The View From Olympus: Korea

Is a new Korean War likely? Probably not. It would almost certainly end with the destruction of North Korea’s Kim regime, and I think they know that. Dictators want to remain dictators.

On the other hand, like the major European states in 1914, both North Korea and the U.S. could back themselves into a war, not knowing quite how they got there. If that happens, North Korea has some options I fear the Pentagon is ignoring.

One is to open up a massive artillery barrage on Seoul, then turn it off after twenty minutes. The cease-fire could be accompanied by an announcement saying North Korea would only resume firing if the U.S. or South Korea took military action against it. That would leave us on the horns of a most unpleasant dilemma.

If all-out war were to break out, instead of launching its main thrust directly at Seoul from the north with the armor it has positioned there, North Korea could keep that threat open while making its operational Schwerpunkt a light infantry advance down South Korea’s east coast with a turning movement south of Seoul designed to pocket the main American and South Korean forces. The east coast terrain is favorable to light infantry, North Korea has lots of it and if you look at the movement rates of both North and South Korean light infantry on that coast during the first Korean War, you see it could unfold quite rapidly.

Steven Canby, who may be America’s best land war analyst, laid out this possibility in a paper he wrote in the late 1970s or early 1980s. When I worked for Senator Gary Hart, he sent Canby’s paper to the U.S. commander in Korea. The reply he received essentially said, “We have our plan and we are going to follow it.” That plan, I suspect, assumes the main North Korean thrust will be made by the heavy armor positioned north of Seoul. But that could well be the cheng element with light infantry in the east playing the chi role. Oriental warfare tends to avoid jousting contests.

American forces want to fight the plan rather than the enemy because their Second Generation planning is so slow, convoluted, and cumbersome. The Marine Corps’ sacred “staff planning process” takes at least 72 hours for a one-division plan. In contrast, the Wehrmacht expected a division to respond to unexpected enemy action in four hours, with action, not just a plan; a corps was given six hours. As John Boyd might have said, “We’re not even in the game.”

A third North Korean option would be to respond to a U.S. pre-emptive strike not with an attack on South Korea but with strikes on Japan. Not only might that lead Japan to deny us the use of bases there, without which a war in Korea would be logistically impossible, it could rally South Korean public opinion for North Korea. All Koreans hate the Japanese, and the South Korean navy is designed less for a war with the North than for a war with Japan. If North Korea called on the South to join it against Japan, the South Korean government might find itself in a very difficult position. What would we do at that point?

All of these actions would require a boldness and imagination on the part of North Korea that dictatorships are not very good at producing. On the other hand, if North Korea does what we expect it to in a war, its chances of winning are poor. Might there be some North Korean von Manstein going to Mr. Kim with a Korean counterpart to Sichelschnitt, the German plan for the advance through the Ardenne in 1940? If so, like our French mentors, we could get caught with our pants down and the privy on fire.

9 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Korea”

  1. So, your analysis is that a likely response by Japan to being hit by a preemptive strike by NK is to kick US forces out of their country? I know you pride yourself on being an iconoclast, but…no.

    Luttwak and Canby’s paper “The Defense of Korea” was published in ’83, Google indicates, which means its almost 35 years old. That’s antiquity as contemporary military planning and development goes. What’s needed is a more recent analysis, which would include an examination of current ROK deployments in that area. One problem is how to hide such a large KPA infantry movement from satellites and other modern surveillance; not just the infantry itself, but the logistical “tail” needed to accumulate such a force in Wonsan then transport it to the border would be very hard to disguise for long.

  2. A successful offensive by NK would be it’s destruction. Like Soviet soldiers serving in East Germany watching western TV and seeing what the West really had, NorK soldiers advancing into the plenty of South Korea would show them the lies they’ve been living for generations. Seeing that they’ve been starved and kept in squalor all their lives would result in mass “fragging” of officers at every level. End of NorK.

  3. A successful NK offensive would be the destruction of SK. Upon seeing, for the first time, Korean men possessing an incredibly high degree of manly vigour the SK women would throw themselves at the NK soldiers and demand to be mated with immediately out of disgust and contempt for their pussilanimous SK men who can build cheap electrics but can’t defend their homes and women.

  4. Without American boots on the ground Kim’s boys would have reunited the peninsula by now. There’s something about scarcity and hardship that breeds tough men, conquers, and there’s something about plenty and comfort that breeds weak men, the conquered.

  5. And thank you for sharing your “opinion”. Your wife is calling. She needs another foot massage. Also, she wants to let you know that she’s going out for drinks tonight with her boyfriend. You can’t come because you need to stay home and take care of her son.

  6. There are a few flaws with this analysis.

    One, the artillery bombardment would not put us in a hard position. The people of Seoul would not like being attacked, and pulling their punch would give them time to evacuate and retaliate. Plus, we’ve got a lot more guns to shoot back with, so targeting Seoul, rather than destroying the majority of our artillery and naval guns, would invite an asskicking.

    Two, pocketing our forces in Seoul wouldn’t cut us off from the ports. Like the Pusan perimeter, we would still be able to receive supplies, and be quite able to counterattack along the entire coastline, or even thrust north into North Korea itself. They could end up with large numbers of their infantry trapped in the south. Without their tanks, they’d be easy prey for our superior firepower, and quickly run out of supplies. Even if they avoid jousting contests, they can’t beat us without them. Those tanks up north of Seoul will need to join the action.

    Three, just because the French surrendered when their maps told them they were surrounded doesn’t mean everybody else does. The French sat behind their forts and waited for the Germans to attack them head-on, in a grand display of defensive doctrine. America’s military has preferred offensive doctrines since WWI. We’ve only held back for political reasons, such as not invading North Vietnam as Westmoreland wished to do.

    Four, decisive victories are desirable, but general victories are very rare. How many decisive victories did Germany win against Russia? Lots. But in the end, it played out like Robert E. Lee’s campaigns. North Korea needs to win operations more than battles, particularly if they try to beat us before we can reinforce the peninsula. Even though their planning is simplified by the shorter distances and familiar environment, they still face an uphill battle.

    Third, Japan is the easiest, but not the only, base in the region. If they attack Japan, we’ll be quite capable of striking back (did the Wermacht ever have to wage a prolonged campaign across the Pacific ocean?). South Korea won’t be isolated for long (assuming it ever is actually isolated), and they aren’t going to turn on us like he describes. It’s unrealistically out-of-the-blue.

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