North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (neither democratic, nor for the people, nor a republic), barraged an island belonging to South Korea, setting fire to more than 50 homes and killing two South Korean marines while injuring at least 16 others plus three civilians. South Korea fired back and launched some F-16 fighter bombers to the area, with the jets cautiously not crossing the demarcation line that separates the capitalist and democratic South from the totalitarian and armed-to-the-teeth North.
Based on the volume of destructive firepower, this is North Korea’s biggest attack since the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War 57 years ago.
It’s been nine years since I was last in South Korea. As with most Americans since 1950, my trip to Korea was in the uniform of the U.S. Army. I flew to Korea three times in 2001 to participate in military exercises as a brigade combat team operations officer (S3). During our first week long leaders’ recon we visited South Korea’s war museum in Seoul. Outside the museum stood two rows of flag poles topped by the unit insignias of the forces that fought to protect the South in the 1950-53 war. Leading one long row of flags was the banner of the 40th Infantry Division of the California Army National Guard, which fought in Korea in 1952 and 1953, losing 376 KIA with three soldiers of the division being awarded the Medal of Honor. Later, we traveled 50 miles east of Seoul to visit the Kapyong Comprehensive High School, otherwise known as the Kenneth Kaiser High School, named after the first 40th Division soldier to be killed in action in Korea. The 40th Division troops built the school for children orphaned by the war.
These visits served as a powerful visual reinforcement of the battle-forged ties between America and its ally South Korea – something I had only known in the abstract as an intelligence officer whose training had focused on the North Korean military since 1983.
The North Korean attack should be considered in light of four major factors in play in the region.
Kim Jong-un, the son of Kim Jong-il, the current North Korean dictator, (himself the son of Kim il-Sung, the man who started the Korean War in 1950, one of history’s bloodiest bloodlines) will soon assume full control of North Korea’s 22.8 million people. This attack, and the unprovoked North Korean sinking of a South Korean patrol boat last March that killed 46 sailors, may have as much to do with North Korea’s unelected dynastic succession process as much as anything else. Given the opacity of the regime in Pyongyang, we’ll never really know.
Less than two weeks ago, North Korea revealed an extensive and modern new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting American nuclear scientist. The facility’s size increases concerns that North Korea is seeking to more rapidly expand their nuclear arsenal, now estimated by experts to number up to a dozen small nuclear weapons. In this light, some analysts believe that the North Korean attack serves as a deadly warning to America and to South Korea that any action against the North’s nuclear capabilities would result in heavy retaliation to the South. The challenge for America is that anything short of dismantling the North Korean nuclear weapons program only serves as an encouragement to the Islamic Republic of Iran and other potential nuclear proliferators that they can build the Bomb with impunity.
Economics also plays a role in North Korea’s seemingly brash actions. South Korea now has more than double North Korea’s population at 48.6 million people, but, the South’s economy is some 34 times larger than the North’s. North Korea’s communist system has been tottering on the verge of collapse for decades now. Its main source of hard currency earnings have been counterfeiting U.S. dollars (an act of war), weapons sales to regimes such as Iran, Syria and Myanmar (Burma), and drug running – hardly the foundation of a modern economy. But, seemingly every time North Korea indulges in violence and threats, it is mollified by South Korea and America who would rather appease the North with economic aid than see Seoul under a deadly bombardment. This ongoing dilemma proves the maxim that the power to destroy something is the power to own it.
Finally, the People’s Republic of China has a pivotal role in the Korean situation. Were it not for the massive intervention of China’s People’s Liberation Army in 1950, North Korea would have ceased to exist and the entire Korean peninsula today would be united, free and prosperous (and likely nuclear-free). Today, North Korea’s strange regime survives at the sufferance of its benefactors in Beijing. China could topple the North Korean government, if it wished to, by simply withdrawing the food and fuel that it ships to North Korea – that it doesn’t speaks volumes about the Chinese communist leadership.
In response to the latest North Korean attack, the Chinese foreign ministry said North Korea and South Korea both needed to “do more to contribute to peace.” This comment echoed China’s comments of last March when a North Korean submarine sank the South Korean patrol ship showing that China has zero interest in restraining North Korea. China also called for all sides to return to the so-called “six-party talks” (the six parties being: North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan), a forum whose sole result has been to reward North Korean aggression with economic payoffs.
American foreign policy on the Korean peninsula has been stuck since the 1990s when the Clinton Administration first made an issue of the North Korean nuclear program, then backed down, offering the North shipments of fuel oil and food in exchange for the North’s nuclear cooperation. North Korea has been extracting concessions from the South and America ever since.
U.S. strategic flexibility on the Korean peninsula has been hampered by two things: the presence of some 30,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea, a remnant of the Korean War some 60 years ago; and the deep concern of our ally, South Korea, that a firm response to the North’s provocations would result in heavy damage and loss of life in Seoul. Our troops in South Korea were once needed to hold back North Korea, likely history’s most militarized society since the Spartans. Today, however, the North simply doesn’t have the economic muscle to field a modern, capable army. If it ever came to blows, the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) army would crush the North’s in days – but Seoul, a prosperous city of 10 million within artillery range of the North, would lie in ruins. Further, U.S. casualties could end up exceeding that of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined within a week. In short, confronting North Korea would be a bloody, ugly mess.
But continuing the status quo on the Korean peninsula isn’t acceptable either. Every day that goes by with the North Korean regime intact is another day that allows them to sell nuclear technology and even nuclear weapons to nations such as Iran or to terrorists with cash. North Korea knows this, which is why they constantly extort South Korea and America, offering to curtail their nuclear program in exchange for assistance, only to later renege on their promises.
America could break this dismal cycle of extortion if it wanted to, but doing so would require more daring and ingenuity than is likely possible from the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The bold action: pull American troops out of South Korea. American military power is no longer needed in South Korea, at least not in the purely balance of power sense. In fact, the American military presence along the DMZ with North Korea only serves to constrain our initiative. Instead of doing what’s best for U.S. national security, acting to dismantle the North Korean nuclear weapons program, we are hobbled by our alliance with the South into not doing anything that might provoke the North.
My oath of office as a U.S. Army officer doesn’t mention anything about protecting Seoul from attack, but it does specifically say that I am to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” If defending Seoul prevents us from effectively “defend(ing) the Constitution of the United States against all enemies” perhaps it’s time we rethink our increasingly obsolete troop commitment in Korea. Evacuating U.S. forces from South Korea would allow American foreign policy makers wider latitude in dealing with North Korea. For instance, the U.S. could issue an ultimatum to the North Korean regime to dismantle its clandestine nuclear weapons program or else face the consequences, which might include an attack on North Korean nuclear facilities, a naval blockade, or an attack on North Korean leadership. These actions would be entirely within the right of America to defend itself from a regime that continues to threaten U.S. national security. But, so long as America remains tied at the hip with South Korea, none of these more effective steps will be taken.
Lastly, our 15-year record of impotent and vacillating dealings with North Korea over their nuclear weapons program only serves to send a message to Iran, and other nations, that the U.S. will do nothing to interrupt their drive to nuclearize. There is far more at stake on the Korean peninsula than the fate of Seoul and the survival of the weird and brutal regime in Pyongyang.