The time to pay for our sins has come. The United States has a huge problem in Pyongyang as well as a legacy of responsibility regarding Korea. Most readers will readily acknowledge the danger that a nuclear weapons and intercontinental missile equipped North Korea presents. Many will also recognize that the window for action is rapidly closing.
What some in the West do not accept is that, while South Korea and other states in Northeast Asia have certain levels of responsibility for their own security and well-being, Washington must shoulder much of the obligation for this, for at least two reasons. The first is that the U.S. is party to a number of regional treaties, and that as the last remaining world power, only it has the ability to deal with certain international affairs.
Specifically concerning South Korea, the second reason is that it is the fault of the U.S. that the Korean Peninsula is divided today. This is not a reference to U.S. President Truman’s decision to prevent General MacArthur from attempting to reunite all of Korea during the Korean War. It goes back to an event that occurred nearly five years before that conflict broke out, a decision that was made in haste during the closing days of World War II.
THE TRAGEDY OF IGNORANCE
Only in the final days before the Japanese surrender did the peninsula gain attention
Not only did the West and its allies ignore the Korean Peninsula prior to World War II, no one gave much thought about how to end the Japanese occupation of that country. Consequently, and despite other planning for the demise of Imperial Japan when it became clear that Tokyo was going to be defeated, Korea was ignored. Only in the final days before the Japanese surrender did the peninsula gain attention.
Even then, the level of consideration was scant. Two field-grade U.S. army officers, without benefit of Asian experts or even tactical intelligence on Soviet progress in the Far East, were given a short amount of time in which to decide where to divide Korea. Using an old National Geographic map of the peninsula, the 38th Parallel was chosen strictly out of convenience to cede roughly half of Korea to the Soviets who had entered the war in Asia only a few days before. By this act, the Americans “broke” the peninsula in two, and for that Washington will always have some responsibility for putting things right.
DECADES OF STATUS QUO
For decades since the Korean War, the U.S. has maintained tens of thousands of troops in South Koreas as a tripwire against another invasion by the North. Believing that crossing the DMZ and engaging American forces would bring the full might of the U.S. back to peninsula, Pyongyang carefully restricted its activities to harassing incidents, nothing to cause Washington to respond.
That status quo changed when it became clear that North Korea was making great strides towards it objective of developing nuclear weapons. Even so, the acknowledgement that Pyongyang was serious about becoming a nuclear power was late in coming when its efforts were finally recognized in the 1980s.
TALKING WITH THE DEVIL
For more than 30 years, the United States has tried a number of strategies and tactics to induce North Korea into abandoning its nuclear ambitions – all to no avail. The few agreements that were reached soon dissolved. And while there have been recriminations of violations of agreements by both sides, it is clear that the North Koreans have rarely negotiated in good faith.
For those wanting a detailed listing of the discussion and negotiating failures between the West and North Korea, please see the Arms Control Association Fact Sheet on the Chronology of U.S.-North Korea Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy, which was updated this last March.
It is unfortunate that Pyongyang’s representatives seem to better parse words and quickly discover loopholes in order to get what they want without sacrificing anything they want to keep. Washington is almost always outplayed – and even when it is not, Pyongyang eventually reneges on the agreement when it is convenient to do so.
THE DEVIL’S HAND
Everyone pays attention to the nuclear devices, and the medium- to long-range missiles have certainly captured media attention. But there are other weapons that few ever talk about, the ones the Pyongyang would use on the northern portion of South Korea, including much of Seoul.
According to a U.S. Department of Defense analysis released in early 2014, North Korea has approximately 8,600 artillery pieces and more than 4,800 multiple rocket launchers. More recent news reports indicate that the number and range of these weapons has increased. Nearly all can reach at least the northern portions of the greater Seoul metropolitan area.
Further, many assume that such weapons would be armed with conventional explosives. Perhaps, but what about chemical or biological weapons? North Korea has both. That escalates the consequences considerably for at least two reasons: (1) It is nearly impossible to defend the civilian population against such agents, and (2) it is equally difficult to deal with the after-effects of such weapons. For further details, readers are reminded of an earlier essay in which these weapons are discussed in more detail.
The North has a new leader who is reportedly quite stubborn and unwilling to take advice
Four years ago, the Nautilus Institute published a rather dismissive report that minimized the risk to Seoul and its surrounding environs. That report was overly optimistic when it was released, and conditions on the Korean Peninsula have only worsened. The North has a new leader who is reportedly quite stubborn and unwilling to take advice. Now is not the time to be cavalier about civilian lives.
TIME HAS RUN OUT
The status quo is no longer tenable. If something is to be done, now is the last opportunity. A number of recent articles have pointed out with painful bluntness the undeniable failure of diplomacy. Talking for more than three decades has resulted in a North Korea with perhaps as many as 10 nuclear warheads, a newly developed missile with the range to reach as far as Guam in the South Pacific Ocean, and a re-entry technology capable of withstanding the rigors of intercontinental delivery.
Recently and quite notably, the commercial open source intelligence firm Strategic Forecasting published a series (available only through subscription) about the problem posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs and how to deal militarily with it. Naturally, North Korea reacted with a denunciation, indicating that the articles touched a sensitive nerve.
Does that indicate that the North feels vulnerable? It should, for even though pre-emptive strikes upon its nuclear and missile facilities would likely precipitate a massive hail of retaliatory rockets and missiles against South Korea – and possibly even Japan and U.S. bases elsewhere in the Pacific Theater – Kim Jong Un certainly realizes that it would hasten the end of his regime. The catch is that the demise of his reign would not come without pain for the West.
Even under the best case scenario, there would be tremendous civil unrest, social chaos and economic drains hard to imagine – and challenging to prepare for and deal with. More likely, however, is a conflagration in which the most horrible casualties are borne by the South Korea civilian population. Yet something has to be done. The decision to make no decision – the American so-called “strategic patience” approach – is a tacit choice to accept the rogue regime as a nuclear weapons power. The point here is that dithering is for the weak – or the inept.
CONSIDERING THE END
In 1994, then-U.S. President Clinton was considering preemptive strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities, but former President Carter, who was in Pyongyang as a private citizen for talks with Kim Il Sung, reported a “breakthrough.” Consequently, the implementation of plans for preventive attacks was put on hold. Since then, it is known that a number of high-ranking U.S. officials have discussed at various times the need for taking out North Korean nuclear and missile facilities, though obviously no action has ever been taken.
It would seem that neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities is politically unacceptable to Washington. For the time being, this issue is apparently on hold for the next U.S. Commander-in-Chief to handle. However, even though the U.S. has an innate interest in and a responsibility for the situation on the Korean Peninsula today, any decision to strike the North is not Washington’s alone, for this is not a unilateral issue.
Any cost-benefit calculus must give weighty consideration to humanitarian issues as much – if not more than – military factors. The real question is whether the leaders of South Korea – actually, its citizens – are willing to accept the horrible carnage and destruction that would surely ensue should Seoul agree to any attack on the North. Facing this stark reality, the choice of whether (a) to accept North Korea as a nuclear power, or (b) to attempt to destroy its nuclear and missile threats before they can be used becomes a decision of the highest gravity.
It seems that – in the absence of spectacular strategic planning and near-flawless execution of battlefield tactics by both Washington and Seoul – Pyongyang holds the high cards in this game. But alas, this isn’t a game: It is deadly serious.
Image: Rodong Sinmun