Why Nobody Wins in a War over North Korea

American and Korean F-16s at Seosan Air Base, South Korea. U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Taylor Curry

No matter if the international relationship with Pyongyang results in war or diplomacy, all roads forward lead to the abyss.

As the 2017 Korean crisis shows no signs of de-escalating, fears of the Korean War resuming continue to grow. On April 28, North Korea conducted a failed missile test only a day after President Donald Trump warned about the possibility of a “major, major conflict” on the peninsula over the North’s nuclear program. The test’s failure will likely harden DPRK dictator Kim Jong-un’s resolve to not only continue pursuing its nuclear agenda, but to also engage in provocative actions to deter or provoke an enemy response. It seems to be only a matter of time before an armed clash occurs between the United States, South Korea and North Korea. Maybe Japan would participate too.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the inevitable outcome of military conflict in the region is all-out war of the likes the world has not seen in many decades. The carnage and loss of life would be unimaginable, even under the best of assumptions, and push the U.S. military to its limits, to say nothing of the country’s allies. For over sixty years, it is this very fear that has deterred all participants from engaging in conduct perceived as increasing the risk of the outbreak of general war. This fear has been expressed countless time during the past three months in a variety of publications, more recently on the National Interest.

But just how likely is this scenario? As said before, a compelling case for this prevailing concern has been made time and again and has dominated thinking towards U.S. and South Korean policy towards North Korea. But it is also a case that, fortunately, has never been tested. Until it is tested, it is a question to which nobody knows the answer. Therefore, it is worth considering; is all-out war really the only outcome, or do intermediate possibilities exist?

It may not be a widely accepted position, but there are those who believe that it is.

In 2011, Daniel Wagner and Michael Doyle of Country Risk Solutions, a risk-management firm, presented an exclusive analysis of the Korean crisis via the Huffington Post. It offered four scenarios, two of which were variations of the classic general-war scenarios. The other two, however, offered a markedly different vision of events.

One scenario, referred to as “Attack and Parley,” saw Pyongyang conducting “significant but limited military action against the South,” followed by a suit for a peaceful settlement to the conflict. Such action would come either in response to U.S. or South Korea provocation, such as the often-considered but never-executed preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, or to solidify the regime’s domestic position. After the attack phase, the North would attempt to force the United States and South Korea into negotiations to demand concessions, lest they sought to exacerbate the conflict. According to Wagner and Doyle, this scenario is comparable to the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both sides would engage in limited warfare to achieve both short-term and long-term political objectives, in between the larger, more destructive conflicts that have generated tremendous costs for all participants.

The logic behind this strategy is based on North Korea’s awareness of its lopsided vulnerability against the United States and South Korea in the event of conventional war. To avoid the “big fight” but still achieve political aims through violence, Pyongyang would conduct short-of-war operations so damaging that the United States and South Korea could not afford to abstain from responding while, hopefully, avoiding the more overwhelming retaliation that would demand tit-for-tat escalation. Such operations would encompass artillery bombardments, cross-border raids, unconventional warfare via special-operations forces, sea-lane interdiction, and even ballistic-missile attacks against U.S. and South Korean military installations, according to the study.

The likelihood of this scenario is buttressed by history. North Korea is responsible for a long list of low-level hostilities since 1953, incurring large numbers of U.S. and South Korean casualties. The DPRK’s track record shows, if it was to employ military force against its enemies, then it is more likely to operate within the low-to-mid-range of the spectrum of warfare. The 2010 sinking of South Korean warship ROKS Cheonam and the artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island the following year are more extreme examples of the “limited war” approach employed by Pyongyang recently.

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