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Yay! A Conventional War with North Korea!

First, a confession: I’m no expert on Korea, either the current hostilities or the region. The Army almost stationed me there twice, but luckily I switched my orders both times, once to Italy and once to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Whenever a war with North Korea seems evident, I think back to how I almost ended up on that peninsula. I think about leading an infantry platoon training to fight the North Koreans or I think about plotting a hypothetical North Korean invasion of the south as a military intelligence officer.

In each case, I imagine a war with North Korea the way most generals in the U.S. Army hope:

A conventional war! With tanks and planes and artillery! Closing with the enemy! Huzzah!

That, of course, makes me think about the consequences, as I did last spring and fall about a possible war with Iran. Without a lot more study, I can’t say whether a war with North Korea would be more or less dangerous for Americans than a war with Iran.

I can say, though, that any war will cost a lot of Americans their lives. With mountainous terrain, nuclear weapons, and a gigantic special operations force, a war with North Korea wouldn’t resemble the previous Korean War much at all. In a lot of scenarios (maybe most), a lot of Koreans and Americans would die.

Worse...I don’t think the generals will get their clean, predictable maneuver war. Even though the Pentagon spends gobs of money developing conventional force projection weapons (like tanks, planes and ships), a war with North Korea could bog down in an insurgency just like in Iraq. Or Vietnam.

Let me say that again so it sinks in: The United States--if dragged into a war with North Korea--might have to wage a counter-insurgency.

Why? Several factors make a North Korean insurgency possible, if not likely:

1. Ideology. Think about it. At this point, North and South Korea have been divorced for decades. One emerged as a democracy with a vibrant economy. The other remains a dictatorship with a narco-agrarian economy. North Korea’s leaders have blasted their people with propaganda about the West, America and South Korea for decades. Even if a majority of the population can put it all behind them, some die hards will refuse to kow tow to the south.

2. Special operations troops. As I mentioned above, North Korea has troops trained in irregular warfare. (Allegedly, 180,000 of them.) Sure, a lot of this is probably low quality training, and a lot of North Korean exaggeration and bluster has turned plenty of regular units into “special operations”. At the very least, they will try to mount IED attacks and small unit raids on U.S. units entering from the south in heavily canalized mountain passes.

3. Old regime remnants. Plenty of stakeholders will sincerely believe they can outwait the U.S. occupancy. This will provide motivation to special operations troops and could form the core of an insurgency.

4. China. The perfect external base of support if China doesn’t agree with a U.S.-South Korean war.

Even if a full-blown insurgency doesn’t develop, our military must heed the lessons of the last ten years before driving into Pyongyang. We must plan for follow on operations. We can’t give regular North Koreans reasons to think Americans are evil. (Strict Rules of Engagement will make an appearance (or should) in another war, in other words.) We shouldn’t annihilate what little infrastructure North Korea has without thinking about the consequences. Rebuilding (or just building) infrastructure will build support among the regular, just-free citizens of North Korea.

This is why the quick rush back to “conventional” warfighting bothers me so, so, so much. The most likely wars in America’s future--which to be clear, we should absolutely avoid at all costs--are in Iran and North Korea. Those wars will likely only briefly feature all the fancy, expensive toys the Pentagon loves to purchase from military contractors, before descending into irregular warfare.

In other words, in twenty years the U.S. Army and Pentagon will have to relearn the lessons of the last ten years...

thirteen comments

– A conventional war! With tanks and planes and artillery! Closing with the enemy! Huzzah! –

Surely all of the main and secondary routes in the DPRK are set up to be made impassible the moment the border were to be crossed (and I assume the same is true in the ROK).

– Let me say that again so it sinks in: The United States—if dragged into a war with North Korea—might have to wage a counter-insurgency. –

I was trying to think of a comparable situation and the (American) Civil War was the best I could come up with insofar as the two sides are from truly different social and economic worlds. The U.S. was willing to dedicate the time, lives, and money to take the terrain during the Civil War, but there was no political will for carrying through with Reconstruction and battling the insurgency in the form of the KKK. I guess my thoughts would be that should there ever be such a thing as an Occupied DPRK then the counterinsurgency would best be left to the ROK forces and the reconstruction to the United Nations (with the U.S. and China footing the bill, which is surely one thing the two could agree on).

What American vital national interest is served by fighting in Korea?

I disagree about the whole thing.

The North Korean military offers a lot of heavy arms targets, quite enough for a straw fire.
Afterwards, the now-ubiquitous night vision technology would make classic infiltration tactics à la 1950 very, very hard. I think the defence of North Korea would largely look like an infantry-centric operational delaying action after days 1-3.

I suppose the South Korean troops and policemen would make sure there’s no insurgency. Isolated idiocy like the Werwolf stunts in Germany ’45 yes, but no real insurgency.
The country would turn into a giant refugee camp with a broken-down command economy, though.

1-3 days sounds a bit optimistic.

From a tactical/operational perspective I think the biggest shock for ground forces might be having to work without fire support. North Korea has a lot of artillery and anti-air systems. US/ROK CAS and arty will be focussed primarily on the counter-battery/SEAD missions, and the prevalence of North Korean AAA will keep attack helicopters behind the forward line of troops. At the same time, US/ROK command posts are going to have to be prepared to be mobile until the artillery/rocket threat has been neutralised, which isn’t something they’re particularly good at. On a lighter note, such circumstances might cause people to revise their opinions on the stupid phrase about COIN being the graduate level of war.

But I do agree that the north will turn into a displaced persons camp with a broken economy (which is also going to affect China as they deal with an inflow of refugees). Air dropping food and medicine and trucking in basic goods may be more effective than bullets.

I still don’t get why the US insists on being part of any such conflict in the first place.

– The country would turn into a giant refugee camp with a broken-down command economy, though. –

It’s apparently not far from that now.

Interesting thoughts all, but here’s what I say. Even if you disagree with me, everyone who chimed in has a realistic explanation for how the war could happen. That sober, rational, honest discussion wouldn’t happen if the US was sucked into another war. And even in optimistic scenarios, lots of people would die for nebulous (at best) reasons.

I think the Northen SF angle is dependent on Northen strategy: first strike or defence. If the former, then in the initial chaos and confusion some of them will successfully infiltrate the South and cause problems – probably more against ROK targets than US (analagous to the Serb paramilitaries). If the latter, then they’ll probably replicate fedayeen tactics (which is probably what any nation expecting to be invaded by the US should be preparing). Either way, I don’t see a significant popular uprising. There would likely be fighting in the vicinity of civilian populations, and there will be lots of guerrilla tactics by ‘SF’ units, but I don’t see the population taking up arms.

What I don’t know (among many things!) is what kind of potential there is for North-on-North ‘score settling’ to take place in the chaos of war and refugee movement.

Regarding point 3 of the original post: why do you call it a US occupancy? Wouldn’t it be a South Korean occupancy, couched in terms of a shifting of the border/cease fire line?

The conventional war could turn into a huge mess if (when) the Chinese intervene again. This time they could intervene and at the same time tell the West “Withdraw, don’t worry, we’ll take care of the Kims and will provide peace and stability here”. They could even invade NK with UNSC approval, as if they were defending SK.
Obama et al would likely not be stupid enough to choose war with China in such a situation (zero gain, huge mess), but withdraw to the DMZ.

F – Good point. I just don’t think the US can resist occupying a country it invaded based on my experience in the last two wars. However, it won’t make much sense to do so. (An interesting question is how long it takes the US SOC forces to capture Kim Jong-Un. Since SOC couldn’t find Saddam quickly, the US had to stay lest he regained power and the entire war was for naught. Somehow, this gigantic SOC failure is never widely mentioned in most accounts about how awesome the SEALs are.)

SvenO- Good point, and a possible outcome. It would be interesting if the DMZ is even maintained, and either way the diplomatic/political consequences could have ramifications for years. The preferred outcome is the two countries coming back together peacefully a la German reunification, but that is a subject of which I am not an expert at all.

I got to know a North Korean med student when I visited Havana a few years back and my understanding from him was that North Koreans think there is one Korea with an illegitimate government on the other side of the MDL. Of course, the fact that he had spent several years outside of the DPRK and spoke another language makes him completely unrepresentative of the citizens of the DPRK at large, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong on this one.

Everyone I have ever met from the South has gone out of their way to deny that a reunification of the ROK and DPRK would be anything like the reunification of West and East Germany. The general attitude amongst them seems to be “we don’t want to mess with them!” Stark contrast to what I heard from my friend from the North.

The leader of the opposition in Germany (chairman of social democrats) wasn’t fully in support of German reunification as well. Such scepticism just hasn’t left much of a memory imprint on people, especially foreigners.

The reunification was an opportunity to bureaucrats and the rich, but a predictable disaster for the workers. They had to pay lots of taxes and got millions of (in the East even 80% pay level) competitors in return.

“An interesting question is how long it takes the US SOC forces to capture Kim Jong-Un.”! Pardon me Michael C. but statement like this and some others in the post and the comment string make me think people forget about the South Korean armed forces. There are a whole lot of them and I suspect they know what they are doing.

If the balloon ever went up over there, American ground forces would be a footnote. There just aren’t enough of them to make a difference. And there is no reason at all for them to go north. The ROKs are far more capable at handling any situation north of the line than we would be. They may not want our help north of the line in any event. From what I read, Koreans are very proud and may not be inclined to share the task

If an insurgency of some type started, and (the biggest ‘and’ of all) Red China allowed the South a free hand, I think they would be able to handle it. If Red China cooperated and didn’t allow their territory to be used as sanctuary, then North Korea is an island, an island that cannot produce sufficient food to feed itself. If you centralized food distribution, they would have to come in or die. Plus you have a population that is used to being directed from above. If you cut off the head and replaced it with another, perhaps the loyalty will just be switched. That is how Pizarro took the Incas.

Also if history is a guide, when NK special forces infiltrate into the south, they cause some local trouble, then get killed or picked up. If a big war started, I imagine that a lot more people will die, but the NKs will fail. The ROKs are very capable.

A guy named B.R. Myers does some very good work on North Korea. Those poor people up there aren’t like us.

I think the best solution to the North Korean problem involves China invading them from behind. NK used to be a satellite state of China’s, but they’ve slipped off the leash. China doesn’t want the ROK to absorb North Korea, but they don’t want a rogue, nuclear-armed North Korea either.

The best solution is to allow China to invade North Korea, eliminate the current regime, and establish a new Chinese-controlled regime that eliminates it’s nuclear program and comes to heal when called. This way: no ROK/US troops on China’s border (plus for China), no major war on the Korean peninsula (plus for everyone), and China foots the bill and sheds the blood (plus for US/ROK).