North Korea seems determined to push Obama and South Korea as far as they can go. The threat from North Korea has gone from warm to hot - with a potential to get much hotter indeed. North Korea is acting bellicose, talking of a declaration of war. This after North Korea detonated a nuclear device, fired several missiles and reopened its nuclear plant in Yongbyon, all in violation of its treaty obligations. War is not outside the realm of possibility. Is Obama up to the task and what are his options to stop the North Korean nuclear program?
We last fought a declared war in Korea between 1950 and 1953. During one two week period in 1950, as the U.S. fought in the Chosin Resevoir area, we suffered 3,000 killed and 6,000 injured while killing 25,000 of the enemy. If we do go to war again in Korea, major engagements against the 1 million man standing army of North Korea would likely be about as bloody for soldiers but with the addition of countless civilian casualties. Indeed, war in Korea would make Iraq look like little more than a training exercise.
Update: The "Danger Room" at Wired.com posits similar bloodshed in any action defending against or attacking North Korea.
The terrain in Korea is mountainous. Korea is a web of small to medium valleys surrounded by steep and heavily wooded mountains whose apex is invariably a thin ridge. Larger valleys support dense population centers. War in this terrain is the opposite of war in the wide open Middle East. The latter is happy hunting ground for tanks and helicopters - blitzkreig warfare, if you will. South Korea, outside of the Chorwon Valley, is light infantry country where the warfare is slower and far more costly. Seoul, the capital of South Korea with over ten million inhabitants, sits within artillery range of North Korea. The conventional thinking was that it would likely come under heavy bombardment and chemical attack within the opening minutes of war in order to cause chaos and choke the roads to prevent reinforcement from the south. The heavily fortified DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) cuts across the 38th parallel, but the North Koreans have been tunnelling under that for half a century with an eye towards moving entire divisions in behind South Korea's front line defenses when war starts. Add to all of this that any such war has a real chance of going nuclear. It is a war we and the South Koreans would win, but not without tremendous loss. And there is the wild card of China. If war starts in Korea, would they again be sucked in on the side of their client, North Korea, as they were in 1950?
War in Korea has come close to reigniting on several occasions over the past half century, and cross border exchanges of gun fire, if not routine, still today occur with some regularity. Further, there have been deadly naval skirmishes between the two Koreas as late as 2002. Kim Il Sung often spoke of resuming war against South Korea, but his last memory of U.S. and R.O.K. forces up close and personal was getting his tail handed to him up around the Yalu River. His son, Kim Jong Il, the current leader, is a true megalomaniac and without his father's memory of the near calamity of 1950. I long thought Kim Jong Il so unbalanced and mecurial that he would force a war as soon as he took the reins of power. He didn't then, but he might now. China we know has been a large factor in staying North Korea's deadly hand over the years, but Kim Jong Il could always decide to roll the dice, particularly now as he is near the end of his life. The likelihood of this is influenced by how weak Kim Jong Il perceives the Obama administration to be.
Clearly, Kim Jong Il does not seem to impressed at the moment. North Korea, in violation of its treaty obligations, conducted a test fire of an ICBM in April. The response of the Obama administration and the UN was toothless. Thus, it is no surprise that only days ago, North Korea felt secure enough to reopen its nuclear plant in Yongbyon, engage in a test of a nuclear weapon, and launch still more missile tests. South Korea "responded to the nuclear test by joining the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led network of nations seeking to stop ships from transporting the materials used in nuclear bombs." North Korea has in turn responded by characterizing South Korea's act as an "act of war," announcing its withdrawal from the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War, and promising a military response if any of its shipping is interdicted for the purpose of searching for nuclear contraband.
As Bloomberg notes, "North Korea routinely issues threats directed at the U.S., South Korea and Japan, warning of military retaliation if they continue to take actions that the country’s leadership characterizes as threats to its security." That said, this is a bit different. Never has, to my knowledge, North Korea repudiated the 1953 Armistice. Never has the U.S. and South Korea threatened to interdict North Korean shipping. And we are now at a point where it is obvious that endless talks and offers of assistance - going on since 1994 - will not sway North Korea from its nuclear ambitions. That said, it has not stopped Sec. of State Clinton from again making calls for North Korea to return to the obviously useless "six party talks."
North Korea holds the potential to do grave damage to us in two ways. One is to sell its nuclear and rocket technology, if not the weaponry itself, on the blackmarket to the highest bidders. We know that this has gone on already, such as in the recently destroyed Syrian nuclear facility. North Korea's second threat is actual war to conquer the South. One, if not both, are virtually assured if Obama does not take action. If his only response is through the UN and a call to resume six party talks, he will have utterly failed his first test and we will all, sooner or later, pay a price for it.
The idea of interdicting North Korean shipping is certainly one option, but I could see that one being not particularly effective and with a real chance of igniting war. China, which supplies North Korea with virtually all of its fuel as well as many other supplies, holds the key to getting North Korea to back down militarily and give up its nuclear ambitions. Under the current circumstance, China has had no motivation to really lean on North Korea other than to stop actual war. All of this leads to Charles Krauthammer's brilliant suggestion yesterday that, in response to the latest provocations, we convince Japan to join the nuclear club.:
That is a bold suggestion, but it is one that makes complete sense. And indeed, I can't see any other real options. This hot potato is now in the hands of Obama and Clinton. Does anyone feel confident that they will rise to the occasion?