The Second Korean War: Part II

Last week, we offered background on the situation with North Korea. We presented a short history of the Korean War with a concentration on the lessons learned by the primary combatants. We also examined North Korea’s political development from the postwar period through the fall of communism and how these conditions framed North Korea’s geopolitical situation. We also analyzed U.S. policy with North Korea and why these policies have failed to change the regime’s behavior.

The primary concern is that North Korea appears on track to developing a nuclear warhead and a method of delivery that would directly threaten the U.S. This outcome is intolerable and will trigger an American response.

In Part II, we will discuss what a war on the peninsula would look like, including the military goals of the U.S. and North Korea. This analysis will include the signals being sent by the U.S. that military action is under consideration and a look at the military assets that are in place. War isn’t the only outcome; stronger sanctions or a blockade are possible, as are negotiations. An analysis of the chances of success and likelihood of implementation will be considered. As always, we will conclude with market ramifications.

What Would War with North Korea Look Like?
The U.S. has two objectives in a war with North Korea. First, it wants to protect South Korea against the artillery North Korea has amassed around the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Second, it wants to destroy North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the U.S. As we noted last week, North Korea has an estimated 21k artillery pieces on the DMZ, everything from sophisticated rocket launchers to infantry-manned mortars. Although many of the pieces are quite old, it is estimated that millions of South Koreans would still be at risk and casualties would be high.

A U.S. war plan would presumably use a massive air campaign with saturation bombing of an area along the DMZ and 25 miles deep within North Korea. Of course, this is a rather obvious target so the North Koreans have also built up a significant air defense system. It doesn’t appear to be anything the U.S. Air Force couldn’t suppress within a week or two. But, the U.S. couldn’t safely use its largest heavy bomber, the B-52, until air defenses were eliminated. Until then, we would expect that stealth bombers, the B-2, B-1 and maybe the F-35, would be drafted into a bombing role and deployed. Simply put, South Koreans would face an artillery barrage until North Korea’s air defenses were contained, which would mean thousands of dead or wounded South Koreans. North Korea also reportedly has massive stores of chemical weapons; it would not be a surprise to see such weapons deployed, especially if the North Koreans felt they were losing.

The other goal would be to destroy North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear weapon against the U.S. The wording of this goal is specific. We have seen a subtle shift in American comments regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. Instead of the possession of nuclear weapons being deemed intolerable, the ability to deliver such weapons directly against the U.S. is now the red line. This stance is consistent with the Jacksonian1 foreign policy of the Trump administration. As long as North Korea isn’t a direct threat to the U.S., this administration may be willing to leave Pyongyang alone. Of course, that would put the nations surrounding North Korea in a difficult spot. If the U.S. allowed North Korea to go nuclear, the temptation for Japan and South Korea to acquire their own nuclear deterrents would rise.

To meet this second goal in a war with North Korea would require massive bombing raids on its missile factories. If our analysis of the shift in policy is correct, the U.S. may decide to spare North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. However, if the U.S. did decide to attack these as well, it would likely require “bunker buster” weapons. To ensure these attacks were successful, manned reconnaissance missions might be required.

North Korea’s war goals would be similar to that of Hezbollah’s when it fought against Israel; mere survival against a superior power would be a victory. The regime realistically can’t win but it can raise the costs of victory to the U.S., and North Korea knows it can extract support from China and South Korea if it threatens to collapse. What the Kim dynasty couldn’t overcome, however, would be the total destruction of its DMZ defenses and nuclear facilities. The loss of these primary defense measures would probably undermine the regime and lead to a fall in government. This is one argument for why the shift in U.S. policy away from the nuclear weapon itself and toward the delivery system could lay the groundwork for a path of either reconciliation or limited conflict.

In war, the issues of tactics and strategy always come into play. Tactics are mostly how battles are executed; strategy is about the path of achieving the political, geopolitical and economic goals of a conflict. Military leaders usually focus on tactics. In a nation with civilian control of the military, political leaders should be focused on strategy. The disagreement between President Truman and Gen. MacArthur is a classic example. Truman was focused on what he wanted from the Korean War—to prove to the communist states that the U.S. would be willing to fight in inconsequential places (at least to U.S. survival) to prevent the unchallenged spread of communism. MacArthur was focused on winning the Korean War. Thus, when China entered the conflict as allied troops approached the Yalu River, the general wanted to escalate, perhaps to the point of using nuclear weapons. That was a reasonable tactic but a potentially disastrous strategy as it might have triggered WWIII.

There are similar concerns with regard to a potential second Korean War. If the U.S. destroys the artillery around the DMZ and eliminates both the nuclear threat and the delivery system, it’s hard to believe that the Kim regime would survive. Only if the U.S. is prepared to deal with not only the horror of the damage done by North Korea to the heavily populated areas around Seoul but also the refugee crisis that would be triggered by the collapse of the Kim regime should it pursue eliminating both the nuclear program and the delivery system.

At the same time, if the U.S. leaves the nuclear program intact and makes it clear that the U.S. red line is missile delivery, it will almost certainly trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. Japan and South Korea will receive clear signals that the U.S. may not respond to a North Korean nuclear threat to those nations which would lead them to seek nuclear arms.