Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s psychotic “Dear Leader,” specializes in “guerrilla diplomacy.” He backs it up with a half-dozen or so nuclear weapons squirreled away deep inside mountain storage facilities that cannot be reached by our bunker-buster bombs, and an army roughly the size of South Korean and U.S. ground forces combined. Kim’s diplomatic record also shows that he doesn’t care. His response to China-his nation’s biggest supporter and only ally-plus to Russia, Japan, and the United States, has been, “Get lost! We’re producing nuclear weapons whether you like it or not.” North Korea has done just that.
Within one week, North Korea detonated a nuclear device, restarted its nuclear-production facilities, fired a half dozen or so short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, and abrogated the 1953 truce that ended fighting along the 38th parallel. The Kim Jong Il regime took this final step after the South Korean government announced it was joining the Proliferation Security Initiative involving 90 nations committed to stopping the maritime shipping of banned nuclear goods.
President Barack Obama responded by calling last Monday’s underground nuclear test a “blatant violation” of international law while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that North Korea faces “consequences” for its nuclear and missile tests and its “provocative and belligerent” threats. If the earth shook, it was from the aftershock of the detonation at Kilju, and not from anything said from the White House or Foggy Bottom.
The United States has few options, none of which are appealing. The diplomatic option is foremost, and China, now a regional military hegemony, holds the high cards. America’s military options revolve around its nuclear capabilities along with its naval and air forces. A major war on the Korean Peninsula, given the U.S. commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan, would be a nightmare. Eight of the U.S. Army’s 10 divisions, three-fourths of all active Army combat battalions, and a third of its support battalions are committed to Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes up to 18 months to reconstitute returning units to combat-ready status. Furthermore, American economic power, now committed to owning unprofitable auto manufacturing conglomerates and investing in universal healthcare, is unavailable to support a major war. President Obama admitted Wednesday, “we’re out of money.” With diplomatic and economic “instruments of national power” out of the picture, that leaves the military instrument.
There are military options, but none are good:
1. Bomb nuclear production facilities. Easy to say, difficult to do. North Korea’s production facilities are widely dispersed and hardened. Storage facilities lie deep within mountains. Even if we know where they are, it would prove difficult if not impossible to destroy them.
2. Take out launchers. This involves more than the easy task of bombing static launch platforms from which Taepodong missiles soar. Clever concealment and the diversity of launch vehicles complicate this option. Mobile rocket launchers and jet fighter-bombers constitute only part of the problem, in fact the easy parts. North Korea can strike South Korea with nukes in trucks or ox-drawn carts driven through tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone. Submarines and fishing boats bearing nukes could close down South Korea’s main ports at Pusan and Inchon, making it impossible to bring in sufficient U.S. ground forces to fight any invasion from North Korea.
3. Preemptive attack. Such an attack would rely on the out-manned, but not out-gunned, Republic of Korea Army (ROKA), backed by roughly a division of U.S. forces and the precision-strike capabilities inherent in U.S. air power. Any strike north across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), however, would run into the teeth of an entrenched force deployed to a depth of more than 50 miles and covered by conventional artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery. Airborne or amphibious operations to the rear would encounter North Korean military and paramilitary forces that vastly outnumber ROKA and U.S. forces combined.
4. Nuclear pre-emption. In July 1961, President John F. Kennedy considered a preemptive nuclear attack on Soviet strategic forces, including missile launch facilities and long-range bomber bases. He shelved it. Considering such an attack on North Korea today, therefore, would not be novel. Ultimately, it constitutes a viable-if highly unappealing-military option.
Under the following circumstances, nuclear war on the peninsula could become an awful reality:
1. North Korea uses nukes first. If North Korea used nuclear weapons against South Korea or the United States, a nuclear response by the United States would be warranted and necessary. Likewise, if a terrorist group struck an American target with a nuclear weapon traceable to North Korea, retaliation would be imperative.
2. North Korean forces threaten to overwhelm ROKA/U.S. forces. If ROKA and U.S. forces could not contain a conventional attack from the North, nuclear weapons might be the only way to stave off a humiliating and costly defeat.
3. To end a war of attrition. The United States cannot fight a war of attrition with North Korea given its present commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Turning to the nuclear option might be the only way to win.
Drawbacks to using nuclear weapons are enormous. Any first strike by the United States would bring international condemnation, branding the United States an “outlaw” nation. Furthermore, radioactive fallout would descend on people living in southern China and Russia along with parts of Japan. The political consequences for any American administration opting for first-usage nukes would be as catastrophic as not responding to a nuclear attack with a retaliatory strike.
Those are the options, and none of them are better than idle threats and belligerent banter. It takes a super power to be a superpower. When a nation is economically strapped, more concerned with continuing comfortable living for the present than overburdening its progeny with debt, so uncertain of its moral efficacy as to begs the world’s forgiveness for sins more imagined than real, and has gutted its military and intelligence capabilities to this extent, it finds itself unable to respond to “the gravest provocations,” even when issued from someone as ridiculous as North Korea’s “Dear Leader.”
Dr. Earl Tilford, a fellow with The Center of Vision & Values at Grove City College, is currently working on a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A former Air Force intelligence officer and former Director of Research for the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University.