Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reality Check

So North Korea is to get away with murder again because there is nothing we can do without making the situation worse?

Washington has relatively few options when dealing with Pyongyang. Military action is particularly unappealing, since the unpredictable North possesses crude nuclear weapons as well as a huge standing army. North Korea exists largely outside the system of international financial and diplomatic institutions that the U.S. has used as leverage in dealing with other hostile countries, including Iran.

This is highly misleading. One, is the writer really trying to draw a contrast with our successful pressure on Iran which is in the international system? Nice try. Iran has way more ways to go around our sanctions. And Iran has more room to fall without reaching a critical point where they collapse. North Korea still needs a bit from the international system, and we have less to track with regard to North Korea to halt key strategic goods and luxury goods for the elites. We can continue to squeeze North Korea.

But the main points that are wrong are the military assessments. North Korea does not have crude nuclear weapons. At best, they have crude nuclear devices. I have never read anything that indicates that they have weaponized anything. They are moving that way, but they are a way off. And if they used a small number even if they had some weapons, we'd obliterate the entire leadership structure and military of North Korea with nuclear and precison conventional counter-strikes.

As for their huge standing army, it is equipped with obsolete weapons, is poorly trained, and is composed of soldiers who starved before entering the army. It would be crushed in war. It has been a long time since North Korea posed a credible threat to invade and hold South Korean territory. Now, general war would result in the destruction of the northern regime. If South Korea retaliates for this incident with force, North Korea will have a major choice to make, and it is Pyongyang which has limited military options.

What North Korea can do is commit discrete acts of terror, including today's bombardment and the March sinking of the South Korean corvette. And it can bombard Seoul with large numbers of artillery pieces and rockets sitting north of the DMZ. This threat is enhanced by the potential to use chemical warheads. The latter would likely trigger a US nuclear response.

And if North Korea exercises that option, South Korea could, I believe, advance north of the DMZ to carve out a no-launch zone by pushing north with their army to occupy territory that could be used to base artillery to attack Seoul. South Korea could push the vast majority of the North Korean artillery out of range of Seoul.

Then North Korea would have the choice of expanding the war and risking that South Korea would go all in and advance on Pyongyang to hang that SOB Kim (whichever one is in charge when they reach the northern capital).

Really, the only reason South Korea shouldn't retaliate with force is that on the current course of talking intermittently and squeezing North Korea is slowly strangling North Korea. This is a winning strategy, I think, as long as it works before North Korea gets actual nuclear weapons. If an attack risks rallying the people around the regime, that would be an error that would allow the north to endure hardships more. But I honestly don't think the people of the north would rally around the flag--especially if the attack is made by air on a coastal target away from easy view.

The problem now is that after the March attack, will South Korea really just accept this attack and do nothing? True, South Korea returned fire immediately in the area, but is this enough of a response to avoid giving North Korea the idea that they can get away with murder whenever they want? That invites more North Korean attacks that risk demoralizing South Koreans who will feel they can just sit and take punishment with no options.

If South Korea instead saddles up to launch one big coordinated air strike on the artillery positions that carried out today's attack on South Korea, the South Koreans will inflict a lot of damage on the northerners. And with lots of South Korean and perhaps American fighter aircraft in the air, if North Korea challenged the strike package, the North Koreans would be fighting in the area of their greatest inferiority--air combat. It would be a turkey shoot over the Yellow Sea. But escalating to the main front on the DMZ will just risk further escalation that ends with the destruction of the Northern regime.

North Korea will find they have few options short of suicidal escalation. The problem, of course, is that we have no way of knowing whether North Korea's leaders understand the reality of their military inferiority. We could launch an alpha strike type mission knowing that North Korea would be stupid to escalate, only to find that the North Koreans are too ignorant to know better.

And then we'll have a bloody war. We'd win that war, but a lot of people would die before we could end it. End it, that is, unless the Chinese are equally stupid and decide that worthless country North Korea is worth fighting for. Again, we should win that war, but I'd hate to lose anyone over that black hole of misery with a UN seat.

I'm grateful I don't have the responsibility for making the call on this one.

UPDATE: If you wonder why North Korea would shy away from an air battle:

North Korea warplanes are supplied with minimal fuel for training flights, and their ejection seats are disabled in peacetime. Other interceptors are kept in readiness to chase down and destroy defectors. ...

North Korean aircraft are much older than their South Korean counterparts, and their pilots get much less time in the air.

The North Koreans have to worry about how many planes they send out to challenge South Korean aircraft would not return--either shot down or ditched at sea to hope for rescue by the South Korean navy.

If I was going to retalitate, this is the way I'd go. And South Korea sure seems determined not to let this outrage slide:

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Tuesday ordered to punish North Korea's shelling of one of the South's border islands "through action," in a bid to prevent further provocation.

"Enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again," the South's Yonhap news agency quoted South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as saying in the headquarters of the country's joint chief of staff in Seoul.

This is not over, it seems.