At one time President George W. Bush had lumped Iran, Iraq and North Korea into an “axis of evil”. No such axis actually existed, except possibly in the paranoid delusions of conservatives like Bill Kristol. The device was useful in selling a scared post 9/11 America on the necessity of starting a “preemptive” war with Iraq. Of the three countries that President Bush mentioned as part of his “axis”, only North Korea truly deserves the “evil” rap. At least the world has managed to somewhat contain North Korea these last fifty plus years. However, it probably will not be able to deter it from aggression much longer.
The Korean War never officially ended. Instead, it was suspended. Both North and South Korea remain technically in a state of war. Now, as North Korea demonstrates missiles with increasingly long ranges and its nuclear weapons, it is clear that this loco genie cannot be contained in its bottle much longer. What the hell can we really do about North Korea anyhow?
Apparently, not much, but it is not from a lack of trying. Various administrations have tried all sorts of carrots and sticks to help the North Korean leadership see the light. All rested on the fundamental assumption that the North Korean leadership could be persuaded to behave rationally. Experience has repeatedly shown that North Korea has no intention to act as a civilized state. If North Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Worse, this paranoid schizophrenic refuses to takes its medication. Worse even still, he may be a paranoid schizophrenic but he is not stupid. North Korea has enough knowledge to maintain large armies, build increasingly sophisticated missiles and develop nuclear weapons. It clearly does not care about its citizens, who can starve for all it cares. It is essentially a Mafia state, which means it can do things no other country in the world would dream of doing, like creating counterfeit American money, and doing so with total impunity.
Unfortunately, it is now wholly reasonable to assume that reason will never work with North Korea. Until now, the West has at least been successful in containing North Korea using the Cold War tactics. It is no longer clear that this strategy will continue to work. North Korea is stronger now than it has ever been. It seems eager for an excuse to lob a missile or two into South Korea or at an American ship. Boarding a North Korean vessel to inspect its cargo, a perfectly legal action under numerous U.N. resolutions, could by itself embroil the Korean peninsula in another long and bloody war. This one though could well include use of actual nuclear weapons, particularly if the war goes poorly for North Korea.
The time of kicking this can down the road is ending. Philosophically I have always been a pacifist, but if there ever were a justified case for preemptive war, North Korea would be its poster child. Unfortunately, any preemptive war is likely to be large scale and kill hundreds of thousands. Even if the North Korean leadership can be dethroned, attempts to manage the country after the war are certain to inflict even more suffering on its people, and likely leave it an international basket case for decades. Given these realities, it is no wonder that successive administrations have hoped that North Korea would see reason. The best hope at this point is that its current leader Kim Jong-Il will die unexpectedly and that his successor will be less paranoid. That is very unlikely. Extreme paranoia seems to run in the family.
So war of some sort in the next few years is likely and its cleanup, assuming it can be won, will be long and costly. Moreover, the peninsula is armed to the teeth. North Korea has an estimated 1.1 million active soldiers. Add in its reserve and paramilitary forces and it has almost 6 million of its 22 million people are potential combatants. In response, South Korea has about 655,000 active military forces, but with its reserves and paramilitaries could bring over five million forces to bear. The United States has about 26,000 soldiers currently stationed in South Korea.
My daughter is of draft age and I certainly do not want to see her involuntarily fight in that hellhole. My suspicion is that the longer the world drags its feet on cleaning up the North Korea mess, the more expensive it will ultimately be in lives, treasure and destruction. If I were the president’s national security adviser, I would reluctantly be making the case for a preemptive war with North Korea. Of course, we currently have our hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tactically it would not make much sense to go to war with North Korea until our troops are out of Iraq, rested and our army has been rebuilt. Perhaps this more than anything else is the reason the United States is disengaging in Iraq as quickly as it can. President Obama is a smart man. Al Qaeda and the Taliban remain threats to our national security, but are diminished threats. Unless Al Qaeda finds a way to acquire a nuclear weapon, today biggest national security threat is North Korea.
In the Korean War, the North Koreans had the Chinese to fight with them. One thing that has changed is that China has become something of a lukewarm ally of North Korea. China’s leaders are aware that North Korea is a huge problem that it helped create. Aside for voting with the United States on a few U.N. resolutions, China is a long way from taking a huge step like helping depose North Korea’s leadership.
Since China is unlikely to assist in a new war against North Korea, if there is to be a preemptive war, the best the United States can hope for is a tacit agreement by China not to interfere. My suspicion is that China would be glad to if it had reassurances that the United States would not occupy North Korea. China could help in the war’s aftermath by readying and administering the huge amount of humanitarian aid that would be needed and acting as civil administrators. If China were to participate in cargo inspections or a blockade of North Korea, that also might help deter North Korea from starting a war. It is unclear whether China would participate in such an endeavor, although by doing so would demonstrate its emergence as a sober world power. North Korea is big, but not big enough to win a war against China should it decide to enter into the fray.
Presumably, war plans are constantly being updated. North Korea has already drawn its line in the sand and has said that inspections of its international cargo shall lead to war. The United States and South Korea should also set clear criteria for actions that will lead to war. It could reasonably include attempts by North Korea to interfere with the legal inspection of its cargo. Certainly any missile attack on South Korea or United States possessions should constitute grounds for going to war. Initial actions would presumably include the rapid destruction of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, airbases and weapons depots. Our attacks should also target Kim Jung-Il and the senior leadership personally. In the next Korean War, surrender is likely to be as elusive as in the last war. However, there may be de-facto capitulation. If executed smartly there would hopefully be minimal loss of life. More likely though, both sides would quickly find themselves reliving the Korean War quandary.
Unfortunately, there is no way to know what will happen when the North Korean genie finally comes out of its bottle. The genie seems poised to come out within the next few years, whether we want it to or not.