Dealing with the DPRK


Ned Resnikoff

I am a freelance writer, researcher for Media Matters for America, and occasional inactive to Salon. Everything written here is my opinion alone, and not representative of the views of my employer.

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33 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The take from the Economist is similar to the take that NPR had a few weeks ago when the kid was announced as Heir.

    One of the analysts even said something like “look for a limited military altercation in the coming months to bring everybody together.”

    (I expected this, but not this soon!)Report

  2. Avatar James Hanley says:

    The conflict will be self-constrained. Both sides know the cost of real conflict. South Korea could not stop an immediate over-run of Seoul, and North Korea knows it could not sustain its gains. This allows the North to take these kinds of actions, knowing that the South won’t fully retaliate. And the South tolerates them knowing the North isn’t going to push it any further.

    It’s just theater. Unfortunately, it’s theater that leaves real people real dead.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley says:

      Over-run of Seoul? Probably not, but destruction of Seoul via massed artillery fire or limited chemical weapon fire or a nuke? Almost definitely.
      That’s a small distinction I know but an important one.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to North says:

        They probably could over-run it, given a surprise attack. They just couldn’t remotely begin to control it or hold it for long enough to take a crap and a deep breath. Which means that, yes, your proposed options would be the strategically smarter ones. Point being, they could do some real serious damage to the South, which the South wants to avoid, but would lose in the end, which they want to avoid.Report

        • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to James Hanley says:

          When you say the NK’s couldn’t hold Seoul, are you implying the USA would come to SK’s aid?Report

          • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

            Yes. There’s no doubt about it. And as long as we didn’t go very far north, the Chinese would just watch, albeit very very closely.Report

            • Avatar North in reply to James Hanley says:

              James I suppose I can imagine the idea of a surprise attack possibly succeeding but frankly considering the limited mountainous passes involved in launching an attack from NK into SK I feel that the South Korean and American stationed airforces would be sufficient to flatten any kind of concerted infantry push to literally seize, even if temporarily, possession of Seoul. And that is assuming that they somehow didn’t get any inkling of the force buildup on the NK border that it would require. NK has a moribund air force and South Korea has modern infantry and armor battalions that wouldn’t just take a nap during such an event as well remember.

              But ultimately James I’m just quibbling for conversation’s sake. Whether it is by the weapon of a NK soldier, by the chemical combustion of a shell, the molecular reaction of gas or by the atomic rage of the bomb; I agree that North Korea has the capacity to turn Seoul into charnel pit at will.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to North says:

                It is not just arguments sake, it is just the facts. The NKs have more special forces troops than we have troops in SK. The NK special forces are well infiltrated in the south already and their regular army will invade using tunnels they’ve already dug under the DMZ (see below). I’m not sure how American power will fair when the NK commandos blow up our planes, fuel dumps and ammo storage. Not to mention all the other things they will destroy such as electrical lines, rail lines and they will start assassinating top civil and military personnel.


              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Scott says:

                a) Those “special forces” troops are also malnourished, ill-equipped, and poorly trained. Slapping the label “special” on them is no more meaningful than slapping the label “ordinary gentleman” on me is.

                b) Attacking through tunnels is difficult–people tend to come out one by one, making them fairly easy pickings. And if there are open reports by the west that they’ve found some tunnels, I’d be willing to bet we know of some that we haven’t announced. It’d be a great strategy to let the North think they had some invasion tunnels we didn’t know about, so we could funnel their troops right into our trap.

                c) Just getting out of the tunnels wouldn’t be sufficient to successfully blow up our planes and fuel and ammo dumps. Those things are guarded, eh?

                d) Kim Jong Il may try to present the image that he’s crazily unpredictable (which can be an advantageous strategy–see Thomas Schelling’s The Strategy of Conflict, but my observation is that he’s actually quite sane and clever. His actions are always carefully calculated toward a specific and limited end. Where he to blow up our planes, ammo and fuel dumps, successfully take Seoul, and assassinate all of the ROK’s political leaders, we’d just bomb the everloving s**t out of Pyongyang with our long-range bombers based out of, iirc, Offut Air Base in Nebraska. I just can’t quite imagine Li’l Kim taking those out before we can get them off the ground.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to James Hanley says:

                a) You know nothing about the condition of the NK special forces or are you privy to some intel we don’t know about. From everything I’ve read it is just the opposite, the NK SF are well fed. well trained and well equipped. (see link below on the quality of the NK SF from the Washington Post) In case you can’t read it, let me quote from it, “These are not your standard North Korean guys,” Bechtol said. “They are the best-trained, best-fed and most indoctrinated soldiers in the North. They know how to fight, and if they are caught, they are trained to kill themselves.”

                b) People coming out of tunnels are easy to pick off, if you know the tunnel is there and are ready for them. We have no idea how many tunnels they have and where they will come out. The tunnel I posted the link about was estimated to be able to accommodate 30k troops per hour.

                c)Did you even read what I wrote? The NK ALREADY have some of their special forces infiltrated inside SK and would infiltrate more before a conflict. If you are a sleeper agent and have a cover as a civilian employee inside the base I guess it would be much easier to get in past the guards. But then again I guess you know better.


              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Scott says:

                The DPRK does not have a group of well-trained, well-equipped, and well-fed soldiers that is larger than the entire ROK army.

                The bigger the tunnel, the more likely we’ve spotted it.

                Yes, they have infiltrated. That’s no secret. The nature of the espionage world is that a) some of those sleeper agents will quietly convert because they see that their kin in SK really do have better lives; b) some will be uncovered and left in place both so they can be fed some false intel and so we have the advantage of knowing who that particular agent is rather than having to figure out who the new one is. That leaves fewer effective infiltrated special forces than you’d think. And the ROK being a democratic country, they won’t be able to quickly eliminate enough of the top leadership to seriously destabilize the government. The loss of the 100 ROK government officials would be a political tragedy, not a strategic one.

                And of course you are still focusing on tactical issues, not the strategic issues. I.e., you’re ignoring the U.S. response. Kim won’t pull the trigger on such an option unless he has reason to think the U.S. won’t respond or he’s losing such control over his own population that he thinks its worth the risk because he’s got nothing left to lose. Remember, his number one goal, far above all others, is not the unification of Korea, but retaining his position of power.Report

              • Avatar Scott in reply to Scott says:


                Once again you ignore what I wrote. I never said that the NK SF outnumber the ROK regular Army. I did say that they outnumber the regular American army forces which is true. So what if the NK SF don’t they don’t outnumber the regular ROK forces, as they aren’t going to engage them in a toe to toe fight anyway? The NK SF are there to commit sabotage, create panic and disrupt our ability to fight those regular NK forces coming under the DMZ via those tunnels. Just remember what a handful on Nazi commandos did in the Battle of the Bulge.

                Another piece of history you clearly aren’t aware of is the Blue House Raid, where a 31 man NK SF unit infiltrated across the DMZ through an American Army sector on their way to kill the Pres of SK. Despite thousands of troops looking for them they made it to within 800m and then panicked. Most were finally hunted down and killed but at least one made it back.

                You don’t seem to understand what the loss of a even a few key people at the wrong time could mean. People who aren’t briefed and don’t know the job would be expected to make important decisions during a war.

                Yes I ‘m focusing on the tactical issues because that is what this thread started out as. If you want to change the subject so you can avoid admitting that you are wrong here then fine.Report

              • Avatar North in reply to Scott says:

                Sorry Scott, I’m just not feeling it. Now maybe Kim can make South Korea awash in some special forces troops but I am severely skeptical. I’m also skeptical that he could disable the entirety of the South Korean Air force nor do I believe that he could eliminate enough officials that the South Korean command and control structure would be paralyzed for days and days. This is not even to speak of his ability to shut down the American carrier group in the area, the American spy satellites and innumerable other factors that’d make a boots on the ground invasion of Seoul possible.Report

            • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to James Hanley says:

              They didn’t “just watch” the last time. Also, I’m not sure we have sufficient military strength/money/personnel to engage the NKs…3,000 miles supply line and all.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                Robert Cheeks,

                I think you missed my point about not going too far north. Last time they did indeed sit and watch until MacArthur pushed too far beyond the 38th parallel.

                As to our current troop levels, etc. We are indeed stretched too thin thanks to a certain former president. But South Korea’s a priority. We’d find a way, even if it meant even more National Guard call-ups and some shifting from Afghanistan. Keep in mind also that we fly bombing missions from the upper Midwest now, with aerial re-fueling, which effectively shortens the supply lines. And North Korea’s army is malnourished, undertrained, poorly equipped, and almost certainly lacks sufficient supplies and fuel. We wouldn’t be fighting them alone, either. We’d be supporting the South Korean army, which could quite probably handle them by itself–they’d just take longer to do it.

                And I retract my statement about overrunning Seoul. Once upon a time they probably could have, but I think North and Kolohe are right. And even if they my original statement was right, an actual ground assault on Seoul would be the more difficult and less efficient strategy, so it wouldn’t make much sense.Report

              • Avatar Robert Cheeks in reply to James Hanley says:

                Thanks James, but I worked with a fellow who fought those malnourished, poorly trained and armed NK and Chi-Com troops up on the Frozen Chosen. Piled them bastards by the hundreds around his tank and kept on firing on the charging hordes. Don’t want to see American boys going through that bs again pluse under the current clown they probably wouldn’t be allowed to kill that many commie rats.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

                I don’t think anybody *wants* to see that happen again. My point is that if all we did was defend the DMZ instead of heading to the Yalu again, China would tell Pyongyang to cool it so that they didn’t have to get drawn in again.

                Also, we have diplo relations with the PRC now, which we didn’t back then. Lots of things have changed.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


                I never said that the NK SF outnumber the ROK regular Army. I did say that they outnumber the regular American army forces which is true.

                OK, I did misread that. I’m still not impressed, as I don’t think the DPRK special forces are ready to handle our regular army.

                As to “changing the subject,” my point, to which you responded, was all about the strategic situation, so what you really mean is that you don’t want me to change the subject back to what I was talking about before you changed the subject. That is, you’re all worked up about the “quibbling” point of whether the DPRK could take Seoul. My real point was they couldn’t hold it, and the end result would be their destruction, so Li’l Kim won’t try. Really, it’s more than a little obnoxious of you to accuse me of changing the subject when I’m only reiterating my original point.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe in reply to James Hanley says:

          I would think* that there’s enough satellites and stuff to see a massing of tanks and other mobile units that a true ‘surprise’ ground assault can and would be arrested and/or preempted (and almost entirely by the ROK themselves). Otoh, like North said, with their in place artillery and rocket forces, if the Il son gives the word, it’s probably as quick as ‘ready aim fire’ to rain a lot of pain on the greater Seoul metro.

          *rather I would hope – for the 70 some odd billion we’re spending on intelligence:
          (although all that money and we can’t win the Central Asia version of To Tell the Truth)Report

  3. Avatar Steve S. says:

    “John Bolton says …America attempt to reunify the Korean peninsula ”

    Not even a question open for debate. China is not a revolutionary peasant society anymore, America can’t do anything there without their permission or acquiescence.

    “last night’s especially erratic behavior”

    Is it? Seems to me that they have very calculatedly decided to project the image of a regime that will resort to violence at the slightest provocation (or alleged provocation). And frankly it seems to work for them.Report

  4. Avatar lukas says:

    No denying that this is an outrage. But toppling the North Korean regime and trying to create one unified Korea would only pass the humanitarian crisis to South Korea — a government that I doubt has the economic capacity to absorb millions of starving people.

    Remember, though, that those people aren’t starving because of material circumstances, they are being starved by the North Korean regime. If the regime was toppled, the cause of their starvation would go away, and they would be able to feed themselves after a short transition period.Report

    • Avatar North in reply to lukas says:

      Let’s not underestimate the challenges involved Lukas. North Korea has been suffering under this insane administration for decades upon decades. The whole country is deformed by it. If they ever do reunify with South Korea it’ll make the reunification of Germany look like a ticker tape parade. The whole country will have the national equivalent of post traumatic stress disorder probably until every generation that lived under the Kim’s has shuffled off into the great beyond.

      But yes, if they got a government even half as evil and dysfunctional as the current one they’d probably be able to eat at least.Report

      • Avatar Ned Resnikoff in reply to North says:

        I’m not so sure they would be able to eat, at least not without billions of dollars in aid. It’s not like a lot of North Korean citizens aren’t already tending the land on their own–it’s just that the land itself is already pretty thoroughly blighted from their last famine.Report

        • Avatar AMW in reply to Ned Resnikoff says:

          Why would they have to grow their own food? They’d be able to trade whatever they could produce for the food they need. Hong Kong and Singapore aren’t starving, after all.Report

        • Avatar AMW in reply to Ned Resnikoff says:

          Short term, of course, they would need a lot of aid. But it would certainly be forthcoming from China, U.S., E.U., etc.Report

        • Avatar North in reply to Ned Resnikoff says:

          Setting aside that it’s highly likely that a non-command; non-military dominated economic system would allow for a more efficient and productive agricultural sector there is no doubt that a rehabilitated North Korea would be awash in both food aid and agricultural trade from their delighted and relieved neighbors.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Russia and China just quit the dollar, according to Drudge.

    That thing we were hoping to avoid? We just stumbled into a worse thing.Report