North Korea has the potential to become the greatest foreign policy crisis for the Trump administration. Fortunately, President Trump has a very capable Secretary of Defense, and an exceptional National Security Advisor that are uniquely qualified on this issue. North Korea is also one of the few issues where there is still some bipartisan consensus.
Having a prestigious former General Officer as Secretary of Defense only strengthens our hand. His 44 years of distinguished service (1969-2013) gives Secretary Mattis extensive expertise in both the largely outdated Soviet-era hardware of the North Korean military as well as the modern equipment in our military.
Lieutenant General McMaster, became a legend in the Army, when during the Gulf War, then-Captain McMaster led 9 M1A1 Abrams tanks and 23 Bradley fighting vehicles and destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers, and 39 trucks without any American losses. This was part of the Battle of 73 Easting.
Military historians have called this engagement the “last great tank battle of the 20th century.” In the Gulf War, the Iraqis had Soviet-made T-72, T-62 and T-55 tanks as well as the Chinese Type 59 tanks.
Except the T-72, the North Korean have the same tanks that Iraq had. The only difference is that these tanks are 25 years older and they have built a bad copy of a T-72 tank that they reversed engineered.
Both Secretary Mattis and General McMaster have led troops in battle. Although many Americans are war weary after more than 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, these two men have the credibility with the American people, and Congress, to tell them when they have exhausted every option before military force is deemed necessary.
In 2003, former President Bill Clinton was asked by Larry King about the North Korean nuclear crisis. His answer then is still one of the best summaries of the North Korean situation:
They know they can’t win a war in the end, but they could do a lot of damage. They can’t grow their own food. It’s the most isolated society in the world. When their soldiers defect sometimes they weigh less than 100 pounds. Their only cash crops are bombs and missiles. They’re great at it. They’re really good at bombs and missiles. But they know they can’t use them except to sell them because they need money.
In November 1998, President Clinton recruited his former Defense Secretary William Perry to lead a policy review of North Korea. They concluded that while the North Koreans could not win a conflict, the results would be a catastrophic:
However, in sharp contrast to the Desert Storm campaign in Kuwait and Iraq, war on the Korean Peninsula would take place in densely populated areas. Considering the million-man DPRK army arrayed near the DMZ, the intensity of combat in another war on the Peninsula would be unparalleled in U.S. experience since the Korean War of 1950-1953. It is likely that hundreds of thousands of persons — U.S., ROK, and DPRK — military and civilian — would perish, and millions of refugees would be created.
The South Korean Army has an active force of 495,000 troops and a call up reserve component three times that size. Although their active duty army is outnumbered by 2 to 1, South Korea’s military equipment is far more advanced. Also, the combined forces of the United States and South Korea would be well positioned to defeat the North Korean air force and achieve air supremacy. This would nullify North Korea’s advantage in personnel on the ground.
The most significant threat North Korea has over South Korea are their heavily fortified long-range artillery forces. North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul.
The Capital Metropolitan area has population of 25 million people — most well within range of the dug in gun emplacements along the DMZ. It is highly doubtful that the United States and South Korea could take out all of these artillery pieces before hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Along with North Korea’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs, these artillery pieces are the most challenging tactical element to a potential conflict in Korea.
However, the United States — and by extension — the world, cannot accept nuclear blackmail by this regime. In March 2013, Admiral James Winnefield, Jr., who was Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2011-2015), said that the North Korean KN-8 long-range missile “probably does have the range to reach the United States.”
The recent show of strength by the Trump administration has convinced the Chinese to issue a joint statement supporting “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” While this is encouraging, both China and South Korea fear a collapse of North Korea more than they fear a North Korean nuclear weapon.
China already has 300,000 North Korean refugees. The Chinese don’t want more refugees and they will not enforce any sanctions that could collapse the North Korean economy. The best we can hope for is an assurance that Beijing will cut off all fuel supplies to North Korea if they attack South Korea. Without Chinese fuel, the North Korean military would be paralyzed.
The Chinese are not going to choose North Korea’s $25-billion-dollar economy over South Korea’s economy of $1.4 trillion. In 2015, China’s bilateral trade with South Korea was $227 billion while its bilateral trade with North Korea was only $5.4 billion.
President Trump has correctly pointed out that the North Korean issue makes it difficult for his administration to condemn China’s trade and currency policies. It is in China’s interest for North Korea to remain enough of a nuisance to force Washington to cooperate, but not enough of a problem that it could lead to war.
If South Korea agreed to take any new refugees that come through North Korea’s Russian or Chinese borders, it would be much easier for Moscow and Beijing to work with Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul on North Korea.
North Korea will not give up their nuclear weapons unless we can help them develop an economy that can produce more than just bombs and missiles. The North Koreans see nuclear weapons as the only way to preserve their regime.
North Korea’s need to scare the world with nuclear and missile tests in exchange for money and aid cannot go on forever. This game of “cheat and retreat” could eventually escalate into a miscalculation. Any peaceful resolution will require new projects to invest in North Korea. One of the more interesting projects proposed involves linking up South Korea’s rail system with the Trans-Siberian railroad in Vladivostok.
Through North Korea and Russia, South Koreans goods would reach the European Union three times faster by train than by ship. This would benefit the economies of Russia, South Korea, and North Korea. In just 15 days, South Korea’s goods could reach the European Union.
The North Koreans are not stupid. They would immediately dismantle their nuclear program if the Chinese cut off their economic support. Communists don’t believe in an afterlife, which makes them far more deterrable than religious fanatics.