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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
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Indeed, the artillery is one of North Korea's most professional arms, lavishly equipped with excellent guns. But most of these are towed, and, lacking mobility, towed artillery on the modern battlefield is dead meat (because modern counter-battery target=_blank>radars can detect shells in flight and back track them to their source in a matter of a few minutes, allowing counter-battery fire to rain death down on them). But Kim was cagey--he did not intend to use these guns as field artillery, but rather put them into hardened steel-and-concrete emplacements on ridge lines overlooking Seoul. These so-called "Y-Sites" (because they have one entrance on the northern side, and two alternate firing positions on the southern side) are resistant to all but a direct hit from a very large bomb. The firing emplacements are small and well camouflaged, making them difficult to locate and attack. Kim has, for decades, used the thousands of artillery pieces in the Y-Sites as a standing threat to the city of Seoul. Yes, you can bomb a city into rubble, but if you really want to pound a place into dust, artillery is just the thing--it's accurate and it's persistent. Airplanes deliver ordnance in "pulses"--they take off, drop bombs, return to base and rearm. Artillery delivers shells in a constant stream, two or three rounds per minute, for hour on end, as long as the gunners and the ammunition hold out. The result can be devastating, the casualties huge.

Faced with the threat of having their capital city destroyed with tens of thousands of civilian casualties and limited capability to respond, the South Korean government has been inclined to appease the North and to restrain the U.S. from "provocative" actions.

But that situation is changing, in part because military technology is rendering the Y-sites vulnerable to attack, and thus reducing their utility as a blackmail instrument. The advent of high resolution multispectral sensors, together with long-endurance unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator and Global Hawk, allows the U.S. to maintain constant surveillance over the area where the Y-sites are located, and to detect both their locations and any activity around them. If North Korea decides it wants to shoot, we will know they are getting ready. More to the point, once we are convinced they will shoot, we now have the capability, in the form of air-delivered precision guided weapons, to destroy the sites in very short order. Hardened though they may be, they are not so hard as to be able to resist a direct hit from a laser or GPS-guided 2000-lb. bunker buster. Once a site starts shooting, it can be destroyed before it gets off more than a couple of rounds. Destroying all the sites could be done in perhaps a couple of days. The damage to Seoul would be serious, but not crippling; South Korean civil defense measures would help minimize civilian casualties. South Korea apparently recognizes it no longer has to put up with the threat of the Y-Sites looming over Seoul--the U.S. has agreed to sell GBU-28 laser guided deep penetration bombs to South Korea, and though everyone imagines this would be to destroy Kim's nuclear weapons facilities, the Y-Sites are a more obvious and valuable target.

Having blown his wad, so to speak, and come up empty, what else can Kim do? He will have given the U.S. precisely the excuse it needs to destroy his regime, and as noted, there is little he could do to prevent it. As this becomes more obvious, the credibility of the North Korean threat recedes, along with North Korea's leverage over the South. Time is not on Kim's side.

What then of North Korea's nuclear program? Again, one has to view it as an attempt by Kim to maintain a degree of leverage over South Korea and the United States in order to wring out regime-extending concessions. But there is almost no chance that North Korea would initiate first use of nuclear weapons, because that would be, in a very literal sense, suicidal. President Ahmedinejad and the Mullahs in Iran may have eschatological pretensions, but the North Korean leadership is very much interested in staying alive and in power.

North Korea's nuclear ambitions pose two threats to the United States. First, North Korea is a proven proliferator of nuclear technology, as its recent project in Syria demonstrates. The North can transfer nuclear technology to other enemies of the U.S., thereby complicating our foreign policy and causing us to divert resources away from the Korean Peninsula. But a close blockade and inspection regime--recently joined by South Korea--is quite capable of preventing any major proliferation program from succeeding.

The second threat is posed by the marriage of nuclear warheads to long range ballistic missiles. Here, it seems clear that North Korean strategy aims to decouple the United States (not to mention other regional allies such as Japan) from South Korea, holding Tokyo or Los Angeles at risk in order to prevent any response to North Korean aggression against South Korea. Similar reasoning was behind the Soviet deployment of SS-20 intermediate range missiles to Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Our response then was the deployment of our own intermediate range nuclear force, extending our deterrent umbrella over our NATO allies without elevating the nuclear threat to the strategic level.

Today, we have the ability to provide extended deterrence against North Korean ballistic missiles using defensive technology. That is, completion of our National Missile Defense (NMD) system would obviate the threat of Kim's necessarily small ICBM force. Closer to the region, we already have Patriot PAC-3 missiles deployed in South Korea, which by themselves are very capable against short-range missiles. The deployment in the next few years of the Theater Area High Altitude Air Defense System (THAADS) will provide a long range "upper tier) interception capability, to defeat Kim's medium range missiles. In addition, both the United States and Japan have deployed the AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system based on the Standard SM-3 missile, which, stationed off the coasts of North Korea, can provide a limited "boost phase" interception capability; i.e., destroying Kim's missiles while they are still climbing through the atmosphere, and still over North Korea.

Here, the Obama administration has missed a trick by canceling development of the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, which is ideally suited for the Korean situation. A powerful chemical laser mounted on a Boeing 747, the ABL has demonstrated the ability to defeat ballistic missiles by burning through their thin-skinned booster rockets; each ABL has the capacity to destroy dozens of ascending missiles in a single sortie. Orbiting over South Korea or over international waters on either side of North Korea, a handful of ABLs would trump all of Kim's ballistic missiles in one move.

What we see, then, is not a North Korea intent on refighting--and winning--a second Korean War, but a failing dictatorship trying desperately to extend its miserable existence by getting its enemies to pay it to behave. One by one, though, Kim is losing his ability to gain leverage over the U.S. and South Korea as we develop the means to neutralize each of his offensive threats. Comprehensive ballistic missile defense would be the last piece needed to place Kim's regime in checkmate, at which point, North Korea can either resign the game, or sit staring at the board while we go off and do other things. Of course, this assumes we have the will to put the last pieces in the proper places, and don't succumb to the type of hysteria that sees us on the road to "another Pork Chop Hill".

Stuart Koehl is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.