North Korea and Iran both seem to behave like spoiled children competing for the attention of the adults in the room. First one makes an outlandish threat or takes a provocative action, then the other must raise the ante, lest the first one become the center of attention. Thus, we recently saw Iran announce that it was accelerating its nuclear enrichment program and attempt the launch of a long-range ballistic missile (excuse me, I mean "space launch system"). North Korea responded in turn by conducting in rapid succession the testing of a nuclear device and the launch of multiple ballistic, cruise and air defense missiles. "Look at me! I'm really scary!"
Over at the American Spectator Online, George H. Wittman is suitably impressed. In an article entitled "The Road Back to Pork Chop Hill," he recounts the dreadful opening days of the Korean War, when outnumbered, badly trained and ill-equipped American troops were routed by the North Korean army in a surprise attack. He then goes on to say that such a scene is likely to repeat itself in the next few years, with a North Korean victory almost inevitable:
General George Casey, Army Chief of Staff, recently stated quite frankly that it would take ninety days to move forward an adequate force to block an attacking North Korean army. Using this official military assessment as their guide, there is no reason to believe the NK military leadership would hesitate to assure their Dear Leader of an effectively full occupation of the Korean Peninsula within that time period.
I've been a military analyst for more than thirty years. I have studied the North Korean army in detail--its tactics, equipment and capabilities--and I have to say, this projection is one of the more ludicrous I have seen. I understand that in a resource-constrained environment, service leaders and theater commanders have to propound the worst case scenario to ensure their fair share of the pie, but even a cursory look at the North Korean People's Army leaves one wondering "huh?"
The arms and equipment of the North Korean military are, overwhelmingly, Soviet-derived systems of 1960s and 70s vintage, lacking the kind of electronics, communications, fire controls and survivability features necessary on the modern battlefield.
To understand what this means, look at the disparity in combat effectiveness between Saddam Hussein's army and our own in Operation Desert Storm. Now consider that, as compared to North Korea's, Saddam's army was extraordinarily well trained and competent.
Kim's army hasn't been to war since 1953. Sure, it can beat up on unarmed truce inspection teams and kidnap Japanese civilians from remote beaches, but what has it really done lately? Worse still, it hasn't been able to stage realistic, large-scale exercises due to a chronic shortage of both fuel and cash. An army that doesn't know how to move formations larger than a battalion or regiment will degenerate into chaos when it tries to move divisions and armies. Finally, promotion in Kim's army, like promotion in Saddam's, is awarded for political loyalty, not military competence. Loyalty in such regimes is usually defined as telling the psychotic dictator what he wants to hear. Yet the first key to success in modern war is a free and open exchange of information between leaders and subordinates. The problem of political reliability is paramount for Kim--if he lets his army loose on the South, will it actually fight, or will it disintegrate on contact (or worse, turn on the regime)?
The one bright spot for the North Korean army is its special forces. North Korea maintains about 200 independent companies (about 100 men each) trained to infiltrate South Korea to attack command centers, lines of communication, logistic hubs, etc. They can move through the rugged eastern half of the peninsula either on foot or dropped from slow, low-flying An-2 Colt
To do that, the North Koreans will have to insert large conventional forces into the battle, all the way from the DMZ to to Pusan. The odds of that are most unlikely. Here is why:
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.
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 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.