Since 1950, when North Korea launched its invasion against the south, the United Nations Security Council had been in a permanent diplomatic warfare against Pyongyang. Out of the twenty two resolutions, seventeen were adopted through the 1990s and the almost two decades of the 2000s. In particular, eight resolutions between January 2013, and June 2017, condemning North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons, were unanimously approved by the Security Council. The North Korean despot, Kim Jong-un, has not recognized the right of the Security Council to sanction his regime for its serial violations of international law. For decades, the international community has alternated between economic pressure and diplomatic dialogue, without any noticeable success. Most recently, the Trump Administration and Congress have floated the option of military action, coupled with regime change, and possible unification ofthe two Koreas.
Because of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and its arsenal of heavy artillery aimed at the heavily populated Seoul region, there is no question that the entire situation in the Korean peninsula is an extremely complicated one.
In a country with an authoritarian despotic political regime and a barely functioning economy, sanctions do not significantly affect the ruling elite. Isolating such a regime from the rest of the world means nothing for Kim Jong-un and his associates, because isolation of their subjects from the rest of the world has been official policy since the state’s inception. When analyzed carefully, the military option, debated with increasing seriousness in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, is also not particularly viable for the following reasons.
The first and perhaps the most important question to be answered is that what would a military campaign against North Korea solve or accomplish? Moreover, even if a Blitzkrieg would be carried out with absolute perfection, the military would be wiped out totally, and the regime would collapse, what would follow such a complete annihilation? Finally, there is the political consideration. Internationally, no one really wants a unified Korea. China, Russia, and Japan would definitely object to an economically strong and populous state on the peninsula. It is also doubtful that South Korea would want to take upon the enormous task of rebuilding a devastated north. The United States should also be worried about the political, financial, and economic costs of such a unification. Domestically, in the United States, there would be scant enthusiasm and support for a preemptive war with North Korea.
More practically, a full scale warfare would result in all probability in significant civilian casualties. Approximately, one half of South Korea’s population of fifty two million reside in the capital Seoul or its metropolitan area. Seoul is about thirty three miles away from the border with the north. On the other side of the border, the terrain is forbidding. The mountains are laden with marble that is not easy the destroy. Deep inside these mountains are hidden about twenty eight thousand artillery units with enough firepower to cause horrific bloodbath in the south. The ensuing panic would definitely affect the moral of the military as well as the civilian population. Consequently, the public relations effects of such a mayhem would be also devastating to the public opinion in the United States and across the globe.
The South Korean military is professional and by far more modern than its counterpart in the north. However, to combat the incoming fire from heavy artillery and tactical missiles is nearly impossible. The closely forty thousand American troops under the aegis of the UN are nothing but tripwires. Without substantial reinforcement, these forces could not withstand the expected onslaught of the North Korean army. The 25th infantry division in Hawaii, with the additional brigade stationed in Alaska would be overcommitted, below strength, and logistically challenged. Adding insult to the Obama era’s neglect is the lack of sufficient strategic reserves. Essentially, in conventional terms, the United States does not have a preponderance of force either in the Korean peninsula or in its close vicinity.
What could be a viable strategy? What could be the solution? Like every authoritarian despotism, the North Korean regime has both its strong and its weak points. Foremost among them is the extreme centralization of the Kims’ regime. Extreme centralization means that decision making is concentrated in very few hands that renders the regime and its military command structure extremely rigid. Except for Kim Jong-un no one can make major decisions even at the highest levels. Field commanders have not been taught to think independently or outside the box. In addition, these commanders are vulnerable to the curse of bribery. With Kim Jong-un’s distrust bordering on paranoia, a well coordinated psychological campaign could create substantial chaos in the ranks of the military.
Strategically, reinforcing the American military presence with the strengthening of allied forces would keep the North Korean regime permanently on the edge. Diplomatically, vigilant neglect would be the best course of action. Such a posture would signal to the rest of the world that the United States does not underestimate the threat posed by North Korea, yet it judges realistically the limited significance of a state on the edge of the abyss.
Meanwhile, the United States as the sole super power,and also its allies have the responsibility to maintain peace, in order to establish stability regionally and globally. Only in this manner could the United States play a leading role in averting the most awful of all evils, a nuclear war first in the Korean peninsula and beyond.