North Korea’s missile tests have been all over the news recently. Whether those tests are actually intended to showcase North Korea’s military ability or just a desperate attempt to gain attention is unclear. What is clear, however, is that war against North Korea wouldn’t be a cake walk. Westerners might look down their noses at the backwardness and insularity of the hermit kingdom, but that could lead to severely underestimating the ferocity of a North Korean response to US military action.
What Is the Goal?
As Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated in a recent interview, the only way to successfully wage a war is to have the end situation in mind. Going into a war with no clearly defined final objectives to resolve the conflict will result in an open-ended quagmire such as we are currently experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan. It leads to peacekeeping forces, nation-building, and a whole host of other activities for which militaries are ill-equipped. So what is the end game in North Korea?
It really should be up to the Korean people themselves to decide what to do with North Korea. Presumably the United States would like to see a reunited Korea, but do South Koreans still want that, and if so do they want it immediately? The reunification of Germany is a cautionary tale in that regard, as the reunification was fought for successfully, but ended up costing the country greatly. East Germany was so backward that its companies and resources were essentially useless. Even today, massive subsidies flow from West to East to continue building up East Germany to Western standards.
The situation in Korea is likely far worse. While North Korea obviously has some technical and industrial capability, it is nowhere close to South Korea, which has built itself up over the past three decades into a technological and industrial powerhouse, one of the “Asian Tigers.” Reunification of Korea would mean an immediate 50% increase in population, but a population that is largely poor, technologically illiterate, and victimized by over 60 years of anti-Western and anti-South Korean propaganda. The stress on South Korea’s economy at attempting to reunify and integrate North Korea would inflict a heavy toll. US military action without the input and permission of South Korea would likely leave South Korea holding the bag for what could end up being a very messy situation.
The North Korean Military Threat
Then there is the military factor. Many Americans like to put a lot of stock in stealth technology, long-range cruise missiles, drone strikes, and various other whiz-bang weaponry. At the end of the day, however, it will be boots on the ground that get the job done, and that promises to be a very long and bloody task. The Korean War very quickly became a forgotten war, just a minor speed bump between World War II and Vietnam. But those who fought there or who have studied the war in detail remember how hellish it was. Even with technological superiority, the terrain, weather, and tenacity of North Korean soldiers would make for a very hard slog.
North Korea certainly hasn’t forgotten the lessons of the war, as it has spend the last 60+ years preparing for another one. It is estimated that the North has as many as 12,000 artillery pieces, many of them aimed at Seoul, which is only about 35 miles from the border. Some estimates state that Seoul could be on the receiving end of around 500,000 artillery shells within the first hour of any full-scale military conflict. The devastation, both physical and psychological, would be intense. Add in the threat of hundreds of ballistic missiles, mostly conventional but possibly nuclear, biological, or chemical, and you have a recipe for a disaster.
It’s easy for American pundits to advocate for war against North Korea, but most Americans don’t have any skin in the game, especially policymakers in Washington. The grunts putting life and limb on the line will suffer, and so will millions of innocent South Koreans. South Korean industry will suffer heavily too, and given the ubiquity of South Korean products in the world market today the world economy will therefore be negatively affected. A conflict in North Korea would inevitably draw in China, much like it did during the 1950s, which would also be disruptive to world trade.
All of this is just scratching the surface of potential pitfalls that face any military action against North Korea. We should expect our political leaders to keep this in mind when discussing the North Korean issue. All it takes is a little too much bellicose rhetoric and things could get really ugly in a hurry. Let’s hope that cooler heads will prevail.