The View From Olympus: Watch Korea

By now, the Korean drill is familiar to all. We take some symbolic action against North Korea. The North responds with its Tasmanian Devil act, threatening “lakes of fire”, firing missiles into the ocean and maybe, at the limit, shooting some artillery at South Korea. Casualties, if there are any, are few. South Korea in turn tugs at its leash, which we hold firmly. Yawn.

This time may be different. We did the usual, announcing some meaningless new sanctions on the North, though this time targeting its rulers by name, which slightly ups the ante. The North is playing its part, shouting hyperbolic threats, including war.

But here is where the current case departs from the script. No one is paying any attention to North Korea’s tantrum. We’ve seen it too often. The world’s reaction is, “let ’em starve in the dark.” From the North Korean perspective, the act no longer works.

Except in South Korea. This is the second change from the usual script. The South is fed up with the North’s antics. The South Korean president’s mother and father were killed years ago by North Korean assassins. She has not forgotten. In every recent incident, the South has suffered more casualties (when there were any) than the North. The general South Korean attitude seems to be, “We’re not going to take it any more.”

What can South Korea do? Invade North Korea.

The Pentagon’s Korean war scenarios all assume an attack by North Korea on South Korea. I suspect we have devoted little or no thought to the opposite case. We can always just jerk on South Korea’s leash and tell it to sit.

That may no longer be true. South Korea has a powerful military of its own. If the president says, “Go get ’em!,” it would.

Here’s a possible scenario: Its hysteria universally ignored, the North hits South Korea hard in an action that quickly ends. One possibility would be an artillery raid on Seoul that is over in 15 minutes. The physical damage would not be great, but the South Korean government and military would be utterly humiliated.

The South Korean people, enraged, demand serious action in return. They don’t want mere retaliation; they want a final solution to the North Korean problem. Remembering her parents, South Korea’s president orders her armed forces to invade, with the object of complete conquest and reunification. We tell the South Koreans, “Stop!” They reply with, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

I do not know how such a war would go. Koreans on both sides are hard fighters. We may underestimate the North because its equipment is old, but the outcome of few wars is determined by age of equipment.

In addition, the North has nuclear weapons, sort of. They may or may not work. Their missiles are unreliable. But if they follow the traditional Eastern way of war, they will not do the obvious and try to nuke South Korea. They will aim at Japan.

On the physical level, a successful nuclear strike would deny us the ability to intervene with large forces, because we need a secure rear area in Japan. Mentally, it would catch Washington with its pants down (the North will never believe we did not give the South an OK to invade). On the moral level, it would be a masterstroke, because not only do all Koreans, North and South, hate the Japanese more than they hate each other, the Chinese people would also be in the streets cheering. The Chinese government would have a difficult time not supporting the North, however much it does not want a war.

If Pyongyang were clever, it would couple its nuclear strike on Japan with an offer to South Korea of immediate reunification, the details to be worked out later, and a declaration of war on Japan by the newly united Korea. That offer might get the South Korean people into the streets, demanding their government agree. The South Korean navy and air force are already designed more for a war with Japan than with North Korea.

How might this end? Japan would have to go nuclear immediately. We could end up fighting Korea and maybe China as Japan’s ally. As in 1914, the sleepwalkers would have again wandered into a war no one wanted. And Korea? It ends up with South Korea’s economic and political system, but with a (constitutional) monarchy restored under–you guessed it–the Kim dynasty!

And how exactly did we get caught up in this mess? By keeping troops in South Korea long after the Cold War ended, an event that removed all reason for their presence.

10 thoughts on “The View From Olympus: Watch Korea”

  1. in 53 rok you had to stand at least 3 feet from a south Korean to ask him how he liked the Japanese because they tended to spit when thy got excited.
    enjoyed “on war” by Bill Lind yrs ago

  2. (1) South Korea can’t afford to initiate military action against the North. That would condemn them in the world opinion court.
    (2) South Korea could probably beat the North all on their own. The key is knocking out the leadership of the NK army. Having been stationed in SK in the early 80s, I’m more than impressed with their military. All of them look, act, and will fight like, or better than, U.S. Marines.
    (3) NK shelling Seoul wouldn’t make the SK government look stupid, weak, or silly; unless the SK government just dithered about talking. A major attack on Seoul is THE cause de celebre to invade and reconquer the North. The RoK must have a contingency battle campaign plan for just that.
    (4) NK nuking Japan would be really, Really, REALLY stupid. It would provide the best justification for the entire world, including South Korea and China, to unite to remove the entire NK government and military aristocracy, by force.
    (5) As much as South Koreans hate the Japanese, they will never unite under the Kims to carry on a war started by NK, nuclear or otherwise.

  3. Agreed that it is stupid for the United States to maintain forces in South Korea. I mean, I admire the South Korean people, but they are direct industrial competitors to us and of no use as allies in any real conflicts of real importance.

    But the South invade the North? With respect, that seems silly. I can’t see the North firing more than a token few shells at Seoul – a ‘limited’ real barrage would go over the threshold, provoke the South, and inevitably turn into a major barrage, which would level the city. Ditto if the South attacked without provocation. So it’s all or nothing, and even if the South won, it would be a pyrrhic victory with much of the country devastated. And then they would have to clean up the mess north of the border as well as south…

    And NK nuke Japan? Not a chance. The Japanese can almost certainly assemble their own nukes really fast and NK would be turned into glass (assuming that massive conventional attacks from everyone else in the area did not achieve the same effect).

    The only way that I can see SK taking out NK is by bribing enough senior NK military people to engage in a coup, and certainly the south could offer billions to the right people, but of course the NKs are paranoid about that…

  4. I don’t know man. The scenario described seems plausible to me. Not that I think it is likely, but if a spy thriller opened like that, I wouldn’t throw the book away for being silly. None of the steps seems outlandish (now), even if the destination is unpleasant.

    The world has turned a bit, and things that sounded insane yesterday are now seeming plausible. People everywhere seem to be pretty well fed up with the insanity of the last few decades, and are increasingly ready to try new ideas.

    As to Japan’s nuclear capability, I don’t see how that deters a nuclear attack. “If you nuke us today, we will flatten your entire country with our retaliation. In 6 months.” – who would believe that the world is going to allow Japan (or anyone) to follow through?

  5. The US forces in South Korea serve only as political sacrificial pawns. They wouldbe annihilated in the initial assault by overwhelming NK forces–they won’t even slow them down. Their deaths will become propaganda capital to incite US citizens to go to war against NK. But then it will only be a limited response, as we do not want to drag China into the conflict. So the NK will at the very least win significant territorial gains, if not all of SK. Neither the US or Japan will risk all out war. That’s how this commies win; Two steps forward, one back, repeat.

    Kim Jong is a immature boy who is going to go for broke to invade SK someday–Sooner if he needs a distraction from the inward financial collapse of his nation.The only thing holding him back is China.

  6. The big target would be an EMP over America (difficult), SK and/or Japan (much more achievable).

  7. Since South Korea, Japan, and the US all have anti-missile capabilities that might be relevant to how this scenario plays out, it is a real weak point not to address the likely scenario where North Korea launches and no missile makes it to Japan or even out of North Korea. While you lay out an interesting consequence of a successful nuclear strike, you have to admit that an unsuccessful one is more likely.

  8. Although it is somewhat dated now, I would recommend reading “When North Korea Falls” by Robert Kaplan: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/10/when-north-korea-falls/305228/.

    The race to secure North Korean weapons of mass destruction and rebuild the shattered nation after the collapse of the DPRK will suck huge amounts of time and resources from the ROK and most likely America as well, leaving a huge opening for China to leverage its economic and military power without a pro Western/democratic rival to counterbalance it. Think of it as a giant tar baby to keep China’s opponents stuck in place and you get the idea. Even if Greater Korea could become a potential threat or rival to China, this is a problem a generation or two down the line, and the Chinese can afford to take the time to consider how to deal with it.

    Perhaps the only reason this hasn’t happened yet is China is trying to carefully calibrate the use of the DPRK as a cat’s paw to distract, and fears the collateral damage caused by a vast flow of Korean refugees fleeing the collapsing DPRK will overwhelm their own resources and ability to control the situation.

  9. A well connected Chinese friend of mine told me of the importance of North Korea to the Chinese government. To wit, they are the buffer zone which keeps South Korea from bringing freedom and prosperity to the Chinese border. The problem that keeps party leadership up at night is not external enemies, it is the people of China. How to keep them in line is a nightmare, and a free Korea on the other side of a border would cause an insufferable instability. It should be remembered that Mao got the Korean war going, and stepped in when the North wanted to quit. North Korea is nothing but a pawn and a buffer. I am convinced that China would step in again to save their client state.

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