miliThe available evidence shows that North Korea is in most respects much weaker militarily than the South, and the balance between the two shifts hugely in the South’s favor in the crucial aspect of advanced technology equipment. But a limited comparison of North and South is really meaningless because this is essentially a question of North Korea versus the United States – an attack by North Korea on the South would inevitably be a declaration of war against the United States. The U.S. has “operational command” of the South Korean military in the event of war, there are 28,500 U.S. military personnel (and considerably more civilians) stationed there and there is the over-riding geopolitical imperative – the U.S. would not tolerate the establishment of an independent Korea by force. The Korean Peninsula is where China, Japan, Russia and the United States meet and contest and as such is the most strategically valuable place on earth.
The American empire is a global one and it has long experience of building coalitions
It is not merely a matter of the U.S. on its own – America is the controlling center of a vast strategic alliance. South Korea is one of those “allies” but it is by no means alone. The American empire is a global one and it has long experience of building coalitions – whether of the willing or the reluctant. In the (first) Korean War it marshaled troops from Australia to Turkey all under the legal fiction of the United Nations (“the United Nations exercised no control over the combat forces in Korea. The United States made all important combat decisions …”). How many would come the second time round is a matter of speculation (for many of them China is their major economic partner), but there would probably also be new recruits from the Baltics, Eastern Europe and the Balkans. But the important country is one that was there on the sidelines in the Korean War as a rear base but was precluded from direct participation – Japan.
This time it is different. RemilitariZation and reinterpretation of the constitution to nullify its peaceful constraints has been a long-term aim of successive Japanese governments and is the centrepiece of the Abe Shinzo administration. There is little doubt that Japan would welcome the opportunity to expand its military envelope by intervention in a crisis on the Korea peninsula, and this has been a matter of great concern in Seoul over the last year. Fighting fellow Koreans under the control of an American general would be bad enough but side-by-side with Japanese soldiers would be a PR nightmare. Seoul has been trying to claim that it has right of refusal but that doesn’t really wash; it would really be an American decision. Washington would probably only accept Japanese troops in the event of a major war with China. It may be that the recent cobbling together of an agreement between Seoul and Tokyo on the Comfort Women issue – diplomatic collusion, as one NGO termed it – has something to do with this; it was certainly the result of American pressure.
NO THREAT TO THE U.S.
Japan, South Korea and other allies aside, it is clear that the military preponderance of the United States is unassailable. The invulnerability of the United States is unprecedented in history. Firstly geography, where vast oceans to east and west and small, non-threatening neighbours to north and south provide protection from invasion and vast domestic resources make embargo ineffective. Despite this natural defense the U.S. spends an astounding amount on its military. A map produced by the Bank of America (no less) shows that:
“Not only does the U.S. defense budget equal about half the world’s total military spending, but a huge chunk of the rest of the total is spent by close American allies. Russia’s military spending, for example, is dwarfed by the combined commitments of the UK, France, and Germany. North Korea’s military spending looks like a tiny pimple sitting on the top of South Korea’s head.”
If North Korea’s military spending is but a pimple on the South’s head, it fades into near invisibility compared with that of the U.S.
Clearly North Korea cannot pose any conventional threat to the United States (and to South Korea without massive, overwhelming retaliation) but what about nuclear weapons? Here dispassionate, contextualised analysis is necessary to assess what is a very emotive subject. Nuclear weapons have awesome power and an all-out war between the major nuclear powers would devastate the planet. That makes clear thinking all the more necessary.
In general, nuclear weapons are in practice retaliatory, a matter of deterrence and defense
In general, nuclear weapons are in practice retaliatory, a matter of deterrence and defense. There is one exception to that – their first and only use in 1945 by the U.S. against Japan. The circumstances were special and unique, never to be repeated. Crucially there was no question of Japanese retaliation, either nuclear (because only the U.S. had the bomb) or conventional, because Imperial Japan was on its last legs. The U.S. used nuclear devices against Hiroshima and Nagasaki for a number of reasons – to test their efficacy, to make a public demonstration that there was a new global hegemon, with a special warning to the Soviet Union, the only competitor then in sight, and to produce a Japanese surrender to obviate the need for an invasion of Japan, and to do that before the Soviets mopped up too much of the Japanese army and could demand a larger role in the postwar arrangements for Japan and East Asia. The U.S. has contemplated using nuclear weapons since then, particularly during the Korea War, but has not done so although it has gone to war many times. This does not mean that it, or other countries will not employ nuclear weapons in the future but it does suggest there are good practical constraints, ranging from retaliation to undue destruction of the target country – there is no point in devastating what you expect to own.
NEEDING A THREAT
In the case of North Korea the constraints are straightforward and unambiguous. Nuclear weapons may probably provide a deterrent against attack, though this is not certain because the U.S. may be able to launch a pre-emptive (conventional) strike to take out nuclear weapons – the kill chain. What is certain, however, is that North Korea cannot use nuclear weapons in an offensive manner because the retaliation would be overwhelming. One cannot use a handful of nuclear weapons, of uncertain efficacy and with unproven delivery systems, against an adversary with thousands of nuclear weapons and well-tested delivery systems. North Korean cannot effectively threaten the United States or indeed South Korea (because of the U.S. nuclear umbrella) with nuclear weapons.
Although it is apparent that North Korea cannot pose an offensive threat, either conventional or nuclear, North Korean military capacity is much exaggerated by both sides, though for very different reasons. North Korea will boast about its military might, partly to scare off the enemy but mainly to reassure the population. That is standard procedure anywhere. But what of South Korea and the U.S.? Here capacity is transmogrified into threat; threat is capacity with a particular purpose construed by the observer. It should be noted that Pyongyang always couches its military capacity in defensive and retaliatory terms; thus Kim Jong Un’s recent claim that they possessed an “H-bomb to reliably defend its sovereignty and the dignity of the nation.”
Japan has utilized the threat to promote remilitarization. In South Korea the threat from the North helps keep the conservatives in power, the bloated military in lucrative employment and the military industrial complex in profit. For the U.S. the situation is different again, with the threat entirely bogus. On the geopolitical level it is used to justify its military presence in Korea and its control over the South Korean military, the main purpose of which is the containment of China.
And then there’s the military-industrial complex, famously attacked by Eisenhower in his valedictory speech in 1961. The military economic complex, as an economic animal, has no interest in geopolitical advantage or conquest, and whilst war against countries which cannot retaliate (Iraq, Afghanistan …) is welcome, war which involves danger is to be avoided. The problem with ramping up war hysteria against near-peer competitors such as Russia or China is that if war does break out it could prove fatal even to generals and CEOs. An adversary which can be portrayed as threatening, but is not, is much to be preferred. North Korea is the perfect candidate. A vulnerable country, very much weaker but disciplined and rational, with no messianic streak and no suicide bombers, is a safe bet. Moreover neighbours such as South Korea and Japan make excellent markets for America’s burgeoning arms exports.
Given the overwhelming military advantage and natural defenses of the U.S., and North Korea’s inability to project offensive force, selling the idea to the American taxpayer and voter that it is a threat is quite an achievement. But it has been done. Nice work if you can get it.
North Korea plays up its military capability for obvious reasons. Its adversaries also exaggerate the capability, adding the construct of threat, for different and varying reasons. With so much support it is no surprise that the myth prevails over the evidence.
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1586 words of this article.
Featured Image: Smiling North Korean Female Soldiers In Tower Of The Juche Idea, Pyongyang, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2012-09-09 08:32:38