The key assumption in this scenario, and I feel this is a fairly good one, is that the fact that the DPRK performed the nuclear test indicates that Kim Jong-Il is listening to the more hard-line elements in his government. I believe the fact that they carried out the test so soon after making the announcement, which did not have time to really play and mature into options on the table with the international community, merely reinforces the fact that conciliatory parties in Pyongyang are on the margins of current decision-making.
The first action from the international community is going to be a severe reduction in the aid which flows in to North Korea. To be honest only three countries, China, South Korea, and Japan, need to cut off their aid to North Korea to cripple the country and Japan is already taking measures to isolate North Korea. The cessation of aid from these countries will put the administration in Pyongyang in a tight spot. Winter is rapidly approaching and China has just turned off the pumps which provide the DPRK with 70% of its fuel supplies. This means the DPRK either needs to bow to international pressure and sit down at the table or they have a very limited time before their ability to do anything but wither and die evaporates. Really the only thing they have to offer the international community are the lives of the civilian population, which by this point is flooding into China seeking aid, and their nuclear program. Add to this the fact that we have hard-liners advising Kim Jong-Il. The hard-liners might think they need a better position from which to bargain with the rest of the world.
Now lets take a look at the geography of Korea and the disposition of military forces across the peninsula.
The Korean Peninsula is basically a spine of mountains with narrow coastal plains down the east and west coast. This forces the majority of the population of South Korea to concentrate in a few urban areas, with Seoul being the crown jewel. Almost 40% of the population of South Korea lives in the greater Seoul metropolitan area, a metropolitan area which is only 30 miles from the DMZ which divides the country. The ROK, US, and DPRK have all positioned their military forces accordingly. According to the summary of OPLAN 5027, which is the US-ROK Combined Forces Command basic war plan for a second war on the Korean Peninsula, on GlobalSecurity.org:
Pyongyang can credibly threaten the prompt destruction of Seoul with conventional arms alone…North Korea has about 500 long-range artillery tubes within range of Seoul, double the levels of the mid-1990s. Seoul is within range of the 170mm Koksan gun and two hundred 240mm multiple-rocket launchers. The proximity of these long-range systems to the Demilitarized Zone threatens all of Seoul with devastating attacks…Without moving any artillery pieces, the North could sustain up to 500,000 rounds an hour against Combined Forces Command defenses for several hours.Kind of scary, isn’t it? In addition to the threat to Seoul, again representing close to 40% of the population, there is the wider threat that the DPRK could, “…attack with minial preparations. This means a surprise attack on South Korea is possible at any time without a prior redeployment of its units,” and, “…a war could explode after a warning of only a few hours or days…” (Again from the GlobalSecurity.org summary of OPLAN 5027.)
Now we have a group of hard-liners who feel like they are in a “use ‘em or lose ‘em” scenario. They have a hard winter coming and very limited supplies of food and fuel. They have a target approximately 30 miles away which will give them 23 million or so lives with which to bargain with. While it is a gamble, it is not a completely unreasonable idea that the DPRK could invade the south with the limited objectives of capturing Seoul and the Han River Valley. The reading I have done indicates that most military planners accept that the North Koreans would see some success in the initial thirty days of a broad offensive. How much could they improve their chances by concentrating their attack on the one place that matters?
The current situation with the United States military just adds to the incentive for North Korea to do this now rather than wait. OPLAN 5027 is predicated on the forces currently in theater to fight a defensive campaign against the invading North while U.S. forces are brought in from the rest of the world. We are currently having trouble meeting our needs and commitments due to the number of boots on the ground in Iraq. If North Korea starts a war right now I believe we would have trouble mustering the troops to push them north of the DMZ. Add to this the fact that North Korea might be banking on China’s fear of a U.S. client state right on its doorstep for some sort of regime preservation and things could get very messy in Korea very quickly.
You’ll notice that I did not mention the North Korean nuclear threat in this scenario. This is because, as I have stated previously, I do not believe the North Koreans would use nuclear weapons on the peninsula, particularly against urban areas such as Seoul. The amount of arable land on the Korean Peninsula is very limited and I believe this would be a major factor in the North Korean plans. This does not mean the North might not attempt to use nuclear weapons against U.S. forces stationed in Japan and Okinawa. In fact that is the perfect place for them to be used. They would eliminate the first round of reinforcements which would be brought to bear on the Korean situation and as Japan does not have any real offensive military power, its not like they can strike back in any meaningful way. Of course then you get into the question of how could the DPRK deliver these little care packages which, while possible, would be iffy at best.
Ultimately I do not believe this is how things will end up happening, but I found it to be an interesting mental exercise and thought I would share some of my thoughts with you kids. I promise I will bring back the funny at some point this week, but I think tomorrow’s piece is most likely going to be my thoughts on what this is doing to the Korean people, a story which, so far, has been under-reported.