The label of the North Korean state as a Marxist-Leninist regime, even of the particularly repressive Maoist Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution variety, is a misnomer. North Korea is a dynastic autocracy, ruled by a semidivine Kim family with absolute power over both the inner court and the general populace in a way comparable to a Henry Tudor or a Caesar. Even family members who fall into disrepute are not beyond bloody retribution. Just as a Korean king once sentenced his errant crown prince son to die in a rice box of starvation in the sweltering sun, so too Kim Jong-un recently struck down his own half brother with an internationally banned chemical weapon.
The fanaticism of the North Korean public, in its devotion to its leader, is not some Broadway-like drama of feigned affectation. A visit to North Korea and discussion with members of the public at large revealed a clear devotion to the Kims. Implied was a willingness to die in defense of the juche philosophy and the great leader and his bloodline. North Korea, for almost four decades a colony of imperial Japan, has seemingly absorbed the kamikaze-like death wish of those pilots who once made a last-ditch suicidal stand to die for the emperor.
And North Korea is not Iraq. North Korea’s estimated elite thirty-thousand-strong special-operations unit is not Saddam’s Republican Guard, which was easily vanquished. These special forces lie in wait ready to burst through underground tunnels to wreak havoc on South Korea’s civilian population. Then there is the fact that North Korea is now a self-proclaimed “nuclear weapons state” with up to twenty nuclear weapons. It also holds an arsenal of chemical weapons to be delivered by an estimated ten thousand artillery pieces, stashed in mountain tunnels near the DMZ, ready to rain down on metropolitan Seoul a mere thirty-five miles away. This treasure trove of chemical death would be the envy of Syria’s Assad. (Seoul has a population of over ten million, and the metropolitan area holds over twenty-five million people.)
According to South Korea’s 2016 White Paper, North Korea, which has been developing chemical weapons since 1980, has between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, including anthrax, smallpox and the plague. And CNN reported on April 13 that Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has warned publicly that “North Korea may already have the capability to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve agent.” North Korea will therefore not go quietly into the night.
As Kim Jong-un displays open defiance of President Trump with possible preparations for a sixth nuclear test on or around the April 15 anniversary of the founder’s birth, he has likely calculated that, despite the American president’s red line, even President Trump would not risk the devastation of a second Korean war.
Kim Jong-un’s grandfather did not hesitate in taking the most provocative of actions against previous U.S. commanders in chief. The American reconnaissance ship USS Pueblo was seized in international waters in January 1968—it remains, to this day, in North Korea—and its eighty-two remaining crew members, one being killed in the attack, were held for almost a year. President Lyndon B. Johnson, caught up in the growing quagmire of the Vietnam War, withheld retaliatory action against Pyongyang. Just a year later, in April 1969, a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over the Sea of Japan by a North Korean MIG-21 aircraft, resulting in the deaths of all thirty-one U.S. crew members, the largest single loss of a U.S. aircrew during the entire Cold War era. Still, Pyongyang craftily calculated that, due to the escalation of the Vietnam War, Washington would keep its powder dry. Then, in the summer of 1976, following by just a year President Gerald R. Ford’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, Pyongyang struck at the American military again, killing two U.S. Army officers in the infamous “axe murder incident” in the DMZ. Pyongyang perceived that a war-weary Washington was not about to engage in yet another land war in Asia. So brinkmanship, even involving the loss of American lives, has always been an essential weapon in North Korea’s strategic toolbox.
As recently as 2010, Pyongyang torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, killing forty-six seamen, and then later that same year shelled a South Korean island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians. Again, Pyongyang escaped major consequences for its provocations, with its ally Beijing blocking an effective UN response.
Would Kim Jong-un strike again? There is, on record, the testimony of North Korea’s most recent high-level defector. The DPRK’s former vice ambassador to London, Thae Yong-ho, has spoken directly on the inner workings of Kim Jong-un’s mind. “Don’t underestimate Kim Jong Un,” Thae told CBS on February 17. His capacity to “wreak harm, not only to America, but also South Korea and the world, should not be underestimated,” Thae said. “Kim Jong Un strongly believes that once he possesses an ICBM, then he can easily scare off America.” Thae had previously told the BBC that Kim Jong-un would nuke Los Angeles if threatened. He “will press the button on these dangerous weapons when he thinks that his rule and his dynasty are threatened.”
At present, Kim is thought to lack the ICBM capability to reach the American mainland, a capability he will likely acquire in the next few years. His short- and medium-range missiles, however, could likely reach U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan and even Guam. Tokyo has, in addition, a real concern that Pyongyang, given its long-term anti-Japanese, anti-imperialist propaganda left over from the colonial era, would in a crisis rain chemical weapons down on Japanese cities.
The United States has twenty-eight thousand service personnel stationed in South Korea, which would effectively serve as the trip wire for U.S military involvement should war break out. In addition, there are thousands more U.S. military family dependents, including children, in the country. While there is a Noncombatant Evacuation Operation in place to expeditiously extricate thousands of U.S. and allied civilians from the country, two major issues remain: First, with a number of these civilians, despite U.S. base relocations, still living in the Seoul metropolitan area, would they be able to effectively escape a sudden chemical-weapons attack? Second, if in anticipation of an impending crisis Washington ordered the evacuation of U.S. dependents from South Korea, the resulting wholesale panic could cause mass population movement toward the bottom of the peninsula, a flooding of airports, an exodus of capital, and a devastating drop in the Seoul stock market.
Another victim of a second Korean war would be international trade. In 1950, when the Korean War broke out, East Asia was not, unlike today, the economic engine driving the global economy. With missiles flying across the Pacific as far as Guam or even beyond, the shelves of Walmart, stocked with goods from China and other East Asian producers, would likely go largely vacant. Cargo vessels would not wish to risk being caught in the cross fire, and the movement of U.S. troops and equipment across the Pacific would take priority.
If war erupted as a result of a U.S. surgical strike on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, and Beijing chose to honor its defense treaty commitment to its North Korean ally, the results on the global economy would be devastating. China did, of course, intervene in Korea in 1950, when it felt its own vital national interests were threatened.
U.S. battle deaths in the Korean War, according to a 2000 Pentagon figure, are listed at 33,651, with additional figures for “other,” including deaths from illness and accident. The total Korean War–era casualties etched into the Korean War Memorial is 54,246. China lost between 132,000 and 400,000, including one of Chairman Mao’s sons. The United Kingdom, Turkey, Canada, Australia, France and other allies lost altogether between three and four thousand. As many as two million Koreans, including civilians, died as a result of the war. The war cost the United States an estimated twenty billion dollars, and China 2.5 billion dollars.
The costs of a second Korean war, then, would be massive: another possible two million or more Korean casualties; fifty thousand or more dead Americans; the potential mass military mobilization of the U.S. civilian population for another land war in Asia; the utter destruction of South Korea’s infrastructure, “the Miracle on the Han” that turned a war-devastated backwater into an economic powerhouse; possible chemical attacks on U.S. Pacific bases and South Korean and Japanese civilians; plunging Pacific stock markets; the total disruption of global trade; the possible intervention of China; and, most devastating of all, the potential use of nuclear weapons in combat for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So the question must be asked: is a surgical strike worth the risk?
Dennis Halpin, a former adviser on Asian issues to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins) and a consultant at the Poblete Analysis Group.
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