The Blog

Endgame in Korea?

Lacking the military wherewithal to defeat the South, Kim's regime is simply trying to extend its miserable existence through extortion.

12:00 AM, Jun 12, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

1. The terrain in the eastern part of the peninsula up by the DMZ is extremely mountainous and traversed by few roads. Mechanized forces moving through that area are limited to the roads, and thus present attractive targets to Allied artillery and airpower. There are numerous choke points where vehicles can only move one or two abreast, and if the lead vehicles are blocked, an entire regiment or division can be halted, even if opposed by relatively small numbers of tanks and infantry. But this region is ideal for modern attack helicopters using anti-tank guided missiles from pop-up positions. A squadron of a dozen or so of AH-64 Apaches can kill more than 120 tanks in the course of a single night. In short, the odds of North Korea making a major breakthrough on the eastern half of the peninsula are pretty slim.

So, what about the flatter, more developed western half, the so-called Seoul Corridor. Once upon a time this was ideal tank country, and we worried seriously about a North Korean blitzkrieg blowing through our skimpy forward defenses and cutting off the South Korean capital city. But, over the last two decades, Seoul has expanded so dramatically that the suburbs now extend all the way to the DMZ, and eastward to the mountains. The whole area has been built up into an urban megalopolis--and, as any tanker will tell you, the last place you want to go with tanks is into the big city. City fighting eats troops and is especially unfriendly to tanks, which are vulnerable to short range attack from all sides, as well as from above (the rooftops) and below (the sewers). Look at what badly armed Chechen guerrillas did to the Russian army in Grozny and think about what highly trained and well equipped regular troops could do.

A general rule says the attacker needs a numerical advantage of 3-to-1 in order to succeed, but cities are a defensive "force multiplier", so that an advantage of 5-to-1 or more becomes necessary. As the lead North Korean echelon gets bogged down in street fighting, the follow-on echelons will be stacked up in a massive traffic jam going all the way to Pyongyang. And while our troops are beating up on Kim's first wave, our airpower will be devastating his reserves. Even if, by some miracle, the North Koreans manage to break through near Seoul, they will have no follow-on forces to exploit the victory.

At this point, the momentum of the war would shift to the Allies, who could now mount a devastating counterattack against North Korea. Even assuming we do not go all the way to the Yalu (and thus risk Chinese intervention again), it is highly unlikely that the Communist regime would survive such a catastrophic defeat. Kim's rule is postulated on the myth of an infallible leader. U.S. and South Korean tanks rumbling towards Pyongyong is about as concrete a refutation of that myth as you can get. Kim and his followers would go the way of the Ceaucescus, a new clique of leaders would emerge, and would negotiate a cease fire with the Allies in short order. Reunification with South Korea would probably follow thereafter.

Kim and his generals aren't stupid. They can do the calculus as well as anyone, and they undoubtedly have come to similar conclusions. As regime survival is Kim's first, last and only priority, what, then, is his real game?

I would suggest Kim desires to maintain the status quo as long as possible, in the face of increasingly unfavorable conditions--military, economic and social. To do that, he must win concessions and subsidies from his enemies, especially South Korea and the United States. Yet Kim lacks the military wherewithal to defeat the U.S. and South Korea, so how does he gain any leverage?

He does so by holding South Korea hostage. As noted, Seoul has grown exponentially as South Korea has grown in prosperity, and today a majority of the South's wealth and population is concentrated in and around the capital city, which now has a population of 24.5 million--all of it within range of North Korean artillery batteries.