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
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.
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.”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.”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?
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.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.
ROK ministries have estimated that North-South unification could
cost between $810 billion and $1.14 trillion over a decade.
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. 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.
Regrettably, Kim is ideologically closer to
China’s revolutionary founder Mao Tse-Tung than its modernizing reformer Deng
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
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.”
In 1994, President Bill Clinton ordered the Pentagon to develop plans for preemptive
strikes against North Korean nuclear sites.
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.” 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
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.”
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
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.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.” 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.”
Indeed, the situation is very different than
it was in 1950:
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
North is bristling with 4,100 tanks, 730 combat aircraft and hundreds of missiles,
some capable of striking Japan and Guam. 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. That
explains why experts talk of “World War I levels” of casualties.
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.”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.The last time America invested less than 3 percent on defense was, ominously,
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.”Although Washington withdrew its nuclear deterrent in 1991, South Korea’s
defense minister raised the prospect of redeploying U.S. nukes in 2010.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.
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.
considers South Korea one of its eight “partners across the globe.”
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.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.
 CNN “North Korean soldier shoots comrades, defects to
South,” October 6, 2012.
http://www.economist.com/node/21551512 ; http://www.gallup.com/poll/155252/suffering-germany-twice-high-east-west.aspx
 Decision Points, 2010, p.424
 David Bishop, Dismantling North Korea's Nuclear Wapons
Porgrams, Strategic Studies Institute, April 2005,
 Richard Cronin, et. al., “North Korea’s nuclear
weapons program: US policy options,” CRS Report for Congress, June 1, 1994.
 William Perry and Ashton Carter, “Back to the Brink,”
Washington Post, October 20, 2002.
 Patrick Brogan, World Conflicts, p.217; http://www.history.com/topics/korean-war.
 John Bennet “Source” White House wanted DIA finding on
N Korean nukes under wraps,” Defense News, April 12, 2013.
 Choe Sang Hun, “North Korea issues threat at ceremony
for military,” New York Times, April 25, 2013.
 Department of Defense, Military and Security
Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, May 2,
 Department of Defense, Military and Security
Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012, May 2,
 BENNETT RAMBERG, "Send the Nukes Back to South
Korea," Foreign Policy, MAY 6, 2013