korean Peninsula has remained in a technical state of war for 60 years. Still the recent and continued threats toward Seoul and Washington, including a vow to launch a nuclear strike, have raised worries that a misjudgment between the sides could lead to a clash.
Most North Korea watchers have traditionally urged the West not to take the regime’s wild language at face value and have downplayed its military capabilities. Still, following growing provocations from North Korea and it’s launch of four missiles into the Sea of Japan on Monday and claims from Pyongyang the launch was a drill for striking American military bases in Japan some are beginning to take a different line. Chris Hill, a former U.S. diplomat like many of those keeping an eye on the situation see the threat of war by miscalculation is increasing. While many people do not think the Kim regime wants a conflict he may underestimate how much the sabre-rattling has raised the possibility to a new and dangerous level that could accidentally lead towards a broad conflict. Adding to the uncertainty is that just last week South Korean President Park Geun-hye was forced from office plunging the key U.S. ally into political turmoil.
For many years America has pursued a strategy of hoping in time things would get better as the people of North Korea demanded more goods and western style comforts, this was to be the catalyst to move the country towards freedom. When the last foul leader died officials hoped that North Korea’s young leader would prove to be a reformer, instead lines have harden and cooperation has deteriorated. The same people that were once hopeful and counseled we should give the situation time to change are now increasingly worried that Kim Jong-un might blunder his way into a war. Even as they publicly describe his recent bellicose threats as bluster, administration officials have stepped up visible demonstrations of American military power. Currently, all signs coming out of North Korea are not constructive to a peaceful co-existence, it is possible that they have become so delusional and paranoid that there is no turning back.
The real problem is how best to resolve the issue before it becomes a full-blown crisis. For years many “tough guy Americans” have seen the answer as to, just “Nuke the bastards,” but this is easier said than done and has some huge negative ramifications. In the current political environment, even an attack from the North that falls well short of anything nuclear will probably provoke what might be considered a very harsh response. While there are still many people in the West, who because of its long history of bellicose rhetoric and threats have come to discount the threat of North Korea as a joke doing so could be a big mistake. This situation highlights the difficulties of dealing with rogue nations. We should not be downplaying this threat and it is possible we may be facing a watershed event that makes limited nuclear war commonplace.
None of us has any real knowledge of the motivation, or how years of propaganda have affected the average North Korean soldier. Several times in history the ink has only begun to dry on a peace accord before one of the participant attacks totally unprovoked and this means what may happen is often hard to predict. Forthcoming events may well dictate and set in motion war game scenarios that have been played out hundreds of time and are to be used as a blueprint for our future actions. It is very important America and people throughout the world realize and internalize the potential for a million or more dead North Koreans and many of their neighbors to the south, this does make this situation dire indeed. There should be little doubt the situation in Korea has the potential in a very short time to make the events having taken place in Syria over the years appear tame by comparison.
H/T: Bruce Wilds