Monday, June 14, 2010

The Korea Situation

Recent events on the Korean Peninsula present several challenges for the United States on several levels: strategic, operational and tactical. South Korea’s foreign minister said on May 19 that it was “obvious” that North Korea fired a torpedo that sank one of the South’s warships, the Cheonan, in March, killing 46 sailors. His statement was based on the findings of a multinational investigation lasting several months in which the United States was an active participant. The conclusions are based on both physical evidence and intelligence on the movement of North Korean submersibles and analysis of intercepted North Korean communications. To date, the U.S response, as expressed by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, is that North Korea must “cease provocative acts, cease acts of aggression that destabilize the region” and the United States urged the North to follow through on past commitments to abandon its nuclear program. There is also considerable diplomatic chatter about taking the issue to the UN Security Council. North Korea has stated that any military action against North Korea in response to the sinking of the Cheonan will result in “all-out war.”

The strategic reality is that the key player in any U.S.-initiated or supported effort to seriously sanction North Korea diplomatically or economically is China. China and the United States have diametrically opposed national interests relative to the Korean Peninsula. China wants a stable North Korea, and a divided peninsula. The U.S. wants a destabilized peninsula. This could ultimately result in millions of North Korean refugees flooding into China and the possibility (although remote) of a desperate North Korean regime pointing nuclear armed missiles at China. Such missiles would be difficult to intercept due to the short flight distance and would ultimately bring a unified democratic Korea on its border, a major U.S. aspiration. The irony of this is that since China is the United States’ biggest creditor, it would be loaning the United States the money to finance these problems for itself. The U.S. problem is the fact that one of its closest allies had one of its warships sunk in an unprovoked, surprise attack in international waters and it can do little about it. The limits of U.S. power and influence are showcased to its allies and enemies.

At the operational and tactical levels, the picture is equally bleak. If “all-out war” were to resume on the peninsula, it would be devastating because the North Korean regime knows it would be fighting in an “end game.” The largest population center in South Korea, Seoul, is within range of North Korean conventional artillery. Unless Seoul was essentially evacuated prior to the start of hostilities, civilian casualties would be devastating. The 28,500 U.S. service members currently in South Korea would be a primary target for a numerically overwhelming North Korean army that could quickly move south with little logistical support and no airlift required. How much combat power can a U.S. military generate that is already strained fighting two wars for seven to nine years, 7,000 miles to its east, and now fight another one 7,000 miles to its west? The logistics of such a scenario are staggering.

At the tactical level, fighting would be bloody and intense and could range from bayonets to nuclear armed ballistic missiles. The North Korean regime would be fighting for its life and would not be inclined toward early peace negations or half measures. This mindset leads to protracted conflicts, which in this case leads to significant civilian casualties in a densely populated South Korea, while the North Korean regime does not care about civilian casualties in the North or the South. Conversely, high civilian casualties do create a problem for the United States, as it would attempt to maintain its position on a moral high ground and maintain worldwide support for its actions and their consequences.

I am not advocating or discouraging any U.S. option. This is a situation that we should all monitor closely as it presents a range of problems for the United States and a relatively small array of bad options in response, with meaningful medium and long-range consequences.


  1. What is equally disturbing is North Korea's propensity to share it's nuclear, missle, and other military technologies with countries such as Pakistan (think A.Q. Khan) and Syria (

    So, what happens next when our nation state advesaries (North Korea) align with non-nation state terrorist or nationalistic groups (Al-Quaida, et al) through a funding-training-weapons cooperative relationship and attack U.S. interests at home or internationally?

    Look around at events in which radicalized or disenchanted American citizens have acted on a broader personal or religious philosophy (Little Rock Recruiting Station Incident/Time Square Car Bomb Attempt/Timothy McVeigh-Oklahoma City Bombing), in which in the future is resourced by a nation state or non-nation state actor(s)reacting to our attempts to affect an outcome to a political or military situation thousands of miles away from the United States.

  2. Nice Blog Denny. Oh and Mr. Ramsdell - more people will die in car accidents this year than have died in all of the terrorist attacks in the totality of American history. If you are interested in security, maybe we should nuke Detroit.

  3. I don't disagree with you - but when was the last time any one car wreck or the aggregate number of car wrecks in any given year profoundly changed American domestic or foreign policy? I don't recall the high costs before 2001 associated with protecting our domestic infrastructure (Airport security, Deparment of Homeland Security, military spending, etc) that to make us "safer". As long as the majority of the American public continue to look inward at their personal needs and fulfill their vision of "limited liability patriotism", any potential future events will continue to fuel a sense of either fear or cause increases to spending that will weaken our economy and greater strategic interests.