Tuesday, April 01, 2003


One of the consequences of my obsession with the current war is the unavoidable linkage with North Korea. We all remember the run-up to the Iraq war, when the taunts from certain quarters were all the same: "So why don't you attack North Korea, huh, huh? They're bad. And they have nukes. So why don't you attack them, huh? Huh? What's the matter, scared?" For several months we were treated to policy analysts sounding like nothing so much as extras from West Side Story.

With that as a background, it's been interesting to see the immediate political fallout in that region from the Iraq war: China, after months of American requests, finally cut oil supplies to the Kim Jong Il regimefor a few days in the immediate period before the war. This, the very first sign of local pressure on Kim from his supporters in China and Russia, has not had any apparent effect on the regime's behavior, as it still issues weekly threats to incinerate its neighbors the same way that municipalities issue trash pickup bulletins. Meanwhile, President Eraserhead has not been seen in public for 47 days and counting.

What all this means is that Kim may be too far gone to listen to reason, as much as we would prefer he would. Because of the very real risks to the civilian populations in the region, war is certainly not the preferred option here. But I get the feeling that Kim looks at Iraq and sees an example that doesn't apply to him: He has nuclear weapons, and Saddam doesn't, and that makes all the difference. So Kim continues to bluster and continues to prepare for war.

And I've been thinking--while praying it doesn't happen--what that war would look like.

The first and most important order of business in such a conflict would of course be the problem of Kim's nuclear weapons, which is always a question of delivery. Having nukes is a great deterrent--as long as you can reliably deliver them. The performance of the third-generation Patriots in Iraq gives me hope on this score, at least with nonballistic surface-to-surface missiles of the type that NK produces and exports. And it would not surprise me if we could rush airborne lasers into service as needed for the problem of ballistic missiles.

The only other possible delivery method for Kim's nukes would be by aircraft, and here again Kim would have a problem. The North Korean air force is old and creaky, and its pilots are extremely poorly trained according to most reports. They would face a full array of opposing aircraft. From the USA they would face multiple carrier groups, plus the USAF's 8th Fighter Wing, based in Kunsan, South Korea (which has just today announced the addition of a permanent F-117 component). To this we would add the hundreds of combat aircraft from South Korea and Japan that would participate. It's extremely unlikely that any of the old Ilyushin bombers in the NK inventory would make it very far.

So I think the immediate nuclear threat from Kim is overrated. But Kim also has a very large conventional army with a very large artillery component less than 50 miles from Seoul. And the scenario of massed artillery fire on Seoul is very scary. However, in an environment where your opponent has air supremacy, massed anything is just a big target. The ammunition dumps that service any "mass" of artillery mean, essentially, that we can count on seeing the most spectacular secondary explosions in history.

I think a conflict with NK would look very, very different from the one in Iraq. There would be very little ground component to it until the very end. We would use the several thousand combat aircraft in the region to pound NK horribly and relentlessly day after day, week after week. It would be very ugly for them. The blunt, unspoken reality would be that there is no "Korean street" to worry about, and there would be less restrictive rules of engagement for the conflict. Bunches and bunches of civilians would die. It would not be too bad for the Americans--unless a nuke sneaked through. Then it would get really, really ugly in ways I don't want to think about.

Which is why I think that at some point China will step in even more forcefully than they have up to now. I cannot see China intervening to save Kim. They might be willing to fight us over Taiwan when they feel the time is right, but risking their infrastructure over a madman like Kim would be insanity. A unified, capitalist Korea would just be a bigger market for their products--they have to know this. A remilitarized, nuclear-armed Japan--which would be another inevitable consequence of Kim's continued presence in Pyongyang--is not something that the Chinese would want, ever.

So this is why I think the scenario that makes sense is the one where China tells Kim: Not only will we not save your ass, but we will actually help the Americans kill you. Leave now and you'll live. President Eraserhead leaves, Korea unifies, China has more consumers for its dollar-store crap, Japan stands down, and, as part of the negotiated settlement, the Americans remove all their troops from the Korean peninsula. Everybody wins.

But history doesn't always follow a logical path. So I worry.

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