While the majority of Americans were wrapping their collective melons around the spectacle between our chief executive and a number of professional athletes this weekend, something much more important flew right under the radar.
As reported by the BBC, the foreign minister for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) issued the sharpest escalation yet in the ongoing battle of rhetoric with the US:
“The whole world should clearly remember it was the US who first declared war on our country,” Mr Ri told reporters as he was leaving New York, where he had addressed the UN General Assembly on Saturday.
“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make counter-measures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country.”
This follows weeks of tweets and declarations from both sides, with various actors in the Trump Administration extending various levels of moderation, from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s “Americans can sleep well at night”, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s insistence that diplomacy is never exhausted, to… well, you’ve heard the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m sure. For their part, the DPRK have revived the archaic word “dotard” and faithfully increased both their hyperbolic warnings and their missile tests.
Generally speaking, even in interpersonal terms, it does no good to enter a shouting match. Nobody looks like the adult in the room right now, and most national security policy wonks would concur with me on that. Few would argue we’re headed in any constructive direction with this approach, entertaining as it might be.
As a disclaimer: It’s been about a dozen years since I actively worked on the DPRK mission as an intelligence guy, mostly due to Middle East focus after 9/11. But for as long as I can remember, the DPRK has regularly, almost predictably, rattled its saber, like the toddler trying to be the center of attention at a cocktail party. The US would issue a stern, sober statement, ratchet us sanctions a scoche, and life went on.
Things have changed, and considering how readily our commander-in-chief can be dragged into a tweet war about TV ratings, or kneeling athletes, we finally have the opponent that each of the various Kims always wanted: someone who would take off his shoes and wade right into the muck.
I’m over seven years out of uniform and not very optimistic of my chances to be called up from the inactive reserve in case of hostilities, but it also never occurred to me until recently that it could even happen. And if it does happen, we should not fool ourselves that we can win quickly or easily. We made that mistake once, famously, over half a century ago.
This piece from the L.A. Times summarizes the main issues facing military action in North Korea: we’d be facing the fourth largest military in the world, with over 100,000 special operations troops (read: guerrilla warfare and infiltrators), a 1.5:1 advantage in tanks, and over 11,000 artillery tubes currently in position to fire. Where airstrikes and drone operations have become in vogue in other recent conflicts, our ground forces will need to hold ground, and eventually take ground, in order to prevail.
We also need to understand that the potential damage to the Korean peninsula as a whole will be unprecedented. 25 million people call the city of Seoul and its surrounding communities home, living in densely packed high-rises – nearly half the country’s population. All of them live in crosshairs. It is likely that the human loss would be catastrophic in the event of a DPRK attack, crippling the world’s 11th largest economy.
The DPRK itself would probably suffer greatly even if the war stayed conventional. Dirt poor by most standards already, its inhabitants would not have far to fall to reach pre-industrial conditions. Given current nationalistic tendencies, it is not likely that the US would take an active role in establishing order or rebuilding its former foe. Then what? Who or what would take the Kim regime’s place? And where would its loyalties lie?
Current US troop strengths in the Republic of Korea (South Korea) stand at about 37,500 – actually a slight increase since 2005. The bulk of the Second Infantry Division has been relocated to Camp Humphreys, near Pyongtaek – which bodes better for its immediate survival in the event of hostilities. Reinforcements and airpower would flow from Japan, Hawaii, Guam, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord initially, with other units coming online as required. I have no doubt that our troops would acquit themselves valiantly and professionally.
But the DPRK troops will be fresh, rested, and ready; plus, they have an adherence to ideology that would be almost inconceivable to most Americans. We may be debating anthem protesting here with unbecoming vitriol, but in North Korea, you’d just be instantly dead. Those who don’t agree with the Kim regime are desperate and trapped in the shadows, in survival mode. It makes for a very dangerous cauldron of pent-up rage when those troops do cross the border. If history is any guide, don’t expect the North Korea People’s Army to play by Marquis of Queensbury rules.
Finally, we have to be alert and ready for the possibility of Chinese intervention, especially if US troops venture too far north. While I don’t expect waves of ChiCom field armies to cascade across the Yalu, it is much more likely that Beijing might authorize air interdiction well into North Korean territory, blithely explaining it away as national defense.
So where do we go from here? Are we to the point of no return?
What most experts agree is that the DPRK is not going to relinquish its nuclear capabilities. In fact attaining nuclear power status is considered one of the Kim regime’s top priorities. They know they can’t win a conventional war (although they can make one last); they haven’t got sufficient international backing on which to lean. Nuclear weapons are their sole deterrent to prevent another American attempt at regime change and their best bet to gain international recognition. Ignoring this problem is not an option.
As John Delury of Yonsei University notes in the above linked article, “there is no rational case for war and sanctions have proved their inefficacy… if we want any progress, we are left with diplomacy.” Unfortunately, the Trump administration has shown little appetite for talking in stretches longer than 140 characters, and the mixed messages across the board only contribute to the instability of the situation – long assumed from the DPRK, much more unsettling from our own side.
It’s time to step up and be the adults in the conversation. Prior to this year, North Korea’s bluster had been met with cool reserve and measured action. By meeting them on their own playing field of chest-thumping rhetoric, not only is the US taking steps towards further regional destabilization, we are casting doubt on our ability to adjudicate international relations anywhere in the world with the firm leadership to which our allies and foes have long been accustomed. And if we do reach the point of military action, it’ll be hard to argue that the US did not take an active role in precipitating it. Meanwhile, an important piece of the global economy will be devastated and a power vacuum will await the next bad actor to step into it.
There are no winners in any of these scenarios – only a world full of losers.
Aaron Parrott served 20 years in the Army with tours in Korea, Afghanistan, Haiti, and the Philippines. He currently works as a workforce development administrator for North Central Washington state. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.