The Washington defense and foreign policy Establishment is once again beating the war drums on North Korea. In doing so, it is showing a strategic blindness that seems to be its foremost characteristic.
Most analyses of a potential new Korean War focus on the tactical/technical level. At that level the dangers are many and apparent. North Korea could dump massive firepower on Seoul with little or no warning, killing thousands of civilians. It could plaster the area where American military dependents are concentrated with longer-range fire. It could strike before South Korea could mobilize. It could make its operational Schwerpunkt a light infantry advance down Korea’s eastern side with a turning movement south of Seoul, which could catch us mal-deployed in anticipation of an armor thrust down the west coast. In sum, at the tactical/technical and operational levels there are many ways a Korean War could go badly for us.
But what about the strategic level? Here the picture, which Washington cannot see, is no better, even if we assume (probably rightly) that North Korea would not be able to destroy an American city with a nuclear strike or fry all the electronics in our homeland with a high-altitude EMP blast.
To see the strategic danger, let’s assume that on the tactical and operational levels the war goes well. With either a pre-emptive strike (Bismarck described preventive war as committing suicide for fear of being killed) or an immediate and overwhelming response to North Korean action we collapse the North Korean regime, destroy its missiles, quickly end the bombardment of Seoul and win. The South suffers little damage. We have few casualties. North and South Korea reunite. Birds soar, choirs of children sing, and we all dance around the Maypole. What then?
At that point, I fear the danger of “catastrophic success” on the strategic level is high. A reunited Korea would be an immense threat to Japan. That would be true even if it was de-nuclearized. As long ago as the 1970s, when I was in Korea with a U.S. Senate delegation, South Korean officials told me openly that the South Korean navy and air force are designed for a war with Japan, not North Korea. The enmity between the two peoples goes back centuries. Koreans want revenge for Japan’s occupation early in the 20th century. They know Japan is militarily weak. The temptation to attack, or at least dictate to, Japan would be overwhelming.
In response, Japan would have to re-arm. If a united Korea retained North Korea’s nukes, Japan would have to go nuclear. If not, she would still have to build up her “self-defense” forces to the point where they became the Imperial Navy and Imperial Army in fact if not in name.
That in turn would be seen as a major threat by China. Here too policy is determined at least in part by memory. China’s nuclear weapons make a Japanese attack on China impossible, even if Japan wanted a war, which it does not. But Chinese memories of Japanese invasion are recent and vivid. They are stoked by rising Chinese nationalism. A Chinese government that did not respond forcefully to Japanese re-armament would lose legitimacy.
Where does all this leave the United States? We are allied to Japan. So at the strategic level we would have traded a threat from North Korea brought about by our alliance with South Korea for a threat from China brought about by our alliance with Japan. China is a far more powerful and potentially dangerous adversary than North Korea. More, to confront effectively the rising Fourth Generation war threat around the world, we need an alliance with China (and Russia). So there would be a high strategic opportunity cost.
This is what catastrophic success looks like. Even if we win, perhaps especially if we win, we lose. There can be no greater strategic failure than losing by winning. It tells us the whole strategy was wrong from the outset. Which it is.
Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.