I’m going to resurrect the blog for the next few days to chronicle what I suspect will be the outbreak of open hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, continuing my commentary from RotoJunkie.com
As the situation stands on Sunday afternoon in the US and overnight in Korea, the skies over Pyongyang and the DMZ have cleared and all indications are that the South Koreans will carry through their promised live fire exercise on Yeonpyeong Island in the morning.
The UN Security Council emergency session, taking place today at the behest of the Russians to try and stop the RoK artillery exercise and defuse tensions, will amount to nothing as the Americans are not on board. Politically South Korea (henceforth the RoK) can not draw down from these exercises as the government almost fell over the lack of response to the North’s shelling of civilian targets on Yeonpyeong on 23 November.
Taking a look back at the origins of this crisis and to give a general primer on the strategic situation on the Peninsula, the immediate roots of this crisis lie in two acts of North Korean aggression, the sinking of the corvette Cheonan on 26 March 2010 and the aforementioned shelling of Yeonpyeong. Military aggression from the North (the DPRK) is not a new phenomenon; over the years they have fired across the DMZ too many times to count, have been caught landing commandos via mini-sub inside the RoK’s borders, have shot down reconnaissance planes and famously took captive the USS Pueblo back in the late ’60s. This year’s events, however, have reflected a departure from the norms of DPRK aggression both in terms of scale and targeting.
The Cheonan was most likely sunk by a DPRK mini-sub not far from Yeonpyeong near the holy disputed “Northern Limit Line” in the Yellow Sea, a maritime boundary separating RoK water from DPRK water somewhat arbitrarily drawn by US General Mark Clark at the end of the 1950-3 Korean Conflict. Sinking this ship with its large crew marked a decided and especially provocative escalation in the types of attacks the North was willing to perpetrate. The subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong represented the first intentional targeting of civilians and civilian areas since the 1953 Armistice and has had a huge impact on the South Korean public’s outlook on intra-Korean relations.
The South’s response to both incidents, and particularly the Cheonan, was perceived both internally and abroad as being somewhat feeble. After the sinking, the South made some nasty declarations about protecting its own, went to the UN with proof of the North sinking the ship after raising it from the floor of the Yellow Sea, held a few naval demonstrations and largely nothing more despite the high death toll aboard the stricken vessel. The response to Yeonpyeong was little better at first– increased caterwauling about the North cutting it out, threats of retaliation “next time” and very showy tours and exercises on the island. The South Korean population had had enough of that behavior, however, and as a result the RoK’s Defense Minister was sacked by the government of President Lee. Shortly after– and hugely against the wishes of the Chinese– a large scale naval exercise was held with the US Navy in the Yellow Sea, which China considers to be off limits to the major navies of the world. The point was made that the United States would stand behind its RoK alliance by inserting the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group (CSG) into the Yellow Sea and revealing that our most advanced attack submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter, had already been operating in the Yellow Sea before the Yeonpyeong strike occurred. That was followed by US-Japanese exercises off of the East Coast of North Korea, some uncharacteristically tough talk from President Lee both at home and abroad, and ultimately the scheduling of the current artillery live fire exercise.
The reason for the RoK’s repeated timidity in the face of DPRK aggression lies just over 30 miles north of Seoul. Emplaced along the DMZ are over one hundred North Korean 170mm “Koksan” artillery pieces capable of putting direct fire on any target in Seoul in addition to as many as several dozen 240mm Multiple Rocket Launch Systems capable of putting artillery rockets into Seoul, as well. These weapons are located in hardened postions called HARTs (Hardened ARTillery) and would be somewhat difficult to destroy before they managed to fire several volleys. It is that capability, along with the very large reserve of SCUD-variant, LUNA-M, NK-02 and FROG artillery missiles further north that have dialed down the RoK’s will to retaliate in the past– they have an awful lot to lose by escalating a crisis with Pyongyang. How much? Many authorities foresee up to one million casualties in Seoul in the first two hours from full artillery bombardment by the North using only conventional warheads. I don’t agree that casualties on that scale would occur as the US & RoK would silence or disrupt many of those those guns and launchers within less than an hour, but it would still be a disastrous occurrence. Apparently the South Koreans have overcome that fear this time around, however, as it is the normally dovish population that is driving the calls for retaliation.
With that brief history in hand it is easy to see that the situation on the Peninsula has moved in a new direction as 2010 has played itself out. As mentioned earlier, the RoK is not in a political position in which it can stop the scheduled exercise in the face of North Korean threats– and North Korean threats have been dire. This week alone the DPRK has threatened to attack not only Yeonpyeong but also, depending on the speaker, two, three, or more other sites, to hit US assets in Japan with missile fire, to use its nuclear weapons, or to take on the US Navy. Much of this rhetoric is being driven by succession planning within the DPRK, as the reign of Kim Jong Il draws to an end and he tries to hand power to his son, Kim Jong Un, against the will of some factions of the military and possibly the regime in Beijing, the North’s most important supporter. Kim Jong Un is seen as a weak pretender by many, just as his father was when he took the reins of power from his father, Kim Il Sung. It seems evident that the Kims are ratcheting up tensions with the hope of stopping them at the tipping point to show that Kim Jong Un is not only ready to command but is essential to the continued existence of the Stalinist regime. Their ability to stop them, however, seems to be predicated on the RoK acting as it always has and refusing to escalate military tensions and the United States not rocking the boat. Today this seems a highly flawed premise.
The Coming (?) Storm
Ever since the joint naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea, the United States Navy has been putting more and more assets into play in the Western Pacific. Last weekend the Navy surged an incredible nine nuclear attack submarines to sea in a 72 hour period, and this week two more have set out putting an extraordinary 67% of our nuclear attack subs at sea. Joining them are as many as three (and my money is on all three) of the most powerful undersea combatants ever built, the Ohio-class cruise missile subs (SSGNs). These boats are a rare glimpse into what the US military can do when it works with a good idea and stays within budget to recycle assets instead of giving General Dynamics carte blanche to spend taxpayer money. Each of these boats are a converted Trident submarine that has had its ballistic missile launch systems removed and replaced by 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles optimized for land attack. In addition, the boats are specialized intelligence and special ops platforms, with lockout chamber and mini-craft to covertly deliver SEAL teams to the beach and all manner of electronic intelligence gathering capabilities.
On the surface things get no better for the North Koreans. At the conclusion of its joint exercises with the Japanese, the George Washington CSG returned to its home port of Yokosuka, Japan with the announcement that it would be in port through the holidays and New Year. Earlier this week the Washington CSG returned to the sea with no prior announcement. The CSG is comprised of the carrier and its air wing, a Ticonderoga class AEGIS cruiser, an Arleigh Burke class AEGIS destroyer, a nuclear attack sub and attached frigates for anti-submarine (ASW) defense. It is the basic building block of American power projection and each of our ten CSGs outpower the entire navies of most other countries. The presence of the USS Essex Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) is confirmed in the Yellow Sea and consists of the Essex, a “baby” carrier loaded with USMC AV-8b Harrier strike fighters, Sea Cobra attack helicopters and various troop transport & ASW choppers along with an USMC Expeditionary Group, consisting of a reinforced battalion of Marines with full equipment along with the same cruiser, destroyer, frigate and submarine assets of the CSG.
Potentially coming into play will be the USS Carl Vinson CSG, currently underway in the Pacific (more on them in a bit) and the USS Ronald Reagan CSG, also in the Pacific and coming off of its pre-deployment trials. The USS Boxer ESG is also in the Pacific and may be moving towards Korea already. The prospect of the combined striking power of three CSGs and two ESGs along with the Ohio SSGNs and the various Improved Los Angeles and Seawolf attack subs is, in a word, massive.
Not to be left out is the US Air Force, which has been known to deploy its B2 Spirit stealth bombers to Andersen AFB in Guam and which would play an important role in a US strategic campaign against the DPRK. Coupled with B1 Lancers and B52 Stratofortresses, the strategic assets of the USAF will come into play early in the game if escalation becomes inevitable. The US also maintains large numbers of tactical fighters and fighter-bombers in South Korea and Japan that would round out our air supremacy package with the Korean F-15s and Navy F-18s.
The Koreans feature a formidable military designed precisely to strike quickly and deep into the DPRK with American backing. Their Air Force is first rate, featuring many modern US aircraft types such as F-15 and -16 variants along with older F-4 & F-5s and their Army features superb tanks (unlikely to be used here) and ample supplies of attack helicopters. Training across Korean Forces is superb and their Special Operations Forces are amongst the world’s elite.
In addition to US & RoK forces, the Japanese, who have grown very concerned with the unstable nuclear armed regime occupying a portion of the peninsula historically known by the sobriquet “The Dagger Pointed at the Heart of Japan”, have put a large portion of their formidable naval assets to sea in the past two weeks in response to the growing tensions.
The Deadly Wildcard
In the face of so much opposition it would seem that the North should back down, but there has been growing evidence over the past few years that coupled with the attitude that the RoK is “too soft” to withstand attacks on Seoul and thus will never attack the North, is the reliance on the North’s fledgling nuclear weapons program to stop the US from moving against them. Having often both heard and expressed the idea that having a nuclear weapon makes you too dangerous for the United States to ever take on, the Kim regime has poured a high percentage of its scarce resources into developing, with assistance from Pakistan and Iran, nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them.
North Korea’s history of testing their nukes is a bit spotty, to say the least. Their first declared test, in Ocotber of 2006, may or may not have been an actual nuclear detonation at all but a staged event with massed conventional explosives. Even if it was a nuclear test, it would have been regarded as a “fizzle”– meaning that a self sustaining nuclear chain reaction was not maintained long enough to extract the maximum potential of the blast. They seem to have done better in 2009, setting off a blast that was roughly the equivalent of the Nagasaki atomic bomb. They have been frantically working on a third test, with news comign out this week that they’ve dug a 500 foot pit to conduct it in.
If we assume a small stockpile of dodgy nuclear weapons in North Korea’s hands, the next questions become “Can they deliver them?” and “Under what circumstances?”. Neither is easy to answer. The North has launched several variants of the SCUD (locally called the Nodong) series of missiles of Iraq fame with great success; these missiles have greater ranges, higher payloads and in some cases better accuracy than the ones Saddam Hussein fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia in the First Gulf War. They have certainly been outfitted with chemical warheads and likely biologicals in addition to high explosive conventionals (unlike Iraq, the DPRK WMD programs are well documented), and Kim has claimed that they’ve been fitted with nuclear warheads as well. That is unconfirmed. The Koreans have also built the longer range Taepodong-1 and Rodong-1 missiles, capable of hitting Japan and the US bases in that nation and again claimed by Kim to be nuclear armed. The Taepodong-2, which has been tested but has never flown successfully, is a true ICBM made to take a nuclear warhead to America’s West Coast with all cities from Anchorage to San Diego and all of Hawaii theoretically in range. An attempt in 2009 to launch one of these as a satellite booster failed when the second and third stages, with the payload, fell into the Pacific.
If it chose to, there is little doubt that the North could at least make a credible attempt to put a nuclear weapon on Seoul or any other RoK location and could very possibly make a credible attempt to hit Tokyo or American bases at Yokosuka or Okinawa and perhaps even Guam with nuclear weapons. The immediate result of that would likely be the total destruction of North Korea’s ability to make war and, depending on targets hit, the population of North Korea could well be targeted as well. North Korea’s nuclear program is centered at Yongbyong and at a select few other locations, all heavily hardened to the extent of being built into and under mountains. They would be almost impossible to destroy with any conventional weaponry currently known to exist and would necessitate the use of American nuclear weapons to destroy. Fortunately the regime is more afraid of losing control of its weapons than it is of the US taking them out, so they are kept at a very few sites and not spread all over the place. Unfortunately those sites, being buried, would require in my opinion the employment of multiple penetrating and ground-bursting US weapons, the absolute dirtiest employment of nuclear arms from a fallout standpoint. South Korea, Tokyo, the major naval base and population center at Vladivostok in Russia and areas of China could all be in the fallout pattern at the caprice of the winds.
What situations could produce a nuclear exchange? With Kim that crystal ball is very hard to read given his instability and history of making good on threats. Just this week his regime has threatened to hit targets within and without the RoK with nuclear weapons and the Japanese are notably rattled by that; it is thought that US ballistic missile defense ships are likely on station between Japan and Korea as well as at Okinawa and Guam. How would Kim react to Pyongyang being bombed, as it possibly will be if the North hits the RoK tonight? What if the South mobilized and signaled an impending invasion (they haven’t at this point)? How will Kim react to American air power coming out of Japan? There are rumours of a North Korean nuclear torpedo and nuclear seabed mines– would they dare to try to employ them against a United States Navy CSG or ESG?
There are no great answers to what is clearly the greatest question of fighting the North Koreans.
If it became apparent that an all out war was going to begin in Korea involving ground forces, be aware that most authorities agree that American doctrine for fighting the Soviets throughout the Cold War was to employ tactical nuclear weapons not only first but immediately, and my supposition is that doctrine would apply to North Korea as well to prevent them from getting a shot off at Seoul or Tokyo and killing millions. You can bet that there are one or more likely more than one Ohio-class nuclear missile subs (SSBNs) off the Korean Coast this afternoon set to fire depressed trajectory missiles that would arrive on target in under ten minutes.
It is highly likely that at least limited artillery exchanges and air strikes will be carried out over the next 8-24 hours in Korea in response to the live fire exercise at Yeonpyeong Island. Once the first shot is fired, it will be difficult and may prove to be impossible to stop escalations over the following 72 hours, which could see severe civilian casualties in and around the RoK’s national capital area. DPRK doctrine has always heavily relied upon special forces raids and over the years many DPRK special forces cells have been uncovered in the South; the possibility for terrorist style attacks on civilian and government targets throughout the South and possibly in the Japanese home islands certainly exists. It is my belief that the United States will not be involved in the first stage of retaliatory strikes against the North outside of air defense missions unless US forces are previously targeted or heavy civilian casualties occur, but US intelligence and aerial recon elements along with Special Forces (most likely SEALs) are almost certainly already being used and are in place in North Korean territory. If a second or third round of retaliatory strikes happen, it is certain in my opinion that US forces will become actively embroiled in the fighting, largely from the sea and air. I do not anticipate in any case a 1950-style invasion of the South; the DPRK ‘s tanks are so mechanically poor that they likely couldn’t cover the distance without massive mechanical support that they don’t have available. It is also the onset of winter in Korea, meaning harsh conditions but rivers that have not yet frozen solid enough for the North to use them. The possibility of a last minute coup or one that occurs early in an exchange is also not to be discounted– the Chinese and Russians want no part of a war to be fought on their doorstep and they both hold sway with factions within the DPRK government and military. Russia and China have both deployed troops to their respective borders with North Korea and can be assumed to be at a heightened state of military readiness; while their engagement in the fighting is extremely unlikely, it cannot be forgotten that China has been here before and that neither China nor Russia would look kindly on an American ally having a border so close to so many vital Chinese and Russians national security locales and assets. If fighting does come, it will most likely largely consist of air strikes and artillery duels at the outset followed by heightened air and naval engagements and the potential usage of any class of WMDs by the North if Pyongyang starts taking appreciable damage and the regime looks as if it might fall. That stage could be reached at any point after the first DPRK artillery shell falls or specal ops raid occurs and it is that unpredictability that makes this the geopolitically terrifying scenario that it is.