Gashed from the yellow earth and scarred by lacerating wire bound to steel posts, the moment Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) comes into view, you cannot avoid the impression that you are witness to a crime. In a way, you are. The DMZ is an ominous wound from an unfinished conflict dividing the Korean Peninsula and serving as a boundary between incarceration and freedom. It carves its way between Korea’s sharp-sloped green hills only 20 short miles from the megacity of Seoul and its surrounding environs with its 25 million people who, after decades of economic development, are enjoying increasingly prosperous lives. The DMZ both signifies suffering already endured and foreshadows violence yet to come. It represents a status quo inter-bellum, which cannot endure. It is like no other place in the world. And the complex strategic and operational challenge that it poses to America’s joint force is likewise daunting.
The fact that war has not yet returned to the Korean Peninsula is in large measure due to U.S. security assurance. In close and enduring partnership with the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK), American military power has to date tempered hostilities and assured all actors that the cost of military ambition would be high. By no means, however, is the tumultuous history between the states and peoples of this critical region finished, nor should the absence of major war in recent decades be seen as a diminished mandate for U.S. military deterrence, shaping activities, and operational readiness.
In every so-called balance of power, stability is a constructed outcome that puts competing interests in suspension. Stability is not an accident, and it requires active intervention to endure. Like spinning a top, sustained intervention in the form of applied force is necessary to keep the thing going. If the top loses its spin, equilibrium is lost. For more than 60 years that force has been applied in Korea on the ground by American troops. They have been Northeast Asia’s key guarantors of stability. They have kept the top spinning.1
But now a young leader sitting atop the North Korean regime threatens anew what has become fashionable to blink at: escalatory conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The standoff there is not simply a relic of the Cold War or a quaint regional affair whose consequences can be held distant from American shores. The implications for American security and prosperity are global and increasingly urgent. War in Korea would inflict a terrible toll, and the United States could not avoid the butcher’s bill.
For the joint force, and for the U.S. Army in particular, a clear-eyed consideration of the high-intensity demands of a 21st-century war in Korea is overdue. We must be clear about the fundamental nature of a war waged on the Korean Peninsula. A centerpiece of U.S. joint campaigns would be a ground war—American boots on the ground in Asia. And those ground forces, as members of a joint force in partnership with our ROK ally, would be called on not only to prosecute multiple, often simultaneous operations to achieve the essential military objectives necessary to defeat North Korean military forces, but also to secure the North’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the enabling components of WMD networks, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the population, and assure order to set the conditions for the return of civil authority. Thus, if war erupts, it would be extraordinarily complex and dangerous.
Accomplishing these tasks would require much of our Armed Forces. In addition to the layered threats posed by the North’s armed forces, the deeply isolated political and economic character of the North Korean state means denial of air and sea environments alone would be necessary and enabling, yet not sufficient to the prosecution of a campaign on the peninsula. Land dominance would be essential to military success.2
While not recently in the forefront of military planning, Asia is a familiar battleground. The United States is a Pacific nation, with our country’s political, economic, and security interests tightly bound to this dynamic region. Since 1898, the United States has waged four major Pacific conflicts—the Philippine Campaign (1899–1913), World War II (1941–1945), Korean War (1950–1953 and through today), and Vietnam War (1962–1972)—as well as numerous smaller scale operations and deployments. Despite the common perception that the Pacific is an air-maritime theater, since 1898 the U.S. Army has waged more ground campaigns in the Pacific than anywhere else in the world. Likewise, Asian states have themselves fought ground wars, and with sizeable forces. The Army’s attention to this theater is historically rooted in genuine posture and readiness demands.3
As each of the Services seeks to balance worldwide commitments in an era of domestic fiscal constraint, the effects of posture decisions will be felt in the Korean theater. In concert with Army choices, the stationing or rotational presence of Navy ships, Air Force strike aircraft, and Marine forces will matter greatly. The time it takes to bring U.S. capabilities to bear in the event of conflict becomes an enemy itself if joint capabilities are moved farther from the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea’s violent provocations and bombastic pronouncements that have ratcheted up tensions in recent years mark a familiar recurrence in the constructed, public confrontations so necessary to the North. The regime capably underpins its diplomacy through a double-bind approach that generates a political crisis to set conditions, followed by facile concessions to reset conditions ante, underpinned with the threats posed by an industrial-scale WMD program and improving missile delivery systems.
North Korea is a security-first state.4 Perpetual tension with South Korea (and the United States) is the raison d’être for the North Korean regime. Manufactured vexation directed against the South and the United States is employed to justify the hardships imposed on the North Korean people by the North’s leaders. These leaders are not irrational—but they do not see the world as the West does, either. Why would they hazard a war? One catalyst would be the perceived threat posed by the West to regime leadership. Readiness—and the sacrifices demanded by the public to stay ready—to fight to protect the ethnic Korean nation whose only true defender is the North is inherent to their ruling ideology. North Korea’s leaders comprehensively prioritize a military mindset and act accordingly.5 Their ambition to protect the North’s self-declared concept of Korean racial and cultural purity means that the regime cannot go far down the path of economic reform and political liberalism. The elasticity that Western policymakers seek from the regime is simply incompatible with that mindset. This does not mean the North’s rulers are martyrs, but it does leave plenty of decision space to risk a war, even if they could be defeated eventually. It is better to remain firmly in control and resist for as long as possible than to incur the high risk posed by instability.
It is axiomatic that North Korea’s leaders see their own authority as an existential issue and would have little interest in restraint in defending themselves. They would employ every tool at their disposal to preserve their regime: conventional forces, special operations capabilities, cyber attacks, missile and artillery volleys, and, logically, WMD. The U.S. joint force must not presume that the selective application of U.S. weapons in an attempt to limit the scope of the conflict would be feasible. Once its ruling elites see themselves in jeopardy, North Korea could be expected to fight with all its capabilities. The fates of recent U.S. adversaries such as Muammar Qadhafi, Saddam Hussein, and even Bashar al-Asad are surely near to mind; none serves as models for paths to accommodation with the United States. Thus U.S. and ROK military planning must admit that North Korea’s leaders are motivated to protect their interests. That translates to war across the range of military operations, against a determined adversary, in Asia—complexity posing severe challenges for American planners.
The North’s aggressive promotion of confrontation also heightens the risk of unintended consequences such as an escalatory spiral driven by emotion, miscalculation, and chance. It is entirely feasible—in fact most likely—that any major military engagements would start with little or no notice. The scenarios for escalation are remarkably complex and merit a clear-eyed consideration of the kind of campaigns likely to be waged in crisis. In all cases military action would certainly be many things: fast-paced, violent, fought in multiple domains, high risk, and international in scope. What it would not be is easily limited or waged only on American terms.
Here is where U.S. policy desires and the shadow of history collide. Common wisdom asserts that another war on the Korean Peninsula is, in effect, unthinkable. Regional stakes are too high. Too many global powers and their economies are in play. Enormous populations are at risk. At home, an American public and policy class is weary from a decade of war in the Middle East. The default then is to hold the prospect of war in Asia at arm’s length while hoping for time to re-muster American military strength and for something—anything—to change on the Korean Peninsula that leads to an end-of-Cold-War–style soft landing. But given North Korea’s record, one should hold little optimism for a negotiated settlement to conclusively lessen tension on the peninsula.6 It is a risky proposition to assume that the relatively orderly endgame of the Cold War in Europe would be replicated in northeast Asia. The history is simply different, and so are the cultures in play.
It should not be surprising then that the North’s leaders appear to be sticking to their playbook. Their March 2010 sinking of the ROK Cheonan, with the loss of more than 40 ROK sailors, and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of that year, the largest military assault against the South since the armistice, are provocations very much in the North’s customary style. Then in April 2012, North Korea launched a 90-ton Unha-3 rocket ostensibly for the purpose of placing a satellite in orbit but likely serving as a test platform for long-range missile technologies. (It is in this context that the alleged cyber attacks by North Korea against Sony in late 2014 must be understood.) And of course even more seriously, the North has claimed several successful underground nuclear tests in recent years. Leaders in Pyongyang no doubt see little incentive to try a new approach so long as their longstanding approach of provocation followed by extraction of concessions continues to work. This is especially true now, as Kim Jong-un tightens his authority through assassination of his political rivals in a rare third-generation hereditary transition within an autocratic state.
In the meantime, change is under way south of the DMZ, which further heightens military risk. The population of South Korea is justifiably proud of hard-earned prosperity, and while they long tolerated provocations by the North, that forbearance is now being sorely tested.7 The public made their displeasure known by reacting with revulsion to the civilian loss of life as a consequence of the Yeonpyeong shelling. In the years since, the public’s perception of their security has declined significantly.8 ROK political leaders have taken note. After each of the North Korean provocations in 2010, senior ROK leaders were dismissed, including ministers of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and a number of general officers. The result is that the armed forces are more determined and readier than ever to deliver a prompt, firm, and unequivocal military response in the event of another such North Korean attack. This is just the kind of tinder that could spark a broader conflagration.
A salutary development at the level of national policy is that the U.S. Department of Defense is beginning the rebalance of force capabilities to the Asia-Pacific region.9 In addition, the U.S. Army, despite its ongoing commitments in the Middle East, has recently published its operating concept, Win in a Complex World, with its embedded idea of “joint combined arms operations.” Such operations consist of “synchronized, simultaneous, or sequential application of two or more arms or elements of one service, along with joint inter-organizational and multinational capabilities to ensure unity of effort and create multiple dilemmas for the enemy.”10 The Army’s concept proposes the kind of integrated, adaptable maneuver that would be necessary to confront and then defeat likely adversaries in any theater, but seems highly suited to the diverse challenges posed by North Korea.
If wars really do end in the mud, then the physical environment of northeast Asia offers plenty. Korea’s weather is extreme—brutally humid and monsoonal in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. Most of the peninsula features rugged, compartmented terrain characterized by low-lying rice paddies and farm fields with steeply sloped mountains. U.S. mobility would be challenged. Logistical support would be severely tested. In short, the Korean Peninsula presents considerable challenges that would test U.S. troops and equipment.
The military resources available to the North are more formidable than they may at first appear. Despite their aging equipment, inadequate transport, outdated communications gear, and poor maneuver training, they retain significant lethal capabilities. While conquest of the peninsula may no longer be feasible—a fact that the North’s military leaders likely understand—the North’s armed forces pose multiple, in-depth, and complex challenges to U.S. and ROK armed forces.11 The North Koreans would still be a formidable adversary in ground combat and possess strategic and operational attack options via robust short-, medium-, and long-range missile and cannon capabilities, which alone could put at risk most of the ROK’s population. North Korea’s armed forces are the fourth largest in the world, including an active-duty strength of more than 1.2 million—at least twice the size of the South’s.12 The North does not possess the professional officers and modernized equipment of the South, but the regime’s military leadership is indoctrinated and loyal, and the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) boasts both large numbers of armored vehicles and an especially lethal indirect fire inventory: 7,500 mortars, 3,500 towed artillery pieces, 4,400 self-propelled cannons, and 5,100 multiple-rocket launchers. These can deliver both standard high explosives and chemical munitions.
Swiftly neutralizing a large number of delivery systems is problematic even for U.S. and ROK forces that possess decided qualitative advantages. And of course, North Korea has declared itself to be nuclear-weapons capable. Interrupting and then rendering safe whatever nuclear materials do exist is a wicked problem.13 Thus the counter weapons of mass destruction (CWMD) mission set plays a regular and prominent role for U.S. Army forces on the peninsula. The prospect of waging war with conventional means against a nuclear-capable foe would itself constitute a new chapter in modern warfare, one whose implications deserves extensive scrutiny.
With these capabilities, the North could launch indirect-fire raids against key ROK cities and U.S. military installations while deploying large numbers of its 60,000-strong special operations forces (SOF) across the peninsula, and conduct limited objective incursions to seize key terrain south of the DMZ for use as negotiating leverage later. Such an offensive would pose a potent combination that would be difficult to repel. The North’s battlefield dispositions pose a challenge much more akin to the conditions at Verdun than the rapid offensive of 1950. This is not to say that the NKPA could not conduct limited attacks and seize terrain; it likely could. But the army’s strength comes from waging a defensive struggle, inflicting ROK and U.S. casualties, panicking the large population of Seoul, buying time for its national leadership to employ asymmetric weaponry and to press for an early diplomatic accommodation that leaves the regime intact.
South of the DMZ, Koreans today are justifiably proud of their economic success and protective of their hard-won affluence that has witnessed the explosive growth of a middle class in recent years.14 One result is a deeper calculation by the South of the intersection of its economic and security interests. Trade and defense issues between South Korea, China, Japan, and the United States are deeply intertwined. Even as the South and the United States continue to negotiate force posture issues and matters of operational control of forces within their alliance framework, the military partnership remains resilient and strong. In fact, U.S. troop levels in Korea have stabilized after several years of drawdown, and the U.S. Army is modernizing and improving readiness of its forces stationed on the peninsula.15 The ROK army is a highly motivated force that is earnestly modernizing and would fight hard. But it is also a force that is challenged to perform offensively with the speed and alacrity of U.S. forces. South Koreans and our allies in the region expect that the U.S. Armed Forces would fulfill alliance obligations and would carry a hefty share of the warfight. To do less would irreparably damage U.S. prestige, risk U.S. interests in the region, and likely exacerbate human suffering.
Two frequently encountered assumptions about war on the peninsula are that the war would move lockstep up the peninsula, phase line by phase line in a replay of 1950–1953, or that conflict would be limited to a specific piece of terrain, waged primarily by select—standoff—military platforms. We should employ greater imagination and resist the temptation to believe that the adversary would allow U.S and ROK forces to march the length of the peninsula as the North succumbs to “shock and awe.” While U.S. precision strike capability is certainly a good thing, it just would not be enough because the nature of the war would reflect the totality of its objectives.16 It would be fought in checkerboard fashion, with ground, sea, air, and cyber operations occurring simultaneously. Central to the contest would be the need to seize and hold ground.
For U.S. forces, the burden of waging war would fall first on U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), a subunified command that also shoulders the responsibility of representing the United Nations as the United Nations Command and partner to the ROK as it contributes to the bilateral Combined Forces Command.17 USFK troops and arriving joint forces from the region and the continental United States would be required to wage three broad campaigns: neutralize North Korea’s offensive WMD capability and protect the capital of Seoul (existential and immediate), secure WMD sites and defeat North Korean conventional and unconventional forces (existential and essential); and conduct WMD site exploitation and stability functions to aid the population and enable ROK-led reunification of the peninsula under a responsible civilian authority (conflict termination). The operational space in which these missions must be performed would be chaotic, friction would dominate, and U.S. forces would meet resistance in all domains.
The timeline from steady state to the outbreak of crisis would likely be a short one. There is little reason to believe that there would be accurate information regarding North Korean intentions. With ambiguity dictating the opening phases of a crisis, the ability of ROK and U.S. policymakers to make timely decisions would be hampered, compressing the time available for military preparations. Our recent experience in the Middle East would hinder us in Korea. U.S. forces have historically been accustomed to generating combat power over time from largely sheltered operating bases that could receive, equip, and sustain the onward-moving tactical echelons. Even when expeditionary packages are deployed, they are not large and they too benefit from an extensive support network that is protected in the theater. Our forces in Korea would be both at immediate risk and in high demand.
Operational risk climbs quickly over time if necessary capabilities are lacking. The requirements would not only be ordinary classes of supply but would also consist of specialized formations and often highly technical equipment, again demanding ready access if they are to be employed effectively. The distance between Seoul and Los Angeles is about 6,000 miles—a long way to ship or airlift heavy reinforcements, and a trip that would simply take too long if the right mix of capabilities is not already accessible to commanders. At the onset of crisis, ground forces would face the prospect of several major tasks: evacuation of noncombatants out of tactical harm’s way (likely more than 175,000 persons), and the reception, staging, and integration of follow-on forces from all Services to the peninsula. These alone are monumental undertakings that would require dedicated manpower and consume that most precious commodity, time. And then, when conflict erupts, U.S. forces would confront a threat posing complexity and scale unlike any combination faced elsewhere in the world.
In the face of this threat, the first campaign to command the attention of the world’s capitals would be to render neutral North Korea’s strategic weapons and associated capabilities, especially nuclear weapon launch and detonation. In 2006, the North publicly declared that it had conducted a successful underground nuclear test, and 3 years later it claimed to possess a nuclear weapon. No doubt it continues to pursue nuclear weapons capability, the only purpose of which could be to hold its neighbors and adversaries hostage, including the United States. In the interim, the North is ambitiously developing a range of missile technologies and platforms, some of them near fielding and possibly already in low-rate production, which could enable it to strike farther into the depth of the peninsula and as far as Japan.
Taking down the North’s strategic and operational strike weapons capability would include eliminating its ability to perform centralized command and control. The regime, being the center of gravity of the North Korean state, would remain a viable political reality only as long as it could provide centralized control. However, as we have seen in the Middle East in recent years, this does not mean that violence is terminated. Lack of central authority can in fact serve as an accelerant, which leads to the next challenge.
The next component of the ground campaign would be to wage a fight that in some respects resembles the battlefields of Northern France in 1918 as much as a 21st-century fight: lots of artillery, lots of chemical weapons, and large numbers of dug-in forces. One urgent aspect of this conventional fight is the ROK determination—and U.S. obligation—to protect the city of Seoul and its environs. There is little doubt that the North would launch a massive artillery and rocket barrage if it is afforded the opportunity to do so. Vigorous measures from the ground, sea, and air would be necessary to stymie the North’s indirect fire attacks.
Elsewhere north of the DMZ, uniformed troops and regime security forces would likely continue to fight, whatever the status of the central regime in Pyongyang. They would almost certainly follow their “last orders” and resist until they are killed or unable to offer any resistance. At the same time, North Korean SOF, highly trained and well equipped by the regime and one of the largest special operating formations in the world, would pose a significant threat. These purpose-built organizations are intended to open a “second front” behind the allied lines—in both South Korea and North Korea—and could be expected to achieve considerable disruptive effect. Alongside the officially sanctioned SOF, armed bands inspired either through deprivation and hope of food or gain or simply out of desperation and fear of ROK and U.S. troops could be expected to resist vehemently in northern areas. North Korean arsenals and underground facilities near the border area no doubt number in the hundreds, replete with munitions and explosives that could easily be turned into improvised explosive devices.
Finally, it is inevitable that ground forces must to some extent participate in stability operations, particularly during the transition following offensive combat operations. While the ROK would formally take on the requirement to establish a competent government authority to initiate the reconstitution of civic functions and services in the North, U.S. forces would inevitably be required to pacify chaotic conditions on the ground. A critical mission within this environment is for the Army to lead joint force efforts on the ground to perform CWMD missions.18 Harnessing the full suite of capabilities of the joint force to address the WMD threat would be a necessary and demanding priority that would influence nearly every aspect of ground operations. This is a central feature of the Korean Peninsula’s warfighting environment and one with worldwide implications for U.S. forces.
The North’s extensive WMD architecture has matured to the point that it is now a dominating feature of the Korean battlespace. It endangers civilian populations and military forces on the peninsula, and it puts in harm’s way, either by deliberate use or even as a result of an accidental release, every neighboring state. Once the North is denied the ability to employ these weapons, their elimination—their isolation and ultimate destruction—poses the next inevitable and important step for U.S. forces in conjunction with our ROK allies. There is no U.S. agency with the requisite mission command and robust means to protect friendly forces and allies on the ground—and with the requisite special skills—other than U.S. Army forces enabled by joint capabilities.
The precise number, function, and location of the North’s WMD sites and associated installations are not known. The North keeps its programs shrouded in secrecy. Thus U.S. and ROK forces would undoubtedly discover many facilities that are currently hidden. Joint CWMD operations would constitute a WMD “movement to contact” as our formations gain contact with the adversary’s network and construct a more accurate and comprehensive picture of the threat. Operations would require specific chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives–trained and –equipped personnel and units at every echelon.19
The U.S. strategy for combating WMD contains several components, including nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and consequence management. WMD-elimination operations are both technically demanding and manpower-intensive actions to systematically locate, characterize, secure, disable, or destroy WMD programs and related capabilities, each of which is manpower intensive.20 There is no substitute for trained and ready forces on the ground to perform these necessary mission tasks.
During the intervening six decades since the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, the divide between North and South—in effect between the past and the future—has only deepened. This disparity is increasingly perilous as the regime in the North depends ever more exclusively on its military-political complex for its survival. It lacks international legitimacy and possesses only a fractured and declining economy, and its people have been starved, slaughtered, brainwashed, and coerced into submission.
In a region featuring important U.S. national interests, the persistent presence of American forces and capabilities, in close partnership with the Republic of Korea and regional partners, has kept war at bay. How much longer this balance (the spinning top) can be kept in play cannot be known. The severe rigidity of the North Korean political-military nexus and the potential for miscalculation that such a system engenders renders any balance of power inherently unstable.
Defeating North Korea militarily would require the joint force to operate in every domain. The land campaign would be decisive. In every eventuality, among key U.S. objectives is that the North Korean WMD program must be rendered safe. If crisis erupts in Korea, American military forces on the ground would be central actors to safeguard U.S. interests and restore stability. JFQ