Foreign Policy

Starting the Second Korean War?

Restraint is almost certainly the better part of valor

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What to do about North Korea was a major topic during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to South Korea and China. The North remains predictably unpredictable. If the Korean peninsula has gone a few weeks without a crisis, expect Pyongyang to create one. So it has been with the advent of the Obama administration.

Angry over the Bush administration's failure to offer sufficient inducements, the North announced that it was halting plans to dismantle its nuclear program. Irritated with Seoul's new hard-line towards North Korea, Pyongyang declared all agreements with the Republic of Korea to be inoperative.  Now the North apparently is preparing to stage a missile test. Secretary Clinton called the latter "unhelpful," as if Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was a valued negotiating partner.

The government in Seoul responded with a yawn and Secretary Clinton indicated her desire for continued negotiations. But the latest emanations from Pyongyang have caused some policymakers to advocate confrontation. Philip Zelikow, late of the Bush State Department, suggests war.

This isn't the first time that U.S. officials have proposed sending in the bombers. The Clinton administration apparently came close to ordering military strikes before former President Jimmy Carter's dramatic flight to Pyongyang. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has spent years pondering the possibility of preventive war against the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

It was never a good idea, but the pressure for military action may grow. Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy recently traveled to the DPRK, where he was told that existing supplies of plutonium had been "weaponized." He argues that the U.S. "can tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea that may or may not actually have the weapons arsenal it claims," but others would put the military option back on the table.

Zelikow goes even further. He says: "whatever the merits of Harrison's suggestion when it comes to North Korea's nuclear weapons, the United States should not accept Pyongyang's development of long-range missiles systems, which can be paired with an admitted nuclear weapons arsenal, as still another fait accompli." In his view, Washington should warn the North to stand down; if the DPRK failed to comply, the U.S. should take out the missile on its launch pad.

Why? Zelikow contends that "the North Korean perfection of a long-range missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country." To rely on deterrence, he adds, would be a "gamble."

Obviously no one wants the North to possess nuclear weapons or missiles of any kind. However, North Korean threats against the ROK and Japan are not threats against America's vital interests. Japan is the world's second ranking economic power and the South has roughly 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Sooner rather than later they should be expected to defend themselves. Washington is busy enough dealing with its own geopolitical problems in the midst of an economic crisis.

Moreover, nothing in the North Korean regime's behavior suggests that Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is any less amenable to deterrence than were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Kim may be many things, but there is no indication that he is suicidal. Rather, he likes his virgins in the here and now.

Of course, it would be better not to have to rely on deterrence. But a preventive strike would be no cakewalk.

If there is insanity at work on the Korean peninsula, it is the assumption that Kim would do nothing if his nation was attacked by the U.S. He might choose inaction, but more likely would see such a strike as the prelude to regime change. In that case the results of the Iraq war would impel him to act first rather than await invasion. America and South Korea would win any war, but the costs would be horrendous.

Moreover, the DPRK could easily initiate a more limited tit-for-tat retaliation. The South's capital of Seoul lies within easy range of Scud missiles and massed artillery. Even the "optimists" who believe that Seoul could be protected by massive military strikes along the Demilitarized Zone talk about holding casualties to under 100,000. Imagine Pyongyang announcing a limited bombardment in response to the U.S. action, combined with the promise of a ceasefire if the ROK blocked any further American response. Washington's Asian policy would be wrecked along with Seoul.

Despite the vagaries of dealing with the North, it is not the first bizarrely brutal and secretive regime with which the U.S. has dealt. Forty-some years ago there was China. The unstable Mao regime, atop a country convulsed by the bloody Cultural Revolution, was developing nuclear weapons. National Review editor William F. Buckley and New York Sen. James Buckley both pressed for a preventive attack on Beijing's nascent nuclear program. The Johnson administration considered proposals for such an assault.

The arguments were similar as those made today regarding North Korea: An unpredictable regime, the uncertainty of deterrence, and the relative ease of attack. It's impossible to know what the world would have looked like had Washington struck, but China likely would have moved closer to the Soviet Union and become more resolutely hostile to the U.S. Restraint almost certainly was the better part of valor. So, too, with North Korea today.

Of course, Washington still should work with the DPRK's neighbors in an attempt to persuade Pyongyang to abandon both its missile and nuclear ambitions. Even more important, though, would be to turn the problem of North Korea over to the surrounding states. To the extent that the North threatens anyone, it is South Korea and Japan. China and Russia are unlikely direct targets, but still have good reason to prefer a stable and peaceful Korean peninsula.

Thus, the U.S. should withdraw its 29,000 troops from the ROK, where they are vulnerable to military action by Pyongyang. Then North Korea would be primarily a problem for the ROK, China, Japan, and Russia. And the U.S. need not worry about the latest North Korean gambit.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon) and Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato).

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  1. article link seems broken

  2. Busted for me too.

  3. fixed now – wierd

  4. Yes, we should get out of Korea. All our troops over there are are hostages for Dear Leader to threaten us with. If North Korea wipes out South Korea and Japan, the Chinese are fucked a lot worse than we are. It is therefore a Chinese and Korean problem. Until China decides that it is not okay to prop up Dear Leader in order to make trouble for the US, the situation will never resolve.

    Absent that, perhaps our Dearly Beloved Leader can talk to their Dearly Beloved Leader and compare cult notes and work the whole thing out. Didn’t Obama score an 18 the first round of golf he ever played?

  5. It’s about time called for this. Not only is the US subsidizing a bunch of deadbeat militaries, they are also enabling a bunch of pinky brain Canadian ex-pats to make a good living teaching English in Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo.

  6. If there is insanity at work on the Korean peninsula, it is the assumption that Kim would do nothing if his nation was attacked by the U.S. He might choose inaction, but more likely would see such a strike as the prelude to regime change.

    This is the understatement of the year. Striking will result in the artillary shelling of Seoul – and hundreds of thousands dead. They have enough guns in super hardened shelters that they could turn the city into rubble before we could knock out 20% of them.

  7. Keep an aircraft carrier off the coast and just make it clear to NK if they try any shit after we’re gone we level the whole country.

  8. John, I don’t think anybody wants North Korea to collapse. At least not Soviet Union/East Germany style. It would be a clusterfuck. The best option is reform along the lines of what the Chinese did.

  9. “Striking will result in the artillary shelling of Seoul – and hundreds of thousands dead. They have enough guns in super hardened shelters that they could turn the city into rubble before we could knock out 20% of them.”

    But nukes are worse because they are an inherently evil technology.

  10. So ronery
    So ronery and sadry arone

    There’s no one
    Just me onry
    Sitting on my rittle throne
    I work rearry hard and make up great prans
    But nobody ristens, no one understands
    Seems like no one takes me serirousry

    And so I’m ronery
    A rittle ronery
    Poor rittle me

    There’s nobody
    I can rerate to
    Feel rike a bird in a cage
    It’s kinda sihry
    But not rearry
    Because it’s fihring my body with rage

    I’m the smartest most crever most physicarry fit
    But nobody else seems to rearize it
    When I change the world maybe they’ll notice me
    But until then I’rr just be ronery
    Rittle ronery, poor rittle me

    I’m so ronery

  11. “But nukes are worse because they are an inherently evil technology.”

    They have bigger consequences. No need for a value statement.

  12. Taking off the training wheels would have the additional positive effect of creating some capable allies (necessity being the mother of invention and all) instead of the milquetoast pansies the koreans/japanese currently are.

  13. I’m not sure they could do more damage with their feeble buggy nukes – the artillary is probably still more powerful, though not nearly as scary.

  14. I’m generally at odds with Cato’s foreign policy positions because I have different postulates. I agree, though, that pulling out of Korea would have little downside and much upside.

    Nonetheless, while turning over all the bases near the DMZ to the ROK is a good move, there’s still a case to be made for staying in Korea. And anyway even if we pulled out completely, North Korea would still be a problem for us because our bases in Japan are still in range.

    And if one says we should pull out of Japan also, I would repsond by saying that our presence in East Asia provides real benefits for us. Sure, there’s a lot of free riding, but even as somewhat a lightning rod, we provide a stablizing influence – from which we directly benefit – betwen Japan, Korea, and China (and the rest of SE asia) all of whom still harbor deep historical animosity. (The Korean memorials to the period of WW2 have an explicit anti-japanese bent that makes the neo-confederates look like log cabin republicans)

  15. South Korea has been amply able to defend itself against a Northern invasion for upwards of 25 years. Our presence there has chiefly been a pretext for forward-basing 29,000 troops, plus all the forces we maintain in Japan, as a potential counter to any Chinese or Russian saber-rattling in the region (vs. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, etc.)

    I’d be inclined to favor withdrawal as a step toward rationalizing military expenditures, and controlling the budget generally, but we shouldn’t be shocked when our political influence in the region declines significantly, to China’s particular benefit.

  16. Absolutely, get them out. Let the locals worry about what is, with one exception, a local problem.

    The only part of this that isn’t local is their ICBMs that can reach America. A good reason for further work on missile defense, but the Dems hate missile defense and are sure to cut it. Still, this can be managed by a public statement from Obama that we will massively respond to any attack on the US. Give a list targets and the megatonnage assigned to each, just to make the point.

    I wouldn’t even leave an aircraft carrier on station. Perhaps give the South Koreans some tactical nukes as deterrents, if they’ll take them, and encourage the South to adopt a policy of nuclear retaliation to any shelling of Seoul.

  17. Artillery isn’t radioactive.

  18. BURRIS’ SON GOT STATE JOB FROM BLAGO
    SCANDAL MUSHROOMS | He serves as housing authority counsel despite facing foreclosure on his own home:

    http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/burris/1450607,CST-NWS-burris26.stng

  19. Pansies?

    Anyone who calls the South Koreans pansies has CLEARLY never spent any time working with ROK troops. Damn tough fighters.

    I have little doubt they can well defend themselves from the Norks.

  20. Yeah ROK has one of the best militaries on earth. Small but effective. They’d probably defeat NK in about a month in a conventional war without any help.

  21. Given that the ROK troops are, you know, fed, and have good 21st century hardware vs. Soviet leftovers from the 1970s.

  22. a bunch of pinky brain Canadian ex-pats to make a good living teaching English in Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo

    They’re also from Australia and England (and a few from Fairfax county as well). They also tend to be
    1) female
    2) fairly good looking
    3) interested in any dude that speaks english due to the insular nature of their host society.

  23. Meh. Radioactivity isn’t as dangerous as it’s cracked up to be – at least not from those types of weapons.

  24. BDB – you’re right about their ground troops. But I was an Air Force guy – and their airpower was like a mousefart in the grand canyon. And that is a big problem.

  25. Good idea, except they won’t be brought home, they’ll be added to the force sent to Afghanistan.

  26. “Radioactivity isn’t as dangerous as it’s cracked up to be”

    Yes, indeed. You hear the most outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling everybody it’s bad for you. Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have them, too.

  27. How long after the US announces it’s withdrawal from South Korea and Japan would it take for these two nations to be nuclear armed?

    Japan could do it in weeks if they haven’t already done everything but final assembly. Then it’s days.

    South Korea might take as long as 18 months to join the club.

    I’m not saying this a reason to stay on the peninsula (IMHO it isn’t), just that nuclear proliferation the Far East is a likely consequence of the U.S. leaving.

  28. “But I was an Air Force guy – and their airpower was like a mousefart in the grand canyon.”

    But when compared to NK who is probably using shit from the 50s?

    Anyway that would be where our aircraft carrier comes in.

  29. “I’m not saying this a reason to stay on the peninsula (IMHO it isn’t), just that nuclear proliferation the Far East is a likely consequence of the U.S. leaving.”

    Look, eventually every country in the world is going to 1) have nukes, 2)be able to make them fairly quickly, or 3)be protected under someones nuclear umbrella. Total proliferation is going to happen, period.

  30. Artillery isn’t radioactive.

    It can be. But I agree that it’s not likely to be a vector DPRK would use.

    Also, it should be noted that the ROK can easily repulse any invasion of the DPRK. And a surprise attack by the North, while not impossible, is more difficult now than it’s ever been. But the ability for the ROK to invade the North is somewhat more constrained. Early air superiority would be fairly easy, but a follow on ground attack would be similar to Iwo Jima. The DPRK is a rabbit warren of fortifications and a population that has been brainwashed and isolated for a half century.

  31. Getting the US out of South Korea makes the all of Asia makes sense if your want the US to become a second-rate power with all the influence of Denmark. The US would lose votes in the UN, allies in Asia, and any hope of influence in the most economically dynamic region of the world. Democracies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would be more and more likely to dance to the tune that China calls because they have no realistic hope of standing up to a military threat from there.

  32. Radioactivity isn’t as dangerous as it’s cracked up to be – at least not from those types of weapons.

    Goody. Can we detonate a couple of neutron bombs on K Street?

  33. “Getting the US out of South Korea makes the all of Asia makes sense if your want the US to become a second-rate power with all the influence of Denmark.”

    1) We’re really fucking big in land area and population, 2)we will still be spending more on defense than the rest of the world combined, 3)we will still have thousands of nukes, 4)still have cultural and economic influence.

    That a’int Denmark.

  34. BDB – no question the north wouldn’t be chalking up the A2A kills – but I don’t think the south could maintain air superiority without the US.

  35. Let South Korea and Japan have nukes. They are our allies and both peaceful democracies. All them having nukes would do is prevent the CHICOMS from playing local bad boy and threatening everyone with death. The Chinese are our enemeies and Japan and South Korea are both historic enemies of China. Let them have nukes.

    FWIW, if the North ever invaded the South their Army wouldn’t last a week. Not necessarily becuase South would kick their ass, although the South has a good army. But more because once NORK soldiers hit Seoul and realized how wealthy the place was, the army would break apart into looting like a wave hitting a rock. You have to understand the typical NORK soldier eats meat maybe once a year. They have nothing and know little about the outside world. A typical 7-11 in Seoul has probably ten years worth of North Korean wages on its shelves. There would be no way to control the army once they saw that kind of wealth and realized how Dear Leader had been lying to them.

  36. Artillery isn’t radioactive.

    The U.S. and the USSR (Russia nowadays) both had (have?) nuclear armed artillery shells in the inventory.

    But we all knew that.

  37. The only part of this that isn’t local is their [DPRK?] ICBMs that can reach America.

    While literally true, this is a bit of an overstatement of their abilities. It is, in fact rocket science, and their ‘state of the art’ systems have some considerable disadvantages.

  38. The Chinese are our enemeies

    Easy there, killer.

  39. There is no doubt that South Korea would decisively win a war with the North even without any help from us. While the DPKR does have 1 million troops, they are poorly trained and equipped. They cannot afford to maintain their Air Force or train their pilots and mechanics. True they would be able to shell Seoul for a day or so, but that’s pretty much the extent of the capabilities. During the cold war they sided with Russia over China. As a consequence they have no allies. Russia sides with them, but hasn’t actually done anything for them since the USSR collapsed. China is sympathetic to them but when it comes down to it, the money for China is in South Korea.

    North Korea knows all of this. That is why they want nuclear weapons.

    On a bit of a tangent, Right now our shock troops in the DMZ actually make a North Korea attack more likely. Our troops are not Korean. The North would be much more hesitant to attack Korean soldiers than American ones. There is some thought that the North Korean military might be less willing to shell Seoul if they knew that they had no chance of winning in the end and that they would be only killing their own countrymen.

  40. China is a rival, not an enemy. And we wouldn’t want them to be an enemy.

  41. The only part of this that isn’t local is their [DPRK?] ICBMs that can reach America.

    True – unless you are worried about them nuking Unimak island.

  42. And I don’t think we could win any kind of war with China. They just have too many fucking people. Even the Soviets realized the only thing they could do in the event of a war with the PRC was to retreat to the Urals and nuke everything east of them.

  43. True they would be able to shell Seoul for a day or so, but that’s pretty much the extent of the capabilities.

    Don’t write this off as inconsequential – they could level the city in 24 hours. But I agree with your thoughts on them being hesitant to attack Koreans.

  44. And I don’t think we could win any kind of war with China.

    If you mean, ‘occupy every square mile like Japan in 1945 or Iraq in 2003’ I wholeheartedly agree.

    If however, the conflict is more like the UK-Argentine Faklands/Malvinas conflict, or Iraq in 1991…

  45. John Wayne was a fag.

  46. And I don’t think we could win any kind of war with China. They just have too many fucking people

    Well, this is debatable. We have 13 carrier groups and hunter/killer attack submarines. We OWN the oceans. Having tons of people is useless if you can’t transport them anywhere. It would have to go nuclear, and then everyone loses.

    This is why we will never go to war with China, unless they dramatically increase in sea power and we dramatically decrease.

  47. Pro Lib,

    Phew, for a second I thought no one would notice the reference. A personal fave of mine…

  48. Voros McCracken,

    What reference? I was just commenting on my personal knowledge of his gayness. I installed two-way mirrors in his pad in Brentwood, and he come to the door in a dress.

  49. Don’t write this off as inconsequential – they could level the city in 24 hours. But I agree with your thoughts on them being hesitant to attack Koreans.

    Very true. I guess what I was trying to get at (and didn’t say )is that since that’s all they can do, they very likely won’t do it in the first place. Also, there’s a notion out there that the DPRK army is some sort of juggernaut waiting to cross the border. The military is falling apart because they spent most of their money trying to get nuclear weapons. They have almost no offensive capabilities. The artillery aimed at Seoul mainly consists of most of their tanks sealed into concrete bunkers. The DPRK military is set up to defend, not attack.

  50. That was Rock Hudson, ProL.

    Hey, did you know that Rock Hudson died from Botulism? Bad meat in the can.

  51. “John Wayne was a fag.”

    But I took it like a man, pilgrim.

  52. @ Kolohe:

    They’re also from Australia and England (and a few from Fairfax county as well). They also tend to be
    1) female
    2) fairly good looking
    3) interested in any dude that speaks english due to the insular nature of their host society.

    As for #2 on your list, I’d argue they are drop dead gorgeous – I was lucky enough to marry the one I met in Japan.

  53. I figure the Duke caught the gay from George Takei while filming The Green Berets. Or maybe he got it from Bea Arthur.

  54. J. Frank Parnell FTW.

  55. Bush already tried this. As soon as he started talking about pulling away troops North Korea screamed and howled that it was a prelude to war. (That confused me for awhile till someone explained that N. Korea thought we were removing troops so we could use NBC weapons).

    So.. oddly it’s not as simple as it sounds, not unless we want N. Korea to launch a pre-emptive attack. I’ve read various estimates that with all the artilery aimed at Seoul 700,000 civilians would die in the first few hours.

    That is the main reason for the kid gloves with those maniacs.

  56. … on the Second Korean War

    Did the first Korean War ever really end?

  57. We also invaded Korea in

  58. We invaded Korea in 1871, so this would be Korean War III.

    Even the 1950 Korean war was a “police action”.

  59. North Korea has a standing army of about 1 million men, and dwarfs the south Korean army. I don’t know why you guys think the south “could easily repulse the north”?

    1. Numbers arent everything. South Korea’s tanks are top of the line K1s, along with the K2s coming online soon. North Korea’s tank and aircrafts are hopelessly outdated. South Korea has a far larger manpower pool to draw from. Also, South Korea’s military spending EQUALS THE ENTIRE NORTH KOREAN GDP!

      North Korea can barely keep its people fed even with Chinese/US/SK food aid.

      South Korea has superior tanks, aircraft and naval forces. As well as having a Mutual Defence Pact with the United States, which means US forces in Japan and other areas WILL rush to South Korea’s aid. Dont forget that the border between NK and SK is the most heavily fortified place in the entire WORLD. An attacker needs at least 3 to 1 advantage in numbers to beat a defender with the same tech level. South Korea has out stripped NK’s military tech by a few generations. NK’s Airforce will be obliterated by the combination of ROKAF and USAF/USN fighters and its tanks obliterated by their superior counter parts in the ROK army and US army.

      NK’s ONLY card is the fact that SK’s capital is within range of NK artillery. If NK attempts to escalate it using WMDs it becomes a glowing, glassed parking lot in minutes.

  60. North Korea has a standing army of about 1 million men, and dwarfs the south Korean army. I don’t know why you guys think the south “could easily repulse the north”?

    South Korea has a standing army of 687,000 men that is FAR better trained, equipped and fed.

  61. They also have 4.5 million reserves.

  62. Ah, I remember being deeply amused by that Economist cover. One of my favorite ones ever.

  63. Am I the only one who gets the Repo Man joke?

  64. Harry Dean, we don’t allow any Commies on this thread.

    Christians, neither.

  65. It seems pretty clear to me the reason North Korea wants long range nukes. It’s the same reason any other nation wants long range nukes – as a final deterrent against foreign invasion and forced regime change. The fact is, a couple ICBMs are better guarantee of sovreignty than any treaty, constitution, or UN recognition ever will be. It’s equally good against local enemies and distant superpowers who may not like the way one manages one’s country or who have an eye on one’s natural resources. In fact the only kind of major conflict a nuke doesn’t effectively protect you against is a civil conflict such as terrorism or revolution. It’s no surprise then that these tiny, politically unpopular regimes are rushing to get nuclear weapons before they become the next Iraq or Afghanistan – as they were before 9/11/2001, when the United States and other superpowers’ methods of foreign meddling were more covert.

    Whether or not they are legitimate states, or whatever our opinion of their politics and leadership may be, I think we can be fairly secure in the knowledge that they have no intention of actually using these weapons once they develop them. That leaves only the question of whether we can trust them to handle, store, and secure them effectively – which we can’t, nobody can be trusted with that responsibility – but what recourse do we have? In the chaos of a regime change the danger that the weapons will end up in the ‘wrong hands’ is even greater, meaning on top of the incredible cost of a war we increase, rather than reduce, the risk we seek to avert.

  66. i think any military action in the peninsula ,won”T be in anybody interest nor the two koreas nor america .it will only create a bloodshed and drag other countires into it ,like china who i a main ally of the north and threat ww3.

  67. What the foolish writer here conveniently omits is the amount of responsibility the U.S. has for the current situation. FIrst of all by agreeing to divide the Korean peninsula with the Russians, a weak-kneed Truman allowed this conflict to occur. By not taking on Mao and the Chinese, a weak-kneed Truman allowed this to occur. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The United States is bound by a treaty obligation to provide over 600,000 troops should South Korea be attacked. The US cannot abandon its obligation to South Korea. These are the facts. It is a sad thing that the CATO institute has lowered their standards in the hiring of the individual responsible for this article.

  68. I’m not a meteorologist, but I wonder what the local wind patterns would do with the fallout from a large scale nuclear (or biological or chemical) exchange on the peninsula. Seems like anyone downwind would have an interest in preventing open conflict, or at least limiting it to conventional weapons.

  69. The First Korean War has not actually ended.

  70. I see Pro Lib got it too, BP. You are gypsy dildo punks.

  71. Having read the many interesting and thoughtful posts in this thread I vote to keep our troops in South Korea but not to attack the North. Withdrawal would send the wrong signal to friend and foe alike, while attacking the Dear Leader would lead to too many casualties from NK artillery.

    Let’s muddle along and wait for the regime in the North to collapse.

  72. Except, you know, those nuclear missiles.

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