One will remember that on 12 February the US President pledged to stand fully behind Japan declaring North Korea's firing of a missile into the sea off the east coast of the Korean peninsula as ‘Absolutely Intolerable’.
Then six days ago North Korea fired four missiles toward Japan.
One ought to be aware of the increased risk of war in Korea, and as I will suggest, it might be initiated by the US in a strike that could take place as early as the second quarter of 2018.
Almost all the experts will tell you that's rubbish, because quite apart from the North's possible use of atomic weapons, it has thousands of cannon and rocket launchers able to devastate Seoul, the South’s capital with 20 million inhabitants, lying just 30 kilometers south of the border.
Also, the North Koreans have dispersed apparent nuclear and missile development sites so that it is difficult to tell which are primary, redundant and decoy sites. Some of them are built into deep tunnels or mountains. Conventional airstrikes will set back the program, but they may not stop it.
The OPLAN 5015 plan
According to the existing OPLAN 5015 plan, the first requirement would be to suppress North Korea’s surprisingly lethal integrated air-defence system, which fields, along with Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles, the indigenously produced and highly capable KN-06. With that out of the way, missiles, smart bombs and huge “bunker busters” would rain down on nuclear sites, missile launchers and command posts while South Korean special forces carried out “decapitation” raids to kill North Korea’s leaders. The idea was that by striking pre-emptively, any war would be both limited and short.
At this very moment, there are probably at least two Ohio-class US nuclear ballistic missile submarines on patrol in the Western Pacific. Their mission? To provide surety for the nation's strategic nuclear deterrence posture. Supporting U.S. land based and air launched nuclear missile forces, the SSBNs move slowly in a variety of pre-defined patrol sectors far out at sea.
Under the military's nuclear attack base plan, OPLAN 8010, the SSBNs stand ready to launch their Trident D-5 ballistic missiles at either preselected or actively chosen targets.
Regardless, the SSBNs represent the pinnacle of warfighting lethality. With each SSBN armed with 24 missiles and at least 8 independent nuclear warheads per missile, one US Ohio-class submarine carries at least 192 nuclear warheads varying between yields of 100 and 475 kilotons. Moreover, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists blog noted earlier this month, these missiles possess exceptionally accurate targeting systems.
To increase the probability of success, special operations forces and other troops may need to be used. Failure to destroy the nuclear facilities with catastrophic civilian casualties is a real possibility. The campaign, even if successful, will be extended, complex and inevitably costly.
One way to increase the likelihood of success would be to in addition use at least tactical nuclear weapons against hardened sites and perhaps against North Korean artillery in the south. But that would also set a precedent for using nuclear weapons in cases that aren’t of existential importance. Therefore, this is not an option for the United States.
The issue about the number of casualties also requires an understanding of North Korea’s command system and how it would respond to a U.S. attack on North Korean nuclear facilities. In the event of an attack, will the North Korean artillery complex in the south be ordered to open fire immediately? And perhaps more important, if the political and military command is destroyed or isolated by an attack and communications are disrupted, where will the artillery complex get its orders? In the absence of contact with higher command, are they instructed to open fire on their own initiative? If communication within the artillery complex breaks down, what are the orders to battery commanders? In other words, is it possible to paralyze the artillery complex? Given the nature of the North Korean regime, devolving authority to the levels of lieutenants and captains is hard to imagine, and initiative is not built into the culture.
It is inevitable that as the decision approaches, alternative strategies will appear. And it is in human nature to raise doubts about a strategy’s effectiveness once it’s decided on. Going to war overwhelmingly confident is dangerous; it causes you to minimize risks. That said, this debate cannot go on much longer because if it does, those arguing for acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power win by default.
A decision must be made, but it can’t be based on an assumption of how North Korea will behave. One just doesn’t know. But it can be made based on knowledge of how the command system for the artillery complex works, and a hundred other details that define vulnerability, and therefore risk, on both sides.
But, Seoul and Beijing are each interested in managing the situation and forestalling conflict rather than in resolving the issue immediately. The advancement in North Korea's ballistic missile range, though a paradigm shift for the United States, represented only a small change for the region's overall security. Consequently, South Korea and China are trying to convey through their remaining channels with North Korea that they are willing to delay a crisis to shield Pyongyang from a potential military action. Their assurances may embolden North Korea, but for Seoul and Beijing alike, delaying a confrontation is the preferable path, especially since neither see much chance of a true compromise between Washington and Pyongyang. China, meanwhile, maintains a sliver of hope that Washington may eventually accept the reality in North Korea and adjust its behavior toward the government in Pyongyang accordingly, backing off from military threats in favor of dialogue and management.
Russia and Japan each play a slightly smaller role and differ in their views of the situation. Moscow, which wants to avoid a war but lacks much clout with Pyongyang, is using the crisis to emphasize the threat Washington poses to international peace and stability. And Japan feels the change in North Korea's nuclear development perhaps more acutely than does South Korea. The missiles Pyongyang has been testing serve a more valuable military purpose aimed at Japan, a country that has long been within the demonstrated reach of North Koreas' missiles. Tokyo sees the standoff with North Korea as an opportunity to fortify its position as the key U.S. ally in the region and to counter China's growing influence. In addition, the threat of Pyongyang gives the Japanese government further justification for its decision to lift the constitutional restrictions on the use of its armed forces.
If these assumptions stand, a time is fast approaching when the United States won't be able to sit back and delay action anymore. Washington still has several options short of military action, but history has so far shown that the tactics are only temporary. Every deferral enables North Korea to move closer to its goal of developing a long-range nuclear missile while reinforcing Pyongyang's notion that U.S. security guarantees are nonbinding and rarely outlast a single president. Whether each side's perceptions of the other are accurate matters less than whether North Korea and the United States believe them and make their decisions accordingly.
Before any military action, the US is likely to sanction the Chinese banks helping to prop up N. Korea and apply in a serious way whatever leverage he has available to persuade the Chinese to get serious about N. Korea. Only after all reasonable avenues are exhausted would the US initiate military action. Whereby in the end the U.S. is either going to have to accept a nuclear North Korea, have some decent negotiations backed by heave Chinese sanctions to try and reduce the nuclear threat, or intervene militarily. And the good news, at least for now, is that nothing is imminent: the U.S. hasn’t undertaken the kind of logistical preparations needed for a full-blown conflict on the Korean peninsula.