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North Korea's Nukes

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Fixing the Mess in Korea

July 7th 2017

North Korean rocket Apr 2012

To fix the mess in Korea, I’ve argued in  “How to Create Regime Change in North Korea,” that we need to take two important steps. First, sponsor a government in exile to replace North Korea’s Kim Jong-un regime. Second, put in place a nuclear missile defense, preferably in South Korea, to create a counterforce to North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons.

Today, North Korea’s conventional forces are technically stronger than South Korea’s, with more men and equipment. However, North Korea’s technologly is inferior.  It holds a strong threat over South Korea by positioning a massive amount of conventional heavy artillery near the armistice line between North and South Korea. This not only threatens South Korean capital, Seoul, but also the U.S. troops along the border.  Thus, as Secretary of Defense General Mattis says, any war in Korea would be a catastrophe.

Overall, South Korea’s security has been based on the U.S. being a trip wire. It has always been terribly dangerous to keep American troops parked in South Korea, given that they would be subject to very heavy bombardment. Now, with nuclear weapons and tactical-range ballistic missiles, the safety of those troops is very questionable.The North Korean strategy is to force the United States out of South Korea. Once that is done, the North would have a free hand to intimidate and threaten South and force it into accommodations that would almost certainly result in the collapse of South’s democracy and a transitional regime before a merger that would transfer the South’s huge wealth and preserve the Kim dynasty.

The North Korean strategy is to force the United States out of South Korea. Once that is done, the North would have a free hand to intimidate and threaten South and force it into accommodations that would almost certainly result in the collapse of South’s democracy and a transitional regime before a merger that would transfer the South’s huge wealth and preserve the Kim dynasty.

South Korea is a very shaky democracy at best. Its trials and tribulations are just a prologue to what we can expect in the coming years. There is no clear path to a road to stability without the South being more secure and able to defend itself.

North Korea may be brutal, but it isn’t stupid. It has few assets, a deplorable economy, occasional famines and odious human rights practices. It has nothing worthwhile to bargain with, which is why it has set out on a course of developing weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems, primarily short, medium and long-range rockets.

The U.S. poses a problem to the North. Thus, it is looking for a way to keep the U.S. out of Korea’s politics and military strategy. Using long range ICBMs is one way to do that. The North Koreans know the clock is ticking, and they are hurrying to put up a credible long-range strike capability against the U.S. as a deterrent that would persuade the Americans to back off from interfering.

This is a game (or struggle, to name it correctly) the outcome of which can go either way. It is clear to me that leaving the situation frozen without countering North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development is a recipe for incipient disaster. The old strategies are not credible in a one-sided nuclear environment.

It is true, of course, that the U.S. has lots of nuclear strike capabilities. But that is not good enough because it is far from clear we would do anything if South Korea were threatened, even with a nuclear attack. And, as anyone sensible would know, the U.S. would be exposed to a nuclear strike on the West Coast given the alleged range of North Korea’s new ICBMs.

Depending on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) is such a risky proposition that no one can seriously think it can protect either South Korea, Japan or the U.S. For example, in the latest Korean ICBM launch, THAAD did nothing. But how will we know when it is not a test launch?

Even worse, THAAD has never been used other than under testing scenarios, and even there has not worked all that well. In the first six test launches, Thaad failed entirely; it worked only in two tests. Moreover, experts say that THAAD can be defeated by a swarm of missiles, and North Korea has been launching swarm missiles to show they can do exactly that. No one should bet on Thaad or, put another way, a THAAD deployment is not a strategy, not even a reliable stopgap.

The only credible means for us to respond is to set up a counterforce capability in South Korea, and potentially in Japan, too. That would upset the North Korean apple cart and force them to bargain. A counterforce would look like the Pershing II missiles we deployed in Germany after the Russians fielded the SS-20 mobile missiles there. And, keep in mind that North Korea’s missiles seem to be mobile, therefore hard to track, and easy to hide.

As for defense strategy, the U.S. has been showing that it has effective air and naval forces that could be deployed to show the North Koreans we are serious. But most of these are at best short-term stratagems; you can’t keep aircraft carriers and submarines off the Korean coast full time because we don’t have enough of them and we can’t support them that well. And parking B-1 bombers or even F-35’s in South Korea is likewise risky since they could be taken out even by conventional artillery if they are on the ground.

In short, if we plan to be serious regarding North Korea and want to get them to back down from their missile and nuclear program, we need a serious counterforce.

But that is not enough.

A military approach is not enough. It needs a political formula as well. For some time now, the regime of Kim Jong-un has been under internal assault. He had to liquidate several close aides and arrange the murder of his exiled half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam. From what can be gleaned from newspaper stories and the assessments of experts, Kim Jong-Nam was considered by China a pliable successor to Kim Jong-un. Thus, Kim Jong-un made several attempts to assassinate him, until he succeeded poising him with Sarin (a fast-acting deadly nerve agent) in Malaysia as he entered the airport on his way back to Macau, where he was living.

All of this suggests that the current North Korean government has many enemies and internal threats.

To exploit this, the nascent opposition needs outside support and the best way to give it is through a government in exile.

There are different models for a government in exile: it can be made of a collection of defectors or by creating a broader coalition of North and South with a strong reconciliation and unification mission.

The U.S. could fund an exile government and provide the tools it might need to sell its story in the North. The more it is heard, the more tangible it is an option and the more the internal opposition will have somewhere to turn for support.

The combination of these two alternatives –military and political– are serious and deserve serious study. Current U.S., Japan, and South Korean strategy is a dead end. It leads to bigger and bigger problems in future, even war. The best way to prevent war is through good deterrence and active measures. The analog to this thought is, of course, what President Reagan did in the 1980’s when he challenged the Soviet Union, leading to serious reductions in nuclear missiles, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the USSR.


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