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...