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Armistice Abrogated and Nuclear Sabers Rattled, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dennis Rodman

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 9, 2013

I’ve been asked some questions this week about North Korea’s (DPRK) diplomatic and propaganda moves, so I thought I’d resort to the dread long form response rather than trying to cram it into Facebook posts. RunningLocal, time to dust you off.

As background, Dennis Rodman’s visit to the Hermit Kingdom wasn’t really the most significant happening in North Korea over the past ten days despite what Wolf Blitzer and crew might be saying. Earlier this week, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, started to release a series of highly provocative statements both from his mouth and the mouths of credible proxies in anticipation of and in response to new UN sanctions targeted directly at the leadership class of the DPRK and their ability to maintain their lifestyle and move money around. The sanctions, backed by the DPRK’s sometimes sponsors in Moscow and most importantly Beijing, have to worry Kim beyond his personal comfort; should his top Generals and diplomats feel discomfited for too long without any hope of a restoration of their lifestyle there becomes very little reason for Kim to remain in power– or alive. The rewards of normalization of relations with the Chinese, Russians and Americans would be extraordinarily high for members of a junta who made it happen, a possibility that has never been far from the minds of any of the three members of the Kim ruling dynasty.

Kim Jong-un with his Generals

Kim Jong-un with his Generals

The sanctions have prompted three major avenues of response from the Kim regime. The first and most significant for long term stability on the Korean Peninsula is the renunciation of the 1953 Armistice that suspended the Korean War of 1950-3. My wording here is very deliberate as the Korean War never ended from a diplomatic perspective and indeed is still an active war to this day. No treaty was ever signed; the armistice that was enacted simply indicated that open hostilities were to be suspended. It is under that security regime that the DMZ was established with Panmujom as a communication point between the UN forces, South Korea and North Korea, that US forces acting under the blanket of UN resolutions have provided security in Korea, etc.

With the DPRK now declaring the armistice dead, we have at least rhetorically returned to a state of active and open hostilities between the DPRK and the United Nations and lines of communication between the two belligerents have  been “officially” terminated. The implications for this are largely political– I doubt that even the most hawkish Generals in the ROK military think that the North is going to launch an armored attack across the DMZ (and if they were I suspect that they’d secretly welcome it to an extent). The real implication is that the new sanctions regime has made Kim feel insecure to the extent that he has gone beyond the typical DPRK “We’ll turn the puppet government capital Seoul into a sea of fire and send the Yankee pirates to their watery doom” propaganda and actually made a move that will be very hard to walk back internationally. This is highly atypical for the Kim regime, which in the 60 years since the armistice was signed been masters of provocations and actions that have gone right up to the line (USNS Pueblo, sinking the Cheonan, decades of DMZ pot shots, commando infiltrations, etc) but have always been able to be walked back under the cover of the armistice that the South and the UN wanted to see stay intact.

In that loss of the armistice is the major problem for stability in Northeast Asia and which leads to the second major avenue; there is nothing to indicate that the Kim regime is going to stop those sorts of military provocations, just as there is no indication that the Kim regime understands that by killing the armistice there is now no cover for them in doing so. In fact, there is now every reason to believe that the abandonment of the armistice will directly lead to Kim staging provocations; this week he visited Mudo Island and reviewed its artillery positions, artillery positions which were involved in the infamous 2010 bombardment of Yeonpyong Island. It has also been reported that the DPRK’s navy has sent a large portion of its collection of diesel electric subs out to sea, potentially an indication that Kim will attempt another Cheonan-type incident, in which one of his submarines torpedoed the ROKS Cheonan March of 2010 with the loss of the ship and 46 of her crew.

This is what makes the DPRK regime dangerous– it lacks a fundamental understanding of international affairs and, with the advent of the Kim Jong-un leadership, a new failure to understand where the lines of aggression lie. The events of 2010– the Cheonan and Yeonpyong incidents– were uncharacteristically dangerous moves, which now seem to have been the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s primacy in DPRK affairs. In 2010, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was in failing health and was desperately trying to ensure the succession of his third son, Jong-un, to the supreme leadership. As the military is the ultimate arbiter of who holds power in the North, Kim Jong-il had placed control of the military more and more into his son’s hands, ultimately allowing Jong-un to stage the attacks that bookended the year. The ROK, acting under the armistice and the partial security it provided, was slow to react to the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyong artillery strikes and its reactions when they did come amounted largely to hot air; the ROK fired some artillery shells from Yeonpyong into the sea despite threats of general war from the DPRK which amounted to a tense night and little else. This lesson was not lost of Kim Jong-un; he had staged the two boldest DPRK operations since the seizure of the USNS Pueblo and was answered only with threats, bluster and American naval deployments that were ultimately there only to respond to further DPRK provocations, not to teach a lesson over the ones carried out. We took an uninformed and sheltered potential leader and informed him that he could push the envelope further than his father did; we now face the twisted but logical result of that lesson in a Kim Jong-un who has made his habit of staging provocations infinitely more dangerous by removing the major factor that allowed him to get away with them. Just last week the ROK government announced that attacks against ROK positions would be responded to with attacks against the DPRK’s leadership. After the embarrassments of 2010 and now with the abandonment of the armisitice, one wonders if Kim Jong-un has any realization that those are not likely empty threats and that Seoul will respond to a serious provocation not with shells aimed at Yellow Sea fish but with smart bombs aimed at command and control bunkers in Pyongyang. The Korean Peninsula is primed for a monumental mistake that could exceed the blowback of Saddam Hussein’s misread of the international situation in 1990 which led to the 21 year arc of war in Iraq, if not in length then in intensity. The escalation ladder is indeed frightening, with provocations as simple as rifle fire across the former DMZ having the potential to result in conflicts involving superpowers, missiles, WMDs and mass civilian casualties.

That escalation ladder brings to play the third avenue of this affair, Kim’s nuclear saber rattling. Earlier this week Kim and his generals made pronouncements that the United States was “lighting the fuse of a nuclear war”, with threats ranging from nuking Washington to nuking Seoul and various other scenarios ranging from the grossly unlikely to the impossible. As background on the potential DPRK nuclear threat, remember that they have attempted three alleged nuclear tests. The first, in 2006, may not have been a nuclear test at all but rather the detonation of a monumental stack of conventional explosives dolled up to look like a nuclear test; apparently the seismic signature from the blast was somewhat odd in comparison to other nuclear tests. The second test was a fizzle, in which the conventional explosives that initiate the atomic blast went off but the chain reaction failed to run away; the third, carried out this year, achieved an atomic blast although it too may have been incomplete as it was smaller than expected or announced. We are thus left to conclude that while the North may have the ability to detonate an atomic bomb (rather than “nuclear”, the difference being the “atomic” fission bombs which hit Japan in 1945 and the “nuclear” fission-fusion-fission hydrogen bombs of subsequent years) under meticulous test conditions and with months of preparation, they almost certainly do not possess the technology to miniaturize a bomb to act as a missile warhead, nor do they have the ability to launch an ICBM that could hit the United States. Those threats are moot. The DPRK might be able to make a bomb small enough and reliable enough to be delivered by aircraft, but again that threat is largely blunted by the fact that the North would have to get one of its ill maintained aircraft piloted by a poorly trained airman past ROK fighters and SAMs and American fighters and SAMs to strike at Seoul. It’s not impossible, but it’s highly unlikely tactically and also politically, as destroying Seoul would negate the value of the supposed “reunification” the North desires. Nuclear threats from the North, therefore, are currently negligible.

Nuclear weapons, however, are not the biggest threat the North possesses. Seoul, by happenstance of perverse geography, lies within range of the artillery & rocket positions maintained by the People’s Liberation Army just north of the former DMZ. These positions, which could literally reduce sections of Seoul to rubble in a day, consist of devilishly hard to destroy emplacements called HARTs (for Hardened ARTillery), literally tunnels cut into mountains with guns placed on train tracks that can be run out, fire, then be run back in behind huge blast doors and thousands of tons of granite before firing again. They are extremely hard to demolish from the air even with precision weaponry, thus posing an existential threat to the economic, cultural, and population heart of the South. Their employment would likely be the trigger to a hasty, limited invasion of the North by the ROK & US 2nd Infantry to silence them as it is unlikely that they could be taken out sufficiently quickly by any other means.


A North Korean Rodong missile on its Transporter/Erector/Launcher.

An additional threat that would lead to rapid and devastating escalation would be the employment by the DPRK of its extensive stockpile of chemical or biological weapons, especially should they be targeted on US forces along the former DMZ, in Japan or Guam. The DPRK’s stockpile of ballistic missiles have the demonstrated ability to reach targets in Japan and Guam and their chemical/biological weapons can be mated to them as warheads. The stated policy of the United States, as set by President George Bush in 1991 and never publicly repudiated, is to answer any attack using WMDs against US forces or US territories “in kind” with American WMDs. Therein lies the problem, as the United States, under both internal policy and treaty obligations, possesses no chemical or biological weaponry, leaving only the deadliest leg of the WMD tripod, nuclear weapons, as our “in kind” response. Should the absolute nightmare scenario happen– a large ballistic missile strike against US positions in Japan delivering WMD payloads and resulting in large numbers of Japanese civilian casualties– ever come to pass, the United States would be under possibly unbearable pressure to respond with nuclear weapons against North Korea. Aside from the moral quandry of whether President Obama would order the incineration of Pyongyang, a city brimming with people literally enslaved by the Kim regime, in response, other problems arise with the use of US nuclear weapons against the DPRK. First, any use of US nuclear weapons would doom Seoul to destruction from the aforementioned artillery barrage. Second, the lack of targets in the DPRK is a huge problem. The most rational target for a US nuclear response would be the DPRK’s nuclear research and production center at Yongbyong, north of Pyongyang. The problem with that target is that it is buried under a mountain; to strike it and be assured of destruction, the US would have to use ground penetrating nuclear weapons, one of the dirtiest targeting strategies from a fallout perspective. We would use a series of large nuclear weapons (550kt range) in hardened penetrator cases to literally blast a path into the mountain for a coup de grace nuke to destroy the facility, blasting into the air literally a mountain of highly irradiated materials before we even added the stockpiled nuclear contents of Yongbyong to the plume. Depending on the vagaries of the wind, that fallout plume would not only destroy life in its North Korean footprint but could reach South Korea, China, the Russian naval & population center at Vladivostok, any part of Japan, and the Philippines in potentially lethal amounts. Unacceptable radiation amounts (think Chernobyl’s impact of Finland, etc) could reach as far as Hawaii and Alaska given the “right” conditions. Other targets– Wonsan, the North’s major port, for instance– would leave the Pyongyang moral dilemma of killing hundreds of thousands of civilians to destroy a strategic target, something that for those of us were children of the Cold War seemed at one time to be “acceptable outcomes” but which now, thank god, seems appalling to consider.

In the end, the tea leaves tell both a murky and frightening story. While I don’t foresee general war on the Korean Penninsula due largely to the North’s inability to project armored power even 40 miles south of the former DMZ without massive mechanical breakdowns and destruction from US & ROK air and land forces, I do see a North Korean regime operating on something other than a reality based perspective and with the capacity to stumble into scenarios with grave global consequences. I am particularly disturbed by the huge amount of internally directed propaganda being put out by the Kim regime, readying its people for war in a way not seen since 1950. I believe that there is a very high probability of major North Korean aggressive actions anytime from now through the next six months, with the higher probability being action in the immediate two weeks. I believe that Kim may be irrational enough to believe that he can directly attack US forces, and I have no doubt that he believes he can attack ROK targets with the prospect of only limited and ineffectual retaliation by the Seoul government– a belief that I view to be similarly deluded. I similarly believe that China views these outcomes as disastrous given their fervent desire to see the United States slacken its military commitments to the Pacific Rim and thus facilitate their ambitions to seize the Spratlys, Paracells, and other island groups in the area that they are currently locked in semi-military disputes over with japan, the Philippines, Viet Nam and others. A Chinese backed coup terminating the Kim Dynasty is a foreseeable and very possible outcome, again coming sooner rather than later; Kim Jong-un should understand this given China’s backing of the sanctions resolutions in the UNSC this week. While that should give him pause, it may also drive him to act more quickly and more severely.

In any circumstance, it is inevitable that the United States military forces are on a heightened state of readiness and alert along the entire Pacific Arc. There is little doubt that an modified-Ohio SSGN is on station near the Peninsula, that the 2nd Infantry along the former DMZ is being readied for both offensive and offensive action, that the USAF’s strategic assets are again briefing for B-1 & B-2 missions against Pyongyang and other targets in the North and that the Marine preposition ships are being readied to deploy from Guam to mate up with USMC personnel flown into Korea. There is also little doubt that US Navy anti-ballistic missile ships are being reinforced in waters between Korea & Japan to shoot down missile strikes and that we will shortly hear of an additional Carrier Strike Group heading towards the Western Pacific. With the Chinese Navy staging unrelated provocations throughout the South China Sea, with Japan on edge as a result of those Chinese moves and the threats from North Korea and the Russians just being their lovely, unpredictable Russian selves out of Vladivostok, any increase in tensions and deployments holds organic dangers wholly separated from Pyongyang’s manipulations.

Spring 2013 is destined to be an interesting time.


2 Responses to “Armistice Abrogated and Nuclear Sabers Rattled, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dennis Rodman”

  1. Steve said

    Interesting, as always, Bob.

  2. Bob Kohm said

    Thanks, Steve.

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