Jun 16 2009

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The Korean War Plan – 5027

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This is probably not what the Obama administration wanted.

There where European relations to repair. A new partnership with Russia to frame. There were Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with, and the sudden deterioration in Pakistan.  There were also the stalled Middle East peace talks and long-planned outreach and dialogue to Muslims.

But North Korea and Kim Jong-Il have forced their way to the top of the agenda.

Where We Are

In the last two months, North Korea has tested an intercontinental range missile and detonated a nuclear weapon with an explosive yield equal to the Hiroshima bomb, all the while continuing its toxic and increasingly heated rhetoric. The Obama administration has reacted to these activities multilaterally through the UN, and with public pronouncements that are notable for their restraint.

UN Resolution 1874, passed unanimously on June 12th, condemned the North Korean nuclear test and applied incrementally expanded sanctions on the regime. More notable than the sanctions is the fact that both Russia and China supported the measure.1

But the UN Resolution is but a step in a potent political and military minefield. The challenges for President Obama, as he meets with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak today, are manifold.

First, is a recognition that UN actions are at most symbolic and unlikely to bring about a resolution to the continuing crisis. In addition, the President must navigate the seemingly unbridgable strategic interests of the South Koreans Japanese, Chinese and Russians, each with unique historical and strategic interests.
And the President must consider that as a matter of policy, after the United States has run the diplomatic spectrum from engagement to isolation and back over the last 15 years, with no discernible result, he must still craft an effective policy that advances US nuclear and non-proliferation goals on the Korean peninsula, and strategic interests in Northeast Asia.

Complicating matters are the volatile and erratic actions of the North Korean government itself, which seems insistent on creating a fresh provocation for every international response to its actions, creating an unstable and unvirtuous cycle.


Rationality is the key, underlying presumption of diplomacy; that accurately determined self-interest will win the day. Such was seemingly the case over the past three years as the North Koreans agreed, through the framework of the Six-Party talks, to trade its nuclear weapons production capability for economic aid and diplomatic recognition.

Now, the Six Party talks have collapsed amid recrimination as the North Koreans have expelled inspectors, begun reprocessing activities, tested missiles and weapons and continue bellicose rhetoric. Behind the scenes, a North Korean succession struggle seems to be the root cause for external actions that have uncertain and potentially ominous consequences.

Writing for the Washington Post on Sunday, Victor Cha, former Deputy US Chief to the Six Party talks during the Bush administration, stated that the North Koreans recognize the contradiction of their regime; that to survive, it most open up to the outside world, but doing so would probably be the regime’s undoing.

Superficially at least, the North Korean strategy has been consistent with what the Six Party talks have put on the table; to trade an end to, and transparency of North Korea’s nuclear program for diplomatic recognition and economic assistance.

Little understood is the nature of how North Korea sees this.

The “Surreal” Deal

On the security front, the North Koreans consider “paper” assurances that the US and its allies will not attack North Korea to be woefully insufficient for the regime. According to Cha, North Korea seeks base line nuclear legitimacy as a recognized nuclear weapons state, and once that is conceded, would allow IAEA inspections of its civil nuclear program only, an arrangement similar to that of India.

Economic assistance and recognition would not be a carrot to ending their weapons program, but an additional element of a general settlement that would create a peace treaty to end the Korean War and officially sanctify the division of Korea.

According to Cha, North Korea would not only seek economic assistance, but a US assurance that it will support the regime in North Korea, either by Kim or his chosen successor, during the phase of transition from isolation to integration in the world economy, when the regime will be most at risk.

That these North Korean requirements are light years away from anything that might constitute viable US policy is obvious; to the Americans if not the North Koreans, demonstrating the chasm that separates the two powers.

Cha states that the recent and increased North Korean provocations are a symptom of how short Kim Jong-Il has fallen from these objectives during his tenure, and how important they are as part of the ongoing succession battle to secure the regime after he is gone.

It is within this framework that we consider recent, inflammatory North Korean rhetoric. That the North Koreans have a history of provocative public pronouncements does not make recent statements less important given the current delicacy of the succession question and the strategic uncertainty of regime survival.

In addition to testing a nuclear weapon and a series of long-range and shorter range missiles, the North Koreans have abrogated the 1953 truce that ended the Korean War. Moreover, North Korea has threatened war with any state that stops its ships on the high seas as a result of the UN Resolution (the resolution contemplates no use of force; a point confirmed resolutely by the Chinese), and has threatened general nuclear war.

As if this wasn’t enough, in a statement on Saturday, North Korea stated that it is enriching uranium, adding to its known plutonium program.  North Korea is believed to have enough material to make 12 nuclear weapons.2

Sobering Consequences

All of this is worrisome because the one area where the North Koreans are in a position of strength is military power.  From a North Korean perspective, if regime collapse is the ultimate consequence of failed diplomacy to legitimize its power, can they simply walk away without playing their strongest card? The sheer numbers are very sobering.

The North Koreans have one million men under arms, organized into 170 divisions.  700,000 troops, 8,000 artillery pieces and 2,000 tanks are garrisoned in hardened, underground facilities within 100 miles of the DMZ, allowing for the possibility of a short-notice, surprise attack.3

Seoul, capital of South Korea, is less than 30 miles away from the DMZ. 40% of South Korea’s population resides within 40 miles of Seoul.  From coast to coast Korea is 77 miles wide. It is 62 miles from the DMZ to the southern city of Pusan, a little wider than the distance between Washington, DC and Baltimore. This would be the immediate battlefield.  Anyone who has tried to commute between those two American cities at rush hour can only imagine what it would be like in the middle of a war.

Without having to move its artillery, the North Koreans could sustain a barrage of the South at a rate of 500,000 rounds per hour, or nearly 10,000 per minute; a sustained rate of fire not seen since the Soviet advance on Berlin in 1945.4  More ominously, the North Koreans have at least 500 artillery pieces with enough range to reach Seoul with tens of thousands of rounds.5

None of this takes into account North Korea’s significant WMD stockpile. The South Korean Ministry of Defense estimated that 50 North Korean missiles carrying nerve gas would kill 38% of Seoul’s 12 million residents.6

In this cosmic roll of the dice, the North Korean goal would be to use surprise and overwhelming force to destroy as much of the US-South Korean infrastructure and personnel as possible to allow rapid mobile operations to encircle and capture Seoul and close off routes before the US could reinforce.7

To defend against the North Korean invasion, the US and South Korea have agreed to Operations Plan or OP – 5027, updated periodically, which calls for the US to exponentially augment its military forces in Korea in the event of war.

Currently, the United States bases the 2nd Infantry division in South Korea which, along with air units, guarantees US participation at the beginning of any war with North Korea. American forces are forward deployed with their South Korean allies near the DMZ.

The battle plan has the United States committing 690,000 additional troops and 160 ships and 1,600 aircraft in 90 days. This would currently represent half of all active duty US forces, including those already engaged in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not take into account 850,000 US reservists that would no doubt be called up and deployed.8

Optimistically, the Plan notes that the North Koreans have the ability to start a war but not to win it.  Through the use of superior technology, equipment and training, the eventually reinforced US-South Korean forces will prevail. Interesting for the Obama administration, the current draft calls forpre-emptive strikes at North Korea if it felt with certainty that an attack will take place. Also, the most recent version of the plan calls for a counter-invasion of North Korea and the overthrow of its government.9

But at what cost?

American troops forward deployed in South Korea, along with 522,000 South Korean forces, are based close to the DMZ and will be the prime targets for the North Koreans using the most destructive artillery attacks Americans have faced since at least the first Korean War, and perhaps the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.

Consider that in six years of war in Iraq, the US has lost 4,300 troops. Should the North Koreans attack, the 2nd Infantry could lose that many troops in the first hour, making losses in a new Korean war worse than casualties on Omaha Beach.

The same will be true for the South Korean military and civilians, only exponentially worse. Estimates of civilian dead start in the hundreds of thousands with many times that injured, and that is considering that only conventional weapons are used. Property destruction in the south would be nothing short of cataclysmic.

None of this anticipates the use of nuclear weapons in Korea, or North Korean attacks on US staging areas in Japan and Okinawa with conventional or unconventional weapons.  Nor does it consider the implications of a North Korean “Hail Mary”; to launch a missile against Alaska, Hawaii or even the West coast.

A war scenario places global powers in Northeast Asia in entirely new and unknown territory.


The war fighting scenario is laid out in detail, given possible North Korean thinking. If the North Korean leadership sees it’s choice as one between wither and collapse, or exercise an option that has even a limited option for success, it makes North Korea the most dangerous state in the world today.

North Korea: The North Koreans are playing from weakness and desperation. And there is no corollary in North Korea to the popular uprisings that toppled communist regimes in the early 90s.  What happens to North Korea is in the hands of a very small group of people who show no signs of yielding power willingly. As counter-productive as they have been, these missile launches and atomic tests are intended tools of intimidation. Their policy failure to achieve North Korean goals leaves fewer options, and makes a military option look more realistic.

China: China is critical to North Korea, both as an economic lifeline and political military ally. Russia serves a companion, if junior role.  Where and how that support translates into control and influence is a matter of debate and at the heart of any genuine compromise. From a strategic perspective, North Korea (imperfectly) fits China’s and Russia’s desire for a buffer state between themselves and the US ally, South Korea.

But the current flamboyant North Korean posture to date cannot be reassuring to Beijing or Moscow. North Korean provocation, particularly its missile and nuclear capabilities, has the potential to change the strategic calculus for Japanese and the South Koreans, destabilizing the region.

Consider that the South Koreans gave up their clandestine nuclear program in the early 1970s but probably have or can obtain the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Japan’s Constitution prescribes the size of its military, but the Japanese could build literally thousands of nuclear weapons with fissile material and know-how it already possesses, along with very advanced missile systems. The last thing the Chinese and Russians want is a Japan armed with nuclear weapons.

So far the US nuclear umbrella has substituted for these actions, but continued North Korean provocation could force a reassessment. The Japanese in particular are not simply going to sit back while the North Koreans continue to lob missiles over Japanese territory with impunity.

US: the US faces a myriad of challenges.  North Korea is a genuine rogue state, with independent missile and nuclear capabilities, and is a known proliferator of missile and other military equipment. The Syrian nuclear facility that the Israelis destroyed last year was created with the help of the North Koreans.

The challenge for American policy makers is that no diplomatic solution that is tough enough to potentially alter North Korean behavior will pass China and Russia in the Security Council, and the North Koreans have been erratic negotiating partners, again, protected in their gyrations by the Chinese and Russians.

In considering any independent action, the US must now also consider the enormous Chinese holdings of American debt, and how actions adverse to North Korea – and by extension China – will affect Chinese economic decisions regarding the US.  In cascade fashion, the extent to which this is on the table could significantly influence South Korean or Japanese confidence in American nuclear guarantees.

The Way Out

Americans have usually associated balance of power with the politics of Old Europe, and have been much more comfortable talking about common ideals than common political interests. The Cold War wasn’t so much about balancing the Soviet Union as it was about waiting the Soviet’s out.

It worked, with American ideals and values winning the day.

But North Korea presents the China, America, Japan, South Korea and Russia (P5) with what is a classic balance of power issue, reminiscent of Germany after unification in the 19th century and before WWII in the 20th; that for North Korea to feel secure, those countries around them are inherently insecure. The instability that this creates makes the possibility for inadvertent military action a clear and present danger.

Balance has to be restored short of war, but how?  One possible solution  is as unorthodox as it is distasteful, but it beats the alternatives.

A regulated and multilaterally agreed upon coup d’état.

The Grand (Secret) Bargain

  • P5 mutually agree that the North Korean government as currently structured must be replaced. This would be accomplished through powers with the closest operating relationships to the North Koreans.
  • To agree to such action the US, Japan and South Korea would agree to a new regime shaped primarily by China and Russia, potentially made up of elements of the current North Korean government.  Issues of political legitimacy and accountability will not be considered at this time. It will remain a dictatorship.
  • In return for a friendly client state, the Chinese and Russians agree that the new regime, once in place, will abolish its nuclear weapons program and terminate any WMD research production or stockpile, allowing for intrusive and comprehensive inspection by the UN.
  • The government of North Korea will cease unauthorized transfer of missile and nuclear technologies.  The North would also begin to reduce its conventional military forces, and begin a dialogue with the South on balanced force reductions and confidence building measures on both sides in the coming years.
  • South Korea and Japan would forgo development and deployment of nuclear weapons.
  • The US would recognize North Korea and extend a written assurance that it will not attack North Korea.  Given the reduced risk, the US will alter but not eliminate its defense posture in South Korea
  • South Korea, China, Japan and the US will provide significant economic and humanitarian aid to North Korea for its economic development and to assist its population in the transition to the global community.


The repercussions to such an arrangement are obviously daunting, and this is before they would ever be public.

The Obama administration came to office, in part, on criticism of “regime change,” making this option uniquely unpalatable. That it would sanction support for change that was not a representative government would be an unhelpful precedent.

The South Koreans, for their part, would chomp on the bit that reunification will not be on the table, though hopefully a more open regime will relax social and economic issues that will strengthen non-official ties.

And China would inherit the dilemma currently facing North Korean leaders; would integration into the world economy threaten political control of the country counter to China’s interests? There is no guarantee for the Chinese that its instigation and support of regime change would not cascade beyond its ability to control to a situation.

At the end of the day, however, the US would have achieved its security and proliferation goals in Northeast Asia, allowing global economic and information technology to address issues of political legitimacy as the new regime opens up.

Despite the risks, it is an option that defuses a situation that is clearly on the clock.


The inherent problem is that the only tools available to influence North Korean actions are economic sanctions and increased isolation.  But it is economic desperation that drives the North Koreans into provocative actions they believe will create an agreement on their terms. It perpetuates an unvirtuous cycle.  That North Korean terms, if the Cha Op-Ed is credible, are non-starters, demonstrate both sides talking past each other for at least a decade, with a cycle of action and reaction that diminishes options to the most dangerous.

Is a North Korean assault on the South, unthinkable?

Remember that it was a total US trade embargo on Japan in 1940 that forced the Japanese government’s hand and ultimately led to Pearl Harbor.  US supplies of oil and scrap metal were essential to the Japanese economy. But US policy opposed Japanese militarism in Asia, and the embargo was put in place to influence Japanese policy.

Faced with the decision of suspending its own version of “manifest destiny” at the direction of the non-Asian Americans no less, or seizing what they needed by further conquest that would no doubt lead to war with the US, the Japanese chose war.  Moreover, they did so knowing full well that the US economy was 10 times bigger than their own, and that over time, could out produce the Japanese in every military category.

It was the Japanese plan then to use overwhelming military force, daring and surprise to destroy American and allied forces and seize as much territory as possible and sue for a negotiated peace on Japan’s terms.

Sound familiar?

1. www.un.org

2. AP, “NK Wars of Nuclear War Amid Rising Tensions”, 6-13-09

3. www.globalsecurity.org

4. www.globalsecurity.org

5. ibid

6. ibid

7. ibid

8. ibid

9. ibid

1 comment

  1. Shorty

    Okay I’m convinced. Let’s put it to atcoin.

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