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.
On Day Two, 10,500 paratroopers would be dropped into cities to fight South Korean troops. Four mechanized corps with 4,600 tanks and 3,000 armored vehicles are to cross the demilitarized zone and head for Seoul and other cities. Infantry in trucks are to follow.
A missile strike, possibly with nuclear warheads, would destroy the Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii to prevent reinforcements.
On Day Three, “the fighting will be over” and the North Korean army is to maintain peace and restore supply systems in South Korean cities.
However, Hayes and Cavazos pick apart the North Korean plan. For many years, North Korea has had “serious quality control problems in the production of rounds for its long-range artillery and rockets.”
They estimated that North Korean gunners would have “about 7 percent of what they would need on optimistic assumptions.”
To send 50,000 commandoes into South Korea, they say North Korea has too few aircraft to move that many people, “leaving aside the wall of lead and missiles that aircraft approaching the DMZ would have to evade.”
The most significant element in the three-day scenario is the armored offensive on Day Two. Only three corridors are large enough for an invasion route and they have been used for millennia and are thus known. Some defiles are so narrow that only a few vehicles can pass at a time, and they are well-guarded.
Moreover, Hayes and Cavazos argue, the North Koreans “cannot wish away US airpower.” American bombers from Okinawa, Guam and the US, plus fighters already in South Korea, would bring the North Korean “armored columns to a smoking, charred halt.”
Lee Chung-min in PacNet has the last word: “North Korea is a morally bankrupt, an economically ruined and a politically isolated, failed state.”
History, he said, “is not on the side of Kim Jong-un or North Korea.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.