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.