Lurking somewhere at sea within 1,000 miles of the North Korean coast, the US submarine Ohio patrols quietly at a depth of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, her vertical tubes loaded with 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles, each armed with a 1,000-pound high explosive warhead.
If Korean War II breaks out, the crew of the Ohio could launch one or seven or all 154 of her cruise missiles, which are flying torpedoes with stubby wings and small jet engines that are guided by inertial navigation or global positioning systems over the ocean and radar terrain readers over land.
In terms of accuracy, the Tomahawks could fly through the goal posts of a stadium in downtown Pyongyang. The Ohio’s load could destroy North Korea’s nuclear site at Yongbyon, the military command center in Pyongyang and the army’s field headquarters in Kaesong, near the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula.
Three weeks ago, many analysts in Seoul, Washington and the US Pacific Command in Honolulu, which would be charged with fighting the war, wondered whether the drumbeat of belligerent North Korean rhetoric should be taken seriously or ignored as propaganda.
Today, perhaps the most striking evidence that US officials fear the outbreak of hostilities is that the US embassy in Seoul has quietly begun to evacuate members of its staff and their families. In response to an urgent query by e-mail, the embassy’s press office in effect confirmed unofficial reports of the evacuation by declining to respond, a standard tactic when officials do not want to answer a question.
In Pyongyang, the government of Kim Jong-un has advised embassies there that it would be unable to guarantee their safety after Wednesday. News agency reports from the North Korean capital indicate that the caution was being considered.
Meantime, an ever-widening corps of senior officials and well-placed analysts contends that the North Koreans should be taken seriously. US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told officers at the National Defense University in Washington last week that North Korea’s “bellicose rhetoric” meant that they present a “real and clear danger” to the US and its allies.
“I think we have taken measured responses to those threats,” Hagel said.
B-2 and B-52 bombers have flown over South Korea and two F-22 Raptor fighters, the world’s most modern, have been deployed to an airbase south of Seoul. Anti-missile defenses have been improved with new weapons deployed in California, Alaska and Guam.
A US Army battalion versed in chemical warfare has arrived in South Korea in an effort to deter North Korea from using its sizeable stock of chemical weapons. Two US Navy destroyers have been deployed to Korean waters. F-18 fighters have been sent to the Philippines to bring them closer to the Korean Peninsula.
The US-South Korean war plan, known as OPLAN 5027, has been brushed up. In the event of hostilities, it calls on US and South Korean forces not to fall back in defense, but to launch an all-out offensive to defeat North Korea’s forces and to occupy Pyongyang.
A potential flaw in the US’ posture: The US has promised to keep 28,500 troops in South Korea as evidence of its commitment, but has drained that force to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last published figure was 24,655 on Dec. 31, 2008. Since then, officials have been evasive when asked for a realistic number.
On the possibility of open war, Victor Cha, a Korean-American academic at Georgetown University in Washington and a former member of the National Security Council staff in the White House, has written that while many “pass over Pyongyang’s rhetoric as harmless blather, actions by the US government over the past couple of weeks demonstrate the seriousness with which it takes the threat.”
Patrick Cronin, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, agrees.
“The Korean Peninsula is on a knife’s edge, one fateful step from war. While Koreans are accustomed to periodic spikes in tensions, the risk of renewed hostilities appears higher than at any time” since the end of the Korean War in 1953, Cronin said.
However, Rory Medcalf, of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, was less alarmist.
“Those warning of war have a point. An iconic act of limited aggression by the North is a real possibility,” he said.
He said that “the North Korean leadership is aware of the risks of a spiral into the war, which would seal its fate.”
It may be worth noting that the headquarters of the US Pacific Command sits high on a hill overlooking the naval base at Pearl Harbor, target of the Japanese surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and the memorial over the sunken battleship Arizona, in which 1,177 sailors and marines remain entombed.
Pearl Harbor and the Arizona are thus daily reminders of the price paid for not being alert and for failing to think that the worst could happen. Hagel may have had that in mind when he addressed the National Defense University.
“It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense that was wrong once,” Hagel said in answer to a student’s question. “We will continue to take these threats seriously.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.