North Korea’s attempted nuclear test raises the critical issue of what can actually be done–short of war–to reign in Pyongyang. While the military option can never be removed from the table, few would welcome a conflict with the DPRK. As we’ve noted in previous posts, a second war on the Korean peninsula would be protracted and bloody. Almost sixty percent of North Korea’s army is positioned within 60 miles of the DMZ, meaning that the DPRK’s invasion force is essentially in place for an assault against the South. U.S. intelligence analysts believe North Korea could launch a limited invasion of South Korea with virtually no warning; a full-scale assault would require more preparation and provide some degree of intelligence warning, but even that scenario might not provide enough time for the ROK to mobilize its reserves, and the U.S. to rush large-scale reinforcements to the region.
Beyond that, a renewed conflict on the peninsula would produce staggering casualties, among both combatants and the civilian population. Seoul, the economic, cultural and political heart of South Korea, lies barely 40 miles below the DMZ; much of the sprawling metropolitan area is within range of long-range North Korean artillery along the demilitarized zone, and can also be targeted by DPRK missiles. Residents attempting to flee from Seoul would choke roads being used to send up reinforcements to the front, resulting in absolute gridlock. Employment of chemical and biological agents by the North would heighten the loss of life and the sense of panic, making it even more difficult to clear road and rail lines for military use. According to most estimates, tens of thousands would die in the first few days of a second Korea War. U.S. comat casualties would probably exceed totals for Iraq and Afghanistan in less than a month–and that’s a conservative assessment.
If warfare is absolutely the option of last resort, then what steps could be employed against Pyongyang? Actually, there are a number of measuures which might be taken, assuming that the international community has the will to get serious–and tough–with North Korea. Such steps might include:
A. Naval Quarantine. One step below a blockade, the quarantine would allow allied naval ships to board, search (and possibly) detain North Korean-flagged and chartered vessels carrying prohibited cargoes, including ballistic missile components. The quarantine could be enforced in international waters (reducing the threat to allied ships and aircraft), while denying a critical source of revenue to Pyongyang.
B. Place Tough Restrictions on Air Traffic. North Korea has, on numerous occasions, used transport aircraft to ship sensitive military cargoes to its client states in the Middle East. Working with countries in the Far East and South Asia, the U.S. should move to deny overflight clearances and refueling privileges along these air routes. Flying a much longer, “overwater” route across the western Pacific, through the Malaccan Strait, and across the Indian Ocean is almost impractical, particularly if the aircraft is carrying heavy cargoes related to ballistic missiles and WMD. The same restrictions would apply to charter air cargo firms hired by the North, denying the “air” option for shipping needed cargoes.
C. Suspend Western Humanitarian Aid. Some might wonder how much of an impact this will have, since Kim Jong-il let millions starve to death in the mid-1990s. But suspending western humanitarian aid–most notably, food deliveries–will have an effect in the right circles, since Kim diverted much of that aid to the North Korean military. Cutting off food will produce howls in liberal circles, but it will also impact the DPRK’s combat capabilities, and (possibly) increase dissatisfaction within the most important segment of North Korean society.
D. Make it Easier for North Korean Refugees to Enter South Korea and the West. Faced with worsening conditions in the DPRK, thousands of North Koreans have attempted to flee their homeland in recent years. Many live in hiding across the border in China, facing deportation to North Korea (and almost certain death) if they are caught. Making it easier for these refugees to find sanctuary in the ROK and the west will put more pressure on the regime, particularly if members of the military–and other elites–begin voting with their feet.
E. Provide the Latest ATBM Technology to Our Regional Partners. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan already operate U.S.-built PATRIOT missiles, for defense against ballistic missile attacks. All should be immediately upgraded to the latest U.S. standard, to improve protection against North Korean missile strikes. We should also share the latest AEGIS upgrades and SM-2 Block IV missiles to Japan (which already has AEGIS-class destroyers) and offer the same technology to South Korea and Taiwan, enhancing the regional missile shield, and reducing the effectiveness of Kim Jong-il’s most potent, long-range weapons.
F. Crack Down on the Chosen Soren. Ethnic Koreans living in Japan (the Chosen Soren) have long been an important front for DPRK fund-raising and espionage activities. For example, many Japanese gaming parlors are controlled by the Chosen Soren and much of the money they generate finds its way back to Pyongyang. Tighter Japanese control of the group–and its activities–would increase financial pressures on North Korea.
G. Step-Up Enforcement Against Illegal Financial Activities. One reason for recent North Korean saber-rattling is that the U.S. crackdown against Pyongyang’s illicit financial activities has been successful. The DPRK has long operated a state-of-the-art forgery operation, specializing in counterfeit U.S. $100 bills. Making that activity less lucrative has put a dent in North Korea’s failing economy, and increased enforcement would create an even greater strain, making it even tougher for Kim Jong-il to finance his missile and WMD programs.
H. Pressure China to Halt Illicit DPRK Maritime Traffic. North Korean “motherships” have periodically used Chinese ports and territorial waters as safe havens. These vessels support a host of illicit activities, ranging from drug trafficking and currency smuggling, to the insertion of North Korean agents into South Korea. Denying this sanctuary to the DPRK would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to conduct activities viewed as essential to state security and the economy.
How would North Korea react to these steps? There would be the predictable propaganda blasts, more saber-rattling, and carefully planned “demonstrations,” including possible missile launches and maybe another nuclear test. There is also the remote chance that Kim Jong-il might launch a limited attack against U.S. aircraft or naval assets, or South Korean-controlled islands near the North Korean coast. The North Koreans have targeted American recce platforms in the past (with some success), but proper planning and force protection could mitigate that threat, and possibly transform those attacks into another embarassment for North Korea. In 2001, North Korea attempted to teach the ROK Navy a lesson during a dispute along the Northern Limit Line (naval extension of the DMZ), by attacking South Korean fishing vessels and their naval escorts. The ensuring firefight resulted in the sinking of a DPRK gunboat, and the deaths of more than 30 North Korean sailors. The U.S., South Korea, and even Japan need to be prepared to give Pyongyang another bloody nose this time around, if North Korea decides to challenge us.
Whatever we do, the United States should not follow the cut-and-negotiate approach advocated by Senator Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats. Bi-lateral talks are exactly what Kim Jong-il wants, along with another “sucker deal” like the 2004 Agreed To Framework. That con job laid the foundation for the attempted nuclear test, and Pyongyang would like nothing more than a new deal, with favorable terms that would allow it to sustain its military arsenal and improve its nuclear stockpile, in return for nothing more than empty promises.