Why There Are No Military Solutions to North Korea
A conflict with chemicals and nukes would be unacceptably terrible
Any attempt to curtail North Korea’s nuclear weapons program through military force would be an unmitigated disaster.
“A conflict in North Korea … would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told CBS News. “The bottom line is it would be a catastrophic war if this turns into a combat if we’re not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means.”
Despite this, the Trump administration continues to peddle the myth that a military strike could remove the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in March that “all options are on the table,” and that if the North Koreans “elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action,” the option of a preventive military strike would be considered.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster told Fox News that North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear armed ICBM is “an open defiance of the international community.” He added that this “means being prepared for military operations [against North Korea] if necessary.”
The scope of proposed military options range from limited offshore missile strikes–like those made against Syria earlier this year–to a full-on decapitating blow to the Kim regime.
The problem is that any sort of military action, regardless of its scope or intent, could rapidly escalate into a full-blown regional war with no off ramp or way to step back from the brink.
U.S. F-15 Eagles stage an Elephant Walk, or close taxi formation before a mass launch, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. U.S. Air Force photo
What would a military strike accomplish?
First and foremost, it is unlikely that any sort of military action could actually eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program.
Since the public debut of their nuclear weapons program in 2006, North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure has become increasingly sophisticated. With the possibility of a preventive attack by the United States, such as the one carried out against Iraq in 2003, looming over their heads; the regime spread out its arsenal, nuclear facilities and launch platforms across the country.
According to Sig Hecker, emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and senior fellow at Stanford University, “there is no conceivable way the United States could destroy all North Korean nuclear weapons. It is not possible to know where they all are. Even if a few could be located, it would be difficult to destroy them without causing them to detonate and create a mushroom cloud over the Korean peninsula.”
Furthermore, North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material to produce one nuclear bomb every six to seven weeks, and “it is even less likely that the United States could locate and demolish all of the North’s nuclear materials,” says Hecker.
That presents a massive nuclear materials security challenge, should the DPRK decide to start smuggling materials out of the country or turn them over to terrorists following a U.S. attack.
Any military strike aimed at the North Korean nuclear weapons program would likely miss key elements of it. If you cannot guarantee taking all of the DPRK’s nuclear capability off the board, why risk getting into a shooting war in the first place?
A question of response
The outcome of any U.S. military action in North Korea hinges upon how the regime would respond once provoked. The possibilities have prevented at least three U.S. administrations from pursuing military options.
As former North Korean foreign minister Pak Seong Cheol once put it, “If the enemy fires on us in [the DMZ] with machine guns we respond with machine guns; when he uses artillery, we also use artillery… When the Americans understand that there is a weak enemy before them they will start a war right away. If, however, they see that there is a strong partner before them, this delays the beginning of a war.”
North Korea views its nuclear weapons as the ultimate guarantor of regime survival. In 2016, state media announced that “the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programs of their own accord.”
It is highly likely that even a limited strike focused on degrading North Korea’s nuclear program could be seen as the opening salvo in a larger attack aimed at toppling their regime.
With that in mind, we have to assume that the North Koreans would quickly and violently respond to any sort of U.S. military action against them.
But what exactly would that response look like?
We have already seen what a full-scale war with North Korea looks like. From 1950-1953, the world trembled as the Korean peninsula tore itself apart, eventually dragging the United States, Soviet Union, China and the United Nations into open conflict with each other. That war cost the lives of 2.7 million Koreans, 33,000 Americans and some 800,000 Chinese.
Today the DPRK ranks 23rd worldwide in terms of conventional military power. Although qualitatively inferior to the militaries of the U.S. and its allies, the North’s vaunted million-man army, along with some 3,500 aging main battle tanks and over 21,000 artillery pieces is incredibly lethal.
Thousands of North Korean artillery guns are pre-targeted at Seoul, a sprawling capital city of some 25 million people. That is about as far away from the DMZ as Baltimore is from Washington D.C.. Shells fired from those batteries can reach Seoul in about 45 seconds.
The casualties and damage produced by an artillery barrage of this size on the world’s fourth largest city would be unimaginable. According to Victor Cha, Director for Asian Affairs in Pres. Bush’s National Security Council, many of those guns are in hardened bunkers that could not be taken out “without using tactical nuclear weapons.”
With Seoul right down the road, that is not a realistic option.
This scenario doesn’t even take into account North Korea’s sizable arsenal of chemical weapons. According to The Telegraph “after decades of investment, the country is believed to be able to make most types of chemical weapons, but focus on sulphur mustard, chlorine, phosgene, sarin and VX. Stockpiles are estimated at 2,500-5,000 tons. Chemical toxins can be fired in a wide range of artillery shells, rockets and missiles.”
Within minutes of a U.S. strike, the North could unleash a devastating retaliatory strike, all without moving a single man. According to Cha, “an arsenal of 600 chemically armed Scud missiles would be fired on all South Korean airports, train stations and marine ports, making it impossible for civilians to escape.”
Furthermore, “The North’s arsenal of medium-range missiles could also be fitted with chemical warheads and launched at Japan, delaying the arrival of U.S. reinforcements.”
The real deal breaker, however, is that North Korea now has an estimated arsenal of some 10- 20 nuclear weapons. Whether or not they can mount one on a missile remains a topic of debate, but we know from the type and frequency of their tests that they are working on it, and they are progressing at an alarming rate.
Any military engagement with North Korea is virtually guaranteed to cause an unacceptable level of casualties for the U.S and its allies.
With tens of thousands, if not millions, of civilians dying in the streets of Seoul, and U.S. and allied military forces at risk, the conflict has escalated to the point of no return. Regional powers, including China and Japan, have been forced to take sides, and the only option for the U.S. and ROK is to remove the Kim regime from power. The second Korean War in now in full swing, and there is no telling where the violence stops.
Modern war on the Korean peninsula
According to a report on a war game organized by The Atlantic in 2005, “an actual war on the Korean peninsula would almost certainly be the bloodiest America has fought since Vietnam—possibly since World War II.
In recent years Pentagon experts have estimated that the first ninety days of such a conflict might produce 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean and American military casualties, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The damage to South Korea alone would rock the global economy.”
That was before North Korea had developed nuclear weapons that could vaporize millions in the blink of an eye.
The U.S. would be forced to commit several combat divisions, aircraft carriers and air wings along with at least 500,000 additional troops in order to stabilize the peninsula in the event that the North Korean regime collapsed.
“As wars go, this would be the most unforgiving battle conditions that can be imagined—an extremely high density of enemy and allied forces—over two million mechanized forces all converging on a total battlespace the equivalent of the distance between Washington, D.C., and Boston,” says Cha.
“Soldiers would be fighting with little defense against DPRK artillery, aerial bombardments, and in an urban warfare environment polluted by 5,000 metric tons of DPRK chemical agents.”
A North Korean soldier snaps a picture of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the DMZ. U.S. Army photo
Only one real solution
While the United States must maintain its security commitments to its allies and partners in the region, we must also disabuse ourselves of the fantasy that there is a low-stakes military solution to North Korea’s nuclear program. The risks are far too great, and the outcomes too unknowable.
Instead, the United States should begin to build a framework for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. We must face the hard truth that a nuclear North Korea is a foregone conclusion.
The U.S. should focus on freezing the North’s nuclear and missile programs at their current levels, and enforce a strict inspections regime guaranteed by the Chinese and Russians. In return, we should offer North Korea humanitarian aid, the lifting of certain sanctions, and an official U.S. peace treaty.
“I believe it is time to try diplomacy that would actually have a chance to succeed,” says former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry.
“The goals would be an agreement with Pyongyang to not export nuclear technology, to conduct no further nuclear testing and to conduct no further ICBM testing. These goals are worth achieving and, if we succeed, could be the basis for a later discussion of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. These objectives are far less than we would desire but are based on my belief that we should deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
Living with a nuclear North Korea is a tough pill to swallow, but engaging in a cavalier military misadventure in an attempt to solve the problem would be a catastrophe for the United States and the world.
Geoff Wilson is a policy associate at The Ploughshares Fund, where he focuses on U.S. nuclear and military strategy. This article originally appeared at ICAS Bulletin.