What might a conflict with North Korea look like?

As 'strategic patience' over the North's nuclear program is bumped by a more aggressive US posture, conflict has become more of a possibility – and it likely would not be a short and sharp one.

Damir Sagolj/ Reuters
A guide speaks to military officers visiting the birthplace of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, a day before the 105th anniversary of his birth, in Mangyongdae, just outside Pyongyang, North Korea on April 14, 2017.

By his tweets, by his orders, and by his airstrikes last week in Syria, President Trump has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities in Northeast Asia that the rest of the world is just beginning to explore.

The focus of that realm is North Korea, whose increasingly sophisticated nuclear and missile programs have prompted Mr. Trump to abandon his predecessor’s policy of “strategic patience.”

For the first time since 1994, when then-President Clinton was on the verge of ordering a military strike against North Korea, there is a sense that “Uncle Sam might go crazy and shoot someone,” in the words of Taylor Fravel, a member of the Security Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Or, as US national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster put it more circumspectly to Fox News recently, North Korea “is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear capable regime. The president has asked us to … give him a full range of options to remove that threat.”

There are, of course, many rungs on the ladder of escalation, but that could conceivably mean war. And it would not be a short, sharp war, being conducted as it would against one of the world’s largest standing armies, with thousands of missiles trained on the South Korean capital and a crude but functional nuclear capacity. There is no guarantee that even massive and repeated airstrikes would wipe out North Korea’s nuclear program.

Tunnels, missiles, and a large army

Prior peaceful negotiations, proffering North Korea carrots in the form of aid and sticks in the shape of economic sanctions, have not been completely useless. Painstaking diplomatic work has at times frozen Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs in the past.

But the end result of a quarter-century of such work is that North Korea has upwards of 10 nuclear devices, appears to have miniaturized them enough to use them as warheads on short-range missiles, and is not far from perfecting an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland.

“We don’t have much choice any more but to do something about this,” warns Bruce Bennett, a defense researcher at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank.

It is not clear that the US even knows where all the facilities that make up the program are located; not only are they hidden and dispersed, but they have undoubtedly been hardened to protect them against missile attacks.

“It would be very difficult” to take out all the targets, which are likely buried in a warren of thousands of tunnels, says Dr. Bennett. “It would take a protracted campaign, going back again and again … over weeks or months.”

And North Korea would not just sit still. Its army has positioned countless artillery pieces and short-range missiles aimed at South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and its 10 million inhabitants, just 35 miles from the DMZ that divides North and South. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has often threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire” if he were attacked, and might even try invading the South with his million-man force.

On the other hand, a symbolic one-time strike – knocking out a North Korean missile launch pad, for example – could serve as a warning signal that the mood in Washington really has changed, sufficient to persuade Pyongyang to talk seriously about curbing its nuclear ambitions.

It would also avoid the risk of involving China, North Korea’s treaty ally, in hostilities that could have catastrophic consequences: think a second Korean War with nukes.

Or the United States could simply take a defensive, rather than an aggressive stance, and use the USS Carl Vinson carrier group now steaming toward the Korean Peninsula to shoot down any missiles that North Korean might test. That would prove a point about Washington’s readiness to defend itself and its allies in the region.

Getting harder to bluff

Although Trump is stepping up the tone, promising to “solve the problem” with or without China’s help, his belligerent rhetoric could well be simple bluff, part of a new diplomatic drive toward an old goal – getting Beijing to lean on Mr. Kim hard enough to change his behavior.

“The idea that the US is seriously considering a military option would certainly get China’s attention, because they would very much want to forestall that,” says Professor Fravel.

So far, Beijing has limited itself in public to traditional platitudes. Talking on the telephone to Trump on Wednesday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping told him that China "is committed to the target of denuclearization on the peninsula … and advocates resolving problems through peaceful means," Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said.

And it is getting harder for Trump to bluff China by playing on his reputation for unpredictability and mold-breaking rashness. In Beijing’s view he has behaved quite reasonably since taking office: he has backed off a threat to revise Washington’s “one China” policy on Taiwan, he has not kept his promise to label China a currency manipulator, and he appears to have dropped his plan to slap 35 percent import tariffs on goods from China.

In Pyongyang, meanwhile, officials say they are not scared by Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian air force base last week. In fact, they say, it confirms their single-minded, quarter-century determination to achieve nuclear status.

“The US has been picking only on countries without nuclear weapons,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said earlier this week, according to the official KCNA news agency. “The Syria attack thoroughly reminds us that … only military power of our own will protect us from imperialistic aggression.”

That may be a very rational argument, but Kim is also prone to emotional, symbolic acts, too, however provocative. On the 100th anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s birth in 2012, for example, he staged a long-range missile test.

The 105th anniversary is coming up this Saturday. Analysts say they have seen signs that a sixth nuclear test is being prepared. But it would be unwise to poke the bear at this moment, the state-run Chinese daily Global Times warned last Sunday.

“Should North Korea conduct a sixth nuclear test, the possibility that it will become a decisive factor in pushing Washington to take a military adventure cannot be excluded,” the paper said in an editorial. “It’s of vital importance that North Korea does not misjudge the situation.” 

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