I could probably just skip this whole post and answer the question with a decisive “no.” But what fun would that be?
There are no good options regarding North Korea — something the American military, intelligence and policy communities have understood for 60 years. There was a bright spot of hope in the 1990s, when South Korean president Kim Dae Jung enacted his “Sunshine Policy.” This got then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright all excited, and probably led to an incorrect appraisal about what headway could be achieved with Lil’ Kim Jong Il.
I’m gonna break ranks here and say that the George W. Bush administration had a far more realistic assessment of the wee dictator. Certainly, the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Bushies’ North Korea policy can be debated. But their core evaluation — that Lil’ Kim is not a rational actor who can be compelled or constrained by conventional strategems — is essentially on the mark.
Unfortunately, the Clinton administration’s mistaken expectation of a North Korean thaw and subsequent Bush impassivity has left the new President to deal with an increasingly bellicose, nuclear-armed state run by a degenerate despot who would have his people believe he’s got supernatural powers that allow him to manipulate time.
North Korea is dangerous because she is a legitimate threat to her neighbors, including South Korea and Japan. More than that, the country represents a serious hazard to global security. North Korea is perpetually in a state of near-or-actual famine and it’s easy to picture her leaders selling nuclear technology to well-funded, non-state actors who could unleash devastation anywhere. Do I think we’ve got to worry about a North Korean ICBM dusting L.A.? Not in the immediate future. But they could supply the gear to radical groups with no reservations about lighting up Tel Aviv.
As I said, we’ve got few good options. But for shits and giggles, let’s look at a possible military course of action.
Before Donald Rumsfeld‘s radical remaking of our military, America’s forces were kept at a state of readiness in which we could “fight and decisively win multiple, simultaneous major theater wars” — probably a limited NATO engagement, a Middle Eastern skirmish and the reopening of the dormant, not dead Korean conflict. After the debacle of Iraq and the backslide of Afghanistan, however, it’s doubtful that the US could handle a conventional fight with Lil’ Kim’s military, which is bigger and tougher than Saddam Hussein‘s. (One reason for the North Korean army’s size is that enlistment is one of the few guarantees of a regular meal.)
There are other problems, namely convincing allies to join the effort. South Korea would be the easiest to persuade, once you got them past the possibility of taking a nuke on the chin. They’ve got a trained-up standing army on the border, and our forces have been hanging tight with them since the suspension of hostilities back in 1953. Japan is a harder sell, and their military capacity is (theoretically) defensive. I’m assuming that some of the weaponry we’ve allowed and provided them is in anticipation of some kind of endgame in North Korea. But is it enough? Do they have the political will? I’m not so sure. China would be the hardest country to bring to our side, considering that they don’t want to deal with the inevitable refugees that would come pouring over their border in the event of open war. And, even if they could be convinced, it’s difficult to imagine China’s command keeping mum about a planned attack. Communist sympathies die hard — let’s not forget the first time around, when Soviet Russia gave China money and gear to send Chinese soldiers to fight as sub rosa North Koreans. Can we trust them not to do this again?
Another problem is that North Korea is now nuclear-equipped with up to seven devices. Is our intelligence solid enough to confirm launch sites? Do we want to risk losing Tokyo and Seoul? Then there’s the inevitable ground fight. A conventional embroilment with North Korean troops would be far messier than Iraq, the kind of meat-grinder scenario the US hasn’t dealt with since Vietnam. There’s no way we could “win” a conflict like this without a conscription service, especially with our volunteer force serving triple and quadruple tours in the Middle East. And, unlike the glory days of WWII, we really can’t carpet bomb the entire country. Finally, there’s the question of legitimacy: without a domestic threat and/or Dick Cheney-style propaganda, war with North Korea is a hard sell.
CIA and the Pentagon have been working through scenarios for decades, so I have to believe that if a workable option were available, we’d have already exercised it. Over the years, CIA has parachuted South Koreans into China near the border with the North, in the hopes of inspiring a grassroots revolution to topple North Korean leadership. After the first few hundred dead-dropped assets never responded to signals, the Company gave up and went back to bugging cats for deployment at Soviet embassy cocktail parties.
Lil’ Kim is maybe something like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Mohammar Quadaffi — they all crave world attention and will do whatever it takes to get it. But Ahmadinejad and Quadaffi aren’t really crazy, just megalomaniacs. “Dear Leader” is cut from a different cloth: he actually thinks he’s a God and has convinced his people of this. If we or our allies were to actually invade North Korea, the opposition could make Iraqi resistance look like an unruly poker game. For generations, North Koreans have had zero contact with the outside world, so we don’t really know how they’ll respond.
Diplomacy doesn’t seem to be working — despite numerous overtures from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Lil’ Kim seems intent on pushing buttons. How much longer before he pushes the Big One?