At Large

North Korean Choices

What if the Norks prefer to launch a conventional, non-nuclear war?

By 4.12.13

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While the Pentagon, State Department, and White House give backgrounder briefings on how it is expected that China shortly will rein in the DPRK’s belligerency, it is worthwhile to review at least one of the many non-nuclear scenarios that have been on the Defense Department’s books in recent years:

The Imjin River makes a sharp 90 degree turn as it flows southeast across the 38th parallel. This shift in direction to the southwest carries on through the Republic of Korea (ROK) until it exits land into the Yellow Sea. If defended well, the Imjin can be an excellent aid in holding back northern invaders from quickly taking the highly exposed ROK capital, Seoul. This natural barrier, however, won’t inhibit the barrage of thousands of artillery rounds expected to be unleashed by the North’s Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA). And this is limiting the attack to strictly conventional terms.

The ROK forces are better trained, equipped, and armed than the Northern aggressors, but at about only 500,000 in number they are less than half of the KPA. Most analysis agrees that the North Koreans maintain over 600,000 combat troops within maneuverable range of their side of the DMZ, with another 400,000 in ready reserve. Another one million soldiers are supposedly available, though clearly not combat ready.

The 28,000-plus U.S. troops, including their support elements, are said to be in “back-up” positions situated to provide stop-gap resistance at key defensive points as they develop.

In this conventional warfare scenario the North Korean forces would feint in force toward Seoul, ensuring the mass exodus of millions of civilians from the city and its environs, thus clogging all access points. Once the KPA command is satisfied that it has drawn the attention of the ROK army as well as it can to the 40-mile-deep western Seoul sector, it has the opportunity to augment this with a MacArthur-like amphibious landing at Inchon. Such a combined drive would be designed to tie up the ROK Tiger Division, which is considered the most lethal of all the ROK formations. In any case, this heavy commitment to an apparent flanking movement from the west would seek to draw the ROK defending forces’ attention to what appears to be a KPA drive eastward from Inchon to cut off defense of the Seoul quadrant.

At this point the relatively quiet mountainous region of the east coast of South Korea would be hit by a massive infiltration of KPA special operations forces as well as standard assault units and limited armor utilizing the difficult and comparatively poorer defended terrain of the eastern seaboard. The objective would be to push south to Pohang at which point, depending on KPA forces available, the eastern attacking force would split up, with some carrying on south to the key harbor of Pusan and the other driving west toward Taegu. Obviously the key to KPA success by this flanking maneuver would be its ability to split the southern portion of the peninsula. This maneuver would be not unlike what the KPA nearly succeeded in doing coming from the other direction in the summer and fall of 1950, when American, ROK, and UN allied forces held the Pusan perimeter.

To counter this strictly conventional attack would require the injection of major reinforcements in the form of men and materiel. The ROK army is perceived as capable of absorbing the initial KPA thrust, including the expected massed artillery bombardments from behind the DMZ. The effectiveness of both sides to maneuver has a great deal to do with initiative and timing, though the KPA staff with Chinese planning advice has seemed very confident in that regard.

At the outbreak of hostilities the U.S. would have to be expected to launch devastating attacks on all known DPRK nuclear capabilities and the means to develop and transport missiles. This is the basic flaw in any conventional war scenario that the DPRK leadership might consider.

Any full scale attack by the North on the South, even if strictly conventional, requires that the North recognize that the U.S. response will target existing NK nuclear capabilities -- if for no other reason than to deny Pyongyang any chance to “go nuclear” at a future moment. On the basis of “use it or lose it,” the North would have to rule out any military offensive that does not involve some effort to use its existing nuclear weapon capability, as rudimentary as it may be. In other words, a strictly conventional attack is strategically unfeasible. North Korea must plan a first strike nuclear offense.

So far there have been no reports to suggest that the DPRK truly recognizes that the threats it’s been making could instead bring about the destruction of its entire advanced weaponry and nuclear power development. What is essential to keep in mind, however, is that this possibility could move the Pyongyang leadership to utilize its existing nuclear weapon capability, in whatever form it exists, before it is destroyed.

It has been suggested that the North Koreans would not initiate a war that would virtually guarantee a response that destroys their nuclear development capabilities. An alternative view is that the new Kim dynasty is apparently willing to accept self-destruction as a way to obtain even more generous peace terms. It’s a form of calculus not appropriate to the Western mind, but our years in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos should have taught us this is at least possible. This was Ho Chi Minh’s theory -- and it worked.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.