In recent days, mass media have been reporting a so-called North Korea crisis, with some media and pundits warning of “imminent war” or even “nuclear war.”
Some media outlets sent reporters to Guam to cover North Korea’s “threat to launch a ballistic missile attack” in the waters surrounding the U.S. territory. The hysteria escalated in the shadow of Donald Trump’s outbursts on Twitter and his verbal comments aired through broadcast and print media. Some pundits described the situation as the most dangerous and volatile since the Cuban missile crisis.
But despite the heated rhetoric and media reports of crisis, the risk of war on the Korean peninsula this month remains very low. Except for the occasional suicide bomber who wishes to become a martyr, rational actors do not initiate military operations against adversaries that could deliver unacceptable retaliation.
The recent media frenzy over the “Korea crisis” was based on assumptions that the Trump administration might order military operations against North Korea before Pyongyang deploys a reliable long-range missile strike capability against the U.S. mainland.
The status of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities has been discussed and analyzed at length elsewhere, and some analysts are still skeptical whether North Korea can deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. Others have debated the necessity, plausibility, and the desirability of a “military option” against North Korea.
The status of North Korean military capabilities and discussions of allied military options are very important. However, they offer no insights into whether armed attacks are imminent in Northeast Asia. Of course, military actions can occur very quickly due to errors or misperception, but a premeditated military attack against North Korea would require several steps that are observable, yet still absent today.
First, the U.S. military and the South Korean military would raise the Watch Condition (WATCHCON). Subsequently, the U.S. military would raise the Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) and the South Korean military would raise its equivalent warning condition (진도개). With the threat and defense readiness condition elevated, the military would cancel voluntary leave for military personnel and put them on standby, pending any necessary call to duty stations.
The risk of war on the Korean peninsula this month remains very low
Spoiler alert! I will be teaching graduate courses in late August through September at Osan Air Base and Humphreys Army Garrison. My students are U.S. military personnel who would be directly involved in military operations against North Korea, and these two bases are major hubs that would be critical to sustaining military operations against the [North] Korean People’s Army (KPA). This week is add/drop week for this term, but students are not cropping their classes to receive tuition refunds. And before anyone accuses me of violating operations security (OPSEC) principles by revealing this information, it is public information that is easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Second, prior to commencing large-scale military attacks against North Korea, it’s inconceivable that the U.S. would not issue a noncombatant evacuation order (NEO).
In South Korea, there are over 100,000 Americans who would be caught in the crossfire, and that does not count the large number of Japanese, British, Australians, Canadians, and others, including Chinese and Russians. Some very senior American political leaders have said that even though a conflict in Korea would be terrible, at least it would be “over there” and not on the U.S. mainland. However, I don’t think constituents would be less horrified if their family members and friends were being slaughtered in Korea rather than in “the homeland.”
Third, the ROK military would have to recall reservists. This step, along with an American NEO, would be very disruptive to the economy. The political response would be uncertain and would depend on the context. However, confidence in the South Korean economy would plummet, and global markets would be roiling.
Fourth, the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) would need to start flowing resources to the region, especially to bases in South Korea and Japan. Hardware such as naval vessels and strike aircraft arriving in East Asia would be observable immediately.
Furthermore, PACOM could not do this without permission from the host nations. As soon as the South Korean President and the Japanese Prime Minister learned that the resources would be used to launch an unprovoked first-strike against North Korea, they would terminate access to the bases unless the planned military actions were justified.
Fifth, the previous steps would indicate that the possibility of war has increased dramatically. This would require consultation by the national command authorities of South Korea and the United States regarding the transfer of operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military to the Combined Forces Command (CFC) commander, General Vincent Brooks.
A premeditated military attack against North Korea would require several steps that are observable, yet still absent today
OPCON transfer is not automatic. The U.S. and South Korean presidents both have to offer their consent. This step would indicate that the U.S. and South Korea are serious about taking military action against North Korea.
Sixth, since a military conflict with North Korea would be very intense and unlike anything we have ever witnessed, Seoul and Washington would seek support from other allies and partners.
In particular, they would reach out for support from the United Nations Command (UNC) sending states that supported the ROK during the Korean War. Some of those 16 sending states still participate in the joint, combined and multinational military exercises Key Resolve, Foal Eagle, and Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG). Active participants in the annual exercises have included Australia, Canada, the UK, New Zealand, Denmark, and others.
These are liberal democracies with leaders who are accountable to their respective electorates. I’m no expert on the domestic politics of these allied countries, but I can’t imagine their citizens supporting participation in an unprovoked military adventure against North Korea under the current conditions.
Seventh, support of allies, almost certainly, would be contingent upon justification under international law, which would require a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against North Korea. Without it, unilateral U.S. military action would be viewed as illegal aggression, and allied support for the U.S. would practically vanish.
Even if the U.S. could convince the UK and France to support “the military option” against North Korea, it’s inconceivable that China and Russia would support the use of force unless North Korea were to have engaged in large-scale aggression against its neighbors.
The ROK military would have to recall reservists. This step, along with an American NEO, would be very disruptive
Eighth, the U.S. cannot execute and sustain large-scale military operations. After years of conflict in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it appears that some pundits overestimate the ability of the U.S. to conduct unilateral military operations in Northeast Asia.
The Korean peninsula is not Afghanistan or the Middle East. The fact is that the U.S military cannot fight a war in Korea without the consent and support of its South Korean and Japanese allies.
The institutional configuration of the CFC and UNC, combined training, the newly formed U.S. and ROK Combined Division, Korean Augmentees to the U.S. Army (KATUSA) embedded with U.S. Army units, South Korean civilian employees who provide services to the U.S. military in Korea, and other critical South Korean support make it impossible for the U.S. unilaterally to order, execute, and sustain military operations against North Korea.
Although there seems to be some convergence of North Korean and Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S. military is not ready for military conflict in Korea. The actions and behavior of all actors in the region indicate that war or conflict is not imminent, and there is no “Korea crisis.” This does not mean that the situation cannot change. The situation could change, and it could change quickly.
But if there were a real Korean crisis, it would be obvious to everyone.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons
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Featured Image: Seoul Downtown by mariosp on 2012-05-06 12:48:55