When Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said North Korea should “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq,” the meaning was clear: The United States might send in the Marines. The administration apparently believes that its hard-line stance led to the three-way talks among North Korea, China and the U.S. planned for later this week. And if the talks bog down or blow up, Bolton’s statement implies that war again will be an option.
But we should know clearly what we may provoke, and it isn’t a limited, quick, low-casualty Iraqi-style conflict. Where North Korea is concerned, even a limited military strike almost certainly means full-scale war on the Korean peninsula, with massive casualties and widespread devastation.
The North is thought to possess one or two nuclear weapons or at least has reprocessed enough plutonium to make them. More important, it has cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework, which froze its nuclear program, and it also has taken a series of increasingly provocative steps.
North Korea probably chose the current path for a mixture of reasons. Its putative nuclear capability is the only reason other nations pay any attention to an otherwise bankrupt, irrelevant state. So far the nuclear option also has been useful in eliciting bribes, such as fuel oil shipments and financial aid. Moreover, developing a nuclear arsenal may be the surest route to ensuring that the U.S. does not attack.
A decade ago, many American policymakers and pundits blithely talked about military options for destroying the Yongbyon reactor and other North Korean nuclear facilities. Many people, apparently including President Bush, seem to be making the same calculations again.
It is not surprising that policymakers in Seoul, within easy reach of North Korean artillery and Scud missiles, have a different perspective. Officials in Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo also worry about radioactive fallout, missile attacks, refugee flows, economic turmoil and regional chaos. Even among the countries in the region most vulnerable to a North Korea with nuclear weapons, there is no constituency for war.
South Korea is particularly adamant. As President Roh Moo Hyun said, “For Washington, their prime interest lies in getting rid of weapons of mass destruction to restore the world order, but for us it’s a matter of survival.”
Some advocates of military action predict that Pyongyang would not retaliate against a blow to its nuclear facilities. Others propose coupling such a military strike with the use or threat of tactical nuclear weapons against the North’s conventional forces.
But to attack and assume the North would not respond would be a wild gamble. A military strike might not get all of Pyongyang’s nuclear assets, and hitting the reprocessing facility and spent fuel rods could create radioactive fallout over China, Japan, Russia or South Korea.
Moreover, given the official U.S. policy of preemption, designation of the North as a member of the “axis of evil” and the Iraq war, Pyongyang might decide that even a limited military strike was the opening of a war for regime change.
In that case, it would make sense to roll the tanks. An account by a high-ranking defector, Cho Myung Chul, is particularly sobering. In analyzing Iraq’s defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, North Korean military officials concluded that Baghdad was too defensive. Cho related the North Korean view as: “If we’re in a war, we’ll use everything. And if there’s a war, we should attack first, to take the initiative.” He estimates the chances of general war at 80% in response to even a limited strike on Yongbyon.
Unfortunately, “everything” is a daunting force: In addition to a large army, the North possesses long-range artillery and rocket launchers, up to 600 Scud missiles and additional longer-range No Dong missiles. And it has developed a significant number and range of chemical and perhaps biological weapons. Estimates as to the number of casualties run to more than 1 million.
Also possible would be a limited retaliatory strike against the United States’ Yongsan base in the center of Seoul. The Seoul-Inchon metropolis includes roughly half of South Korea’s population, about 24 million people, and is the nation’s industrial heartland. Pyongyang is thought to be able to fire up to 500,000 shells an hour into Seoul.
Washington could hardly afford not to respond to an attack on Yongsan, yet retaliation would probably lead to general war. Such a scenario might threaten civilian control of the military in Seoul; the perception that South Koreans died because the U.S. acted against the wishes of the Roh administration might create a decisive split between Seoul and Washington.
Dealing with North Korea could prove to be one of the most vexing challenges for this administration. Military action does not offer a simple solution but rather portends a real war of horrific destructiveness.