Be Careful Kim: A Single Misstep In Korea Could Spark World War III

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Here are some things to keep in mind: Most analysts consider the North Korean military to be insufficient to defeat the RoK armed forces. The static defenses along the DMZ, combined with the mobility and sophistication of the RoK armed forces, mean that any offensive in South Korea is likely to lead to a logistical disaster before Seoul can be conquered.

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The most intense phase of fighting in Korea ended a few years ago, but the chasm across the peninsula remains the most visible legacy in the world during the Cold War. While the Republic of Korea (ROK) has become economically successful and democratic, North Korea has become a punch line.
Nevertheless, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has continued to improve the sophistication of its ballistic missiles, develop nuclear weapons and maintain the world's largest garrison state. Pyongyang has also made it clear that it is not afraid to provoke Seoul (and Seoul's biggest supporter, the United States) with aggressive measures such as the sinking of the Cheonan corvette and the bombing of the South Korean islands.
General peace on the peninsula has more or less existed since the 1950s. Although the power of North Korea has declined significantly compared to South Korea, the idea that Pyongyang might conclude that the war could solve its problems worries planners in the U.S. and South Korea.
If North Korea were faced with a situation that determined that war was the only solution, how could it try to smash the ROK and deter the United States and Japan?
(Note: this first appeared in 2015)
Timing is everything ...
North Korea's best hope of success in peace, as in the past seventy years, depends on the possible collapse of the global capitalist system. That sounds ... optimistic, but keep in mind that South Korea suffered severely during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, that the capitalist world continues to suffer from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and that Japan faces apparently insurmountable economic difficulties.
Even if a collapse of the global economy does not bring capitalism to its knees, another such crisis could strain the relationship between South Korea, Japan and the United States.
The prospects of North Korea in the war largely depend on the United States being incapacitated in any way, either by submitting facts or by high-level deterrence.
The situation with Japan is more complex, but Tokyo sees North Korea as sufficiently threatening that a war would almost certainly involve intervention, if not necessarily to directly support the RoK armed forces.
The other scenario in which the DPRK could opt for an attack would come in anticipation of a major attack by the US ROK against the north. In such a situation, the North Korean leadership may decide that it has little to lose. In such a context, the military balance would favor highly preventive measures by North Korea.
In war…
The clearest way to win the North Korean war depends on a rapid defeat by the South Korean armed forces, which provides the United States and Japan with the accomplished facts that Pyongyang will expect from Beijing.
The North Korean attack would likely include a classic 20th century combined weapon attack that uses artillery to disrupt the RoK's defense and mitigate positions (as well as create civil panic), infantry to break holes in the South Korean lines , and mechanized forces to take advantage of these gaps. The North Koreans could well add special forces (which may have been deployed to South Korea prior to the onset of hostilities) and regular forces tunneled into the South Korean hinterlands.
The Korean People's Air Force is ancient and has had no significant infusion of Russian or Chinese technology in years. The armed forces have very little counter-air capability compared to the Republic of Korea Air Force, and their fighters would find easy prey for well-trained South Korean pilots who fly sophisticated aircraft. The KPA can expect very little ground support at both tactical and operational levels and would likely fight under South Korean air strikes.
To address these issues, North Korea would likely reserve a large portion of its land-attack cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles for attacks on South Korean airbases, in hopes of destroying fighters on the ground and rendering facilities unusable.
The Korean People's Navy would play a double role in the operation. It would aggressively attempt to attack submarines and cruise missiles from the Republic of Korea Marine (ROKN) ships (including the Dokdo-class amphibs and Sejong-class destroyers, the latter of which have ballistic missile defense capabilities). while trying to disrupt port operations. The KPN would defensively try to protect the North Korean coast from bombing and amphibious assault, both of which had a major impact on the 1950 war.
Any North Korean invasion would also involve attacks on South Korean ports to both disrupt trade and hamper the arrival of large-scale reinforcements. These attacks would likely affect conventionally armed ballistic missiles, although the DPRK may be able to use nuclear or chemo-bio weapons for some particularly lucrative targets (such as Busan).
With luck (and the North Koreans would need a lot of luck), the Korean People's Army (KPA) could disrupt the U.S. and RoK forces enough to take control of key entry and exit points to Seoul. At this point, she might consider trying to roll up the rest of the peninsula or advocate a negotiated peace that would leave the DPRK in a stronger position. This decision would depend on both the tactical situation and an assessment of whether North Korea's national goals were primarily to reunite or survive the regime.
But diplomacy matters ...
The longer the war lasts, the worse the prospects for North Korea. Pyongyang therefore needs Beijing's support to end the war and quickly secure its profits.
Why should Beijing admit to guarantee the fruits of North Korean aggression?
Not because of continued affinity with the North Korean regime, but because of the desire to prevent further disturbances and instabilities along its border. Aside from its frustrations with North Korea, China has little interest in founding a U.S. or Japanese customer across the Korean Peninsula.
In this situation, North Korea would hope that the prospect of war against China (and perhaps Russia) will keep the United States from continuing South Korea's liberation. This calculation is remarkably similar to that of Kim il-Sung in 1950, although in this case North Korea's own nuclear arsenal (probably directed against Japan) would offer some deterrent.
To keep the peace ...
This is the best case for North Korea, but it is important to remember that most analysts judge the North Korean military as insufficient to defeat the RoK armed forces. The static defenses along the DMZ, combined with the mobility and sophistication of the RoK armed forces, mean that any offensive in South Korea is likely to lead to a logistical disaster before Seoul can be conquered. At this point, attacks along the depth of the North Korean position, combined with a concerted attack on regime targets and the KPA command and control network, are likely to isolate the vanguard and make them ready for destruction.
The North Korean air defense network is immense and robust, but not particularly sophisticated. Even the much-vaunted artillery along the border is likely to be worn out quickly by hyper-accurate counter-battery attacks and other precision-guided ammunition. Once the local KPA forces are defeated, there is little doubt that the ROK and the United States would take the opportunity to end the regime once and for all.
North Korean military personnel know all of this and certainly appreciate the extremely low probability that an attack will be successful in the short or long term. However, we can hardly rule out that the political circumstances will change in such a way that North Korea becomes desperate enough to launch an attack or that it imagines that it will have “one last great chance”. At least the preparation rarely hurts.
Robert Farley is a lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter: @drfarls. This article was first published a few years ago.
Image: Reuters.
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