Ever since the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula starting billowing up in December last year, the mudslinging, propaganda and debate on all sides have focused on North Korea’s potential ability to mount a nuclear attack. However, the more likely eruption of hostilities would see conventional forces fighting with rifles, tanks and artillery.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has just concluded an intensive round of consultations with the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan in their respective capitals, during which North Korea’s nuclear arms were high on the agenda. Cutting through the diplomatic verbiage, the message to Pyongyang was: “Stop the high-blown provocative rhetoric and let us talk.”
Back in Washington, a representative in a hearing read from an intelligence report that North Korea had developed a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried atop a ballistic missile. However, a Pentagon spokesman retorted that North Korea had not demonstrated that capability. Thus the debate continues.
In some contrast, two essays, one by a South Korean and the other by two Westerners, focused on the more likely threat from North Korea’s conventional forces and concluded that for North Korea to launch an assault across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the Korean Peninsula would be to commit national suicide.
If a major conflict breaks out, wrote Lee Chung-min, a prominent academic at Yonsei University in Seoul, “South Korean and US forces will suffer heavy casualties, but in the end, they will prevail. And when that happens, the DPRK will cease to exist,” referring to North Korea by its official title, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Similarly, Peter Hayes, the Australia-born director of the Nautilus Institute in San Francisco, and Roger Cavazos, a retired US Army intelligence officer, wrote that a North Korean assault “would likely fail disastrously.” They concluded that “North Korea faces defeat, not stalemate, in short order.”
Lee, adviser to several military commissions and, most recently, to South Korean President Park Geun-hye, contended last week that “North Korea is in no condition to launch a war.”
In the PacNet newsletter of the Pacific Forum, a think tank in Honolulu, Lee asserted that North Korea’s war-fighting capabilities “have been degraded over the years due to endemic food and fuel shortages, the dwindling of more modern weapons systems from Russia and China, and an extremely corrupt and politicized general staff.”
Moreover, Lee wrote, if North Korean leader Kim Jong-un thinks that Park is going to sit by if South Korea is attacked, “he should think twice.”
Lee said that while Park “is more than willing to engage in dialogue with the North, Kim Jong-un should know that if push comes to shove, she will stare him down.”
Hayes, an anti-nuclear activist who has visited North Korea seven times, and Cavazos, a specialist in East Asian matters, analyzed what the North Koreans have declared their “Short-Term, Quick War That Will End in Three Days.” In that time, North Korea is to defeat South Korean and US forces and occupy Seoul.
On Day One, artillery fire 250,000 rockets, shells and missiles in a “fire-thrashing” intended to knock out the South Korean artillery, destroy helicopters on the ground, and disable tanks and armored carriers. Air force and navy bases, missile bases, ports and power plants are to be taken out by commandos.