The American Legion Magazine | 9.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd

“We’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said of the Korean Peninsula last year. He wasn’t exaggerating.

In 2010, North Korea shelled South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and torpedoed the South Korean warship Cheonan. In 2012, North Korea conducted two long-range missile tests under the guise of satellite launches. And in 2013, Kim Jong-Un, the third member of the Kim Dynasty to rule north of the 38th Parallel, set the region on edge by detonating a nuclear bomb, proclaiming the 1953 armistice “dead,” threatening nuclear strikes against the U.S. and declaring a “state of war” with South Korea.

With or without war, one thing is certain: The Kim Dynasty will eventually come to an end. How will it happen, and what can the United States do to prepare for that eventuality? History offers some sobering parallels. 

Pyongyang Spring
If, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Minxin Pei observes, “No modern authoritarian dynastic regime has succeeded in passing power to the third generation,” then the Kim Dynasty isn’t long for this world.

CNN reports the number of North Korean refugees/defectors has climbed from less than 100 per year in the 1990s “to more than 2,000 per year since 2006.”[1]Video smuggled out of North Korea reveals people begging for food, children orphaned by mass-starvation and desperate soldiers. “Everybody is weak,” reports one soldier. “Within my troop of 100 comrades, half of them are malnourished.”[2]Indeed, North Koreans are reduced to eating “wild foods”—Pyongyang’s Orwellian euphemism for tree bark and grass.

Yet the very weakness of the North Korean people calls into question their capacity to tear down the Kim Dynasty. Moreover, if the regime is ever threatened, it’s difficult to imagine the North Korean People’s Army—the most propagandized part of the regime—remaining garrisoned like the Red Army in 1991. Put another way, if there is a Pyongyang Spring, it might end like Hungary 1956 or Syria 2013.

But even if the regime collapsed bloodlessly, this best-case scenario would generate worst-case worries. North Korean generals would want to protect their prerogatives. The U.S. and South Korea would want to secure Kim’s biological-chemical-nuclear arsenals and head off a humanitarian disaster. China would want to staunch refugee flows and discourage reunification under the South Korean flag. With only rudimentary mil-to-mil contacts, would the sides be able to de-conflict their forces?

Soft Landing
The ideal parallel—the “velvet revolutions” in Eastern Europe and peaceful unification of Germany—is among the least likely. After all, there is no North Korean Havel to channel the pent-up fury, no Korean pope to speak truth to power. And having fought a brutal hot war to usher in the Cold War, the Koreas bear scars that pre-unification Germany did not.

Still, Germany is instructive in that it gives us a sense of the staggering price of unification: Germany has transferred some $1.9 trillion to the east since unification in 1990.[3]Yet per-capita GDP in the east is only 70 percent of what it is in the west, while unemployment in the east is double what it is in the west.[4]

ROK ministries have estimated that North-South unification could cost between $810 billion and $1.14 trillion over a decade.[5]

China Syndrome
China was once like North Korea, a hermit kingdom ravaged by purges and paranoia. But today, China is open for business. Wal-Mart, for instance, operates 390 stores in China.[6] With a $7.5-trillion GDP, China is one of the main pistons of the global economy. And although it has a long way to go on political freedom and human rights, China’s quasi-capitalist economy has lifted a staggering 600 million people out of poverty since 1978.[7]

Regrettably, Kim is ideologically closer to China’s revolutionary founder Mao Tse-Tung than its modernizing reformer Deng Xiaoping.

A much fairer comparison for North Korea is South Korea. After all, here is one nationality divided into two countries, two forms of government, two economic systems. The difference is breathtaking, the distance between North and South seemingly insurmountable: North Korea’s per-capita GDP is $1,800, South Korea’s $32,400; North Korea’s exports are $2.5 billion, South Korea’s $556 billion; and North Korea’s infant-mortality levels are six times higher, and its life-expectancy levels 10 years less, than South Korea’s.

China in Charge
Call it preemptive pacification: Beijing installs a regent to manage the North by remote control and offers Pyongyang’s twenty-something tyrant a comfortable life in exile, like Uganda’s Idi Amin or Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali.

It might make sense, but Beijing appears unwilling to play such a hands-on role, content instead to allow Pyongyang to hamstring Washington. As President George W. Bush explained in his memoir, when he tried to enlist President Jiang Zemin’s help with Pyongyang, the Chinese leader “told me North Korea was my problem, not his.”[8]

Operation Korean Freedom
In 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the Pentagon to develop plans for preemptive strikes against North Korean nuclear sites.[9] Those plans never were executed, and understandably so. As the Congressional Research Service concluded, “The tactical success of a counter-proliferation mission could be lost in the consequences of another war.”[10] William Perry, Clinton’s defense secretary at the time, warned of “a spasmodic lashing out by North Korea’s antiquated but large and fanatical military across the DMZ.”[11] 

If preemption—whether aimed at counter-proliferation or regime change—was ever an option, it’s certainly off the table today, especially given the American public’s post-Iraq fatigue and North Korea’s capabilities. “Once an outlaw regime possesses nuclear weapons,” as historian Victor Davis Hanson observes, “it wins special consideration as the range of our own countermeasures diminishes.”[12]

Korean War II
That brings us to the nightmare scenario. How Korean War II would start—another surprise invasion; a  Cheonan-type incident; an errant missile test; an AWOL drone—is not as important as what it would unleash.

The toll from Korean War I should give us pause: 38,000 Americans, 103,000 South Koreans, 316,000 North Koreans, 422,000 Chinese and some 2 million civilians killed during three years of conventional warfare.[13]Sixty years later, we have the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over the sequel. The Defense Intelligence Agency concludes “with moderate confidence” that Pyongyang “currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles.”[14] But even if Pyongyang is unable to tip its missiles with nukes, it could still deliver nuclear weapons via unconventional means. North Korea’s air force commander says his men are prepared to imitate kamikaze tactics and “load nuclear bombs instead of fuel for return and storm enemy strongholds to blow them up.”[15]

Indeed, the situation is very different than it was in 1950:  

·         Kim’s arsenal includes 13,600 field-artillery pieces/rocket-launch systems. The U.S.-ROK command expects every third North Korean artillery round to be a chemical weapon.[16] The North is bristling with 4,100 tanks, 730 combat aircraft and hundreds of missiles, some capable of striking Japan and Guam.[17] By lofting a satellite into orbit, Pyongyang has demonstrated a threshold ICBM capability.

·         South Korea is no longer a nascent nation-in-the-making and no longer reliant on the United States for protection. To be sure, Seoul counts on its partnership with Washington, but consider the division of labor today: 600,000 ROK troops augmented by 28,500 U.S. troops. And consider the ROK’s newfound assertiveness: Seoul recently delegated retaliatory counterstrike authority to ground commanders, giving them a green light to “respond strongly…without political consideration,” in the words of President Park Geun-hye.

·         China is no longer a poor peasant country, but rather a rich nation with a modern, power-projecting military. Likewise, today’s Japan is more willing and more able to employ force than at any time since 1945.

·         Korean War II would directly impact four of the largest economies on earth—South Korea, Japan, China, the United States—representing almost 50 percent of global GDP. South Korea would bear the brunt of the blow. With its 10.5 million residents, Seoul sits just 25 miles from the DMZ—a sobering thought given that 70 percent of the North’s ground forces are deployed within 60 miles of the border zone.[18] That explains why experts talk of “World War I levels” of casualties.[19]

Watch the Clock
To be sure, Korean War II would mark the end of the Kim Dynasty, but it would give new meaning to the term “pyrrhic victory.” To avoid such a catastrophic victory, the Obama administration should follow the game plan of its predecessors.

To its credit, the administration answered Kim’s springtime tantrums by rushing key assets to the region: an Aegis missile-defense warship to shield Japan and South Korea, a THAAD system to protect Guam, high-profile deployments of B-2s, B-52s and F-22s to send a message to Pyongyang.

Regrettably, Washington’s response, though robust, was set against a backdrop of dramatic U.S. military retrenchment. The Heritage Foundation reports that by FY2015 defense spending will likely see “a drop of nearly 12 percent from FY2010.”[20]This is a function of wars winding down in Southwest Asia and the sequestration guillotine coming down on the Pentagon. Today’s defense budget is 3.5 percent of GDP. If current trends hold, the United States will be investing just 2.8 percent of GDP on defense a decade from now.[21]The last time America invested less than 3 percent on defense was, ominously, 1940.

Policymakers should reverse this downward spiral, restore defense spending to the post-Cold War average of 4 percent of GDP and recognize that a well-equipped military is not a liability to cut but an asset to nurture. As President Washington argued in his farewell address, “Timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it.”

Indeed, at its best, a peace-through-strength posture deters the likes of North Korea. At the very least, it prepares the United States for any eventuality—state failure, radicalized regimes, death-wish dictators—and gives U.S. forces the tools to restore order or secure victory rapidly. 

There is another option. Former State Department official Bennett Ramberg argues that in an era of declining defense budgets and rising instability on the peninsula, “reinstallation of nuclear weapons into South Korea…would enhance deterrence” and “reassure the South Korean people.”[22]Although Washington withdrew its nuclear deterrent in 1991, South Korea’s defense minister raised the prospect of redeploying U.S. nukes in 2010.[23]If South Korea feels it is not protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Seoul could always go nuclear on its own. Nearly two-thirds of South Koreans support developing an ROK nuclear deterrent.

Nothing brings nations together like a common threat. China’s passive approach to North Korea—and aggressive approach to the rest of the neighborhood—has drawn a number of nations in the Asia-Pacific region closer to the U.S. and closer to each other.

·         Tokyo and Seoul have hammered out an unprecedented intelligence-sharing agreement. A Japanese government panel released recommendations in 2010 directing the military to prepare for contingencies in Korea.[24] 

·         Australia has assisted ROK forces in Afghanistan, partnered with the South Korean navy on counter-proliferation and deployed aircraft to support ROK-led exercises aimed at interdicting WMDs.[25]

·         NATO now considers South Korea one of its eight “partners across the globe.”[26]

·         In April, Ban Ki-moon became the first UN secretary general to visit the Pentagon. He held talks with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey focusing largely on North Korea.[27]Ban called the meeting, sending a message that the UN is not neutral when it comes to the Korean Peninsula. After all, the force that rescued South Korea in 1950 fought under the UN banner.

Speaking of messages, the U.S.-ROK command recently developed a “counter-provocation plan” defining proportional responses to North Korean attacks. Announcing that such a plan exists sent a signal to Kim’s generals: While the U.S.-ROK objective is to prevent tactical incidents from triggering a strategic crisis, hostile acts will no longer go unanswered or unpunished.

This policy of patient preparedness—bracing for the worst, running out the clock, getting through another day, another year, another term without another war—is how American presidents have measured success in Korea for 60 years. To be sure, it’s a low bar. But given what Korean War II would look like, it’s a worthy goal.

[1] CNN “North Korean soldier shoots comrades, defects to South,” October 6, 2012.



[4]http://www.economist.com/node/21551512 ; http://www.gallup.com/poll/155252/suffering-germany-twice-high-east-west.aspx




[8] Decision Points, 2010, p.424

[9] David Bishop, Dismantling North Korea's Nuclear Wapons Porgrams, Strategic Studies Institute, April 2005, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub599.pdf

[10] Richard Cronin, et. al., “North Korea’s nuclear weapons program: US policy options,” CRS Report for Congress, June 1, 1994.

[11] William Perry and Ashton Carter, “Back to the Brink,” Washington Post, October 20, 2002.


[13] Patrick Brogan, World Conflicts, p.217; http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war.

[14] John Bennet “Source” White House wanted DIA finding on N Korean nukes under wraps,” Defense News, April 12, 2013.

[15] Choe Sang Hun, “North Korea issues threat at ceremony for military,” New York Times, April 25, 2013.


[17] Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, May 2, 2013

[18] Department of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, May 2, 2013




[22] BENNETT RAMBERG, "Send the Nukes Back to South Korea," Foreign Policy, MAY 6, 2013