"Danger Room What's Next in National Security
"North Korea: The Mother of All Stability Ops?
By Nathan Hodge
May 28, 2009 7:45 am
"Let's say you've got a country somewhere north of the 38th Parallel. It has a large conscript army; a whole lot of artillery tubes; and a few Hiroshima-style nukes.
Oh, and a population on the brink of starvation.
North Korea's recent nuclear test - and its threats of all-out war - have diplomats and top officials racking up the frequent-flyer points. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set off Wednesday on a trip to reassure jittery Asian allies that the United States will stand firm in the crisis; President Barack Obama is supposed to talk the situation over with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; And China may finally take a tougher line with the North Korean regime.
Noah has looked at some of the scenarios for war on the Korean peninsula, and the outcomes don't look pleasant. Since the armistice ended the Korean War 56 years ago, military planners have been readying for a nasty fight over the DMZ. But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - and the amount of manpower and resources that they have sucked up - have made it much more likely that conflict with North Korea would get ugly, fast.
In a 2006 press briefing, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quite blunt. A fight with North Korea, he said, would require "more brute force" because of what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Why?" he asked. "Because you need precision intelligence to drop precision munitions. And a lot of our precision intelligence assets are currently being used in the Gulf region, so some of those would not be available if you had to go someplace else. And some of our delivery platforms for delivering precision weapons are being employed right now. So you would end up not having all of the precision weapons that you might otherwise have going into a second theater, wherever it might happen to be, and therefore you would end up using more 'dumb bombs,' so to speak, more brute force than you would otherwise."
Let's assume that the U.S. and Republic of Korea forces succeed - with brute force, or without - in smashing North Korea's no-tech army. Then what? Well, you might have to deal with a few more consequences. Try dealing with millions of starving North Koreans, for starters. Add to that the threat of a few loose nukes. And finally - this is the really hard part - try administering a country that has been under the control of a Stalinist regime for six decades. I wouldn't expect a swift transition to democracy or a painless reunification.
In a recent conversation I had with strategist and Pentagon consultant Tom Barnett, he made precisely that point. "North Korea is not really a war scenario, let's be honest," he said. "It's a humanitarian scenario; it's a hunt for the weapons of mass destruction scenario." And you thought Afghanistan and Iraq sucked."