Trying to Plumb the North Korean Mindset

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives the final order for launch of a Unha-3 rocket in December.

The titting-for-tatting between North Korea and the U.S. continued Wednesday as the Pentagon announced it is dispatching a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system to Guam to shoot down any threatening North Korean missile launches.

The land-based, truck mounted system “will strengthen defense capabilities for American citizens in the U.S. territory of Guam and U.S. forces stationed there,” the Pentagon said.

North Korea has said it is priming its forces “to strike bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor troops in the U.S. mainland and on Hawaii and Guam and other operational zones in the Pacific as well as all the enemy targets in South Korea and its vicinity.”

(MORE: Brinksmanship Blockade: North Korea Bars South Koreans from Kaesong)

In an escalating war of words, Pyongyang warned Thursday that its military has been given a green light to wage nuclear war on America. “We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means,” the Korean People’s Army said in a statement carried by North Korean media.

North Korea has been a problem for most of the world for more than a half-century. But something has changed recently.

“They have nuclear capacity now,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday. “They have missile-delivery capacity now.”

That pairing – as crude as it may be – is “a real and clear danger” to the U.S. and its allies in the region, Hagel said. Some might suggest the deployment of anti-missile systems is overkill, but Hagel disagreed. “It only takes being wrong once,” Hagel countered, “and I don’t want to be the secretary of defense that was wrong once.”

But defense is always more costly than offense, as Marine Major General Ken McKenzie noted last week when discussing his service’s F-35 jump-jet fighter. “You’re always on the losing end of a cost-benefit equation,” he said, “if you’re hardening your facilities against somebody who’s attacking you with ballistic systems.”

So is the rest of the world simply supposed to spend billions on missile shields, of various shapes and sizes, cowering while awaiting a North Korean missile launch? Or should the U.S. consider launching pre-emptive strikes against North Korea’s missile sites, as Clinton-era defense secretary William Perry and one of his assistants — and current deputy defense secretary –Ashton Carter argued in Time in 2006?

(MORE: Is Kim Jong Un Driving North Korea to a Nuclear Dead)

Let’s flip through the pages of history – in the form of assorted Pentagon reports, including junior officers’ musings – to see what lessons they might contain on how to handle Pyongyang.

Unfortunately, the options have grown increasingly grim over time:

It is difficult to foresee the Impact of recent weapons developments and the passing of the U.S. thermonuclear monopoly upon the redefinition of U.S. strategy for discouraging and meeting local aggression in various parts of the world…The fact that the attack upon South Korea took the form of naked military aggression doubtless made a deep impression upon the minds of U.S. policy-makers…General [Omar] Bradley conveyed the idea that policy-makers had been concerned over the possibility of communist moves in other areas, and that they thought that the North Korean attack meant that the Soviets were In a position to be willing to risk war (i.e., World War III).

— Alexander George in a Rand Corp. studyU.S. Reaction to North Korea Aggression — done for the Pentagon, May 17, 1954.

The necessity of a U.S. ground combat presence in South Korea will be dictated by regional events rather than a specific timetable. Until some mechanism, be it international pressure or an internal leadership change, changes the current hard line North Korean stance, a U.S. ground combat presence will be required.

— From Army Major Kelvin Marshment’s May 9, 1983 assessmentThe U.S. Ground Combat Presence in Korea: In Defense of U.S. Interests or a Strategic Dinosaur? — of the permanent U.S. troop presence in South Korea. It’s currently at 28,500, plus several thousand more there now for the annual Foal Eagle military exercises with South Korean forces.

When I was a young lieutenant, a battle-wise infantry officer named Colonel Walter B. Clark told me about a war that most Americans, including me, had never heard about… I make no pretense of providing the complete account of the undeclared, unconventional struggle that gripped Korea between 1966 and 1969, although this effort may serve to refocus attention on a most intriguing chapter in the annals of American and Korean arms…

— From a July 1991 study done at the Army’s Command and General Staff College by Major Daniel Borger entitled Scenes from an Unfinished War: Low-intensity Conflict in Korea, 1966-1969.

Worried about the regional and global consequences of a nuclear North Korea, U.S. governments have pursued both diplomacy and coercion to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. However, as of December 2003, U.S. policies appear to have failed since North Korea has become the ninth nuclear weapons state… although North Korea has ambitious motives, its nuclear efforts are mostly insecurity driven reactions. Coercive policies towards North Korea increase its insecurity and compel it to resort to nuclear weapons. The United States perceives North Korea’s reactions as blackmail since North Korea combines its economic and political problems with its security concerns. Mutual distrust and insecurity, which is mostly a result of misperceptions, creates a security dilemma, a vicious spiral in which the security interests of the two states are mutually threatened by each other’s self-protection aspirations.

— From a December 2003 study by Murat Yetgin at the Naval Postgraduate School, Strategic Interactions Between the United States and North Korea: Deterrence or Security Dilemma?

Stand-alone, limited military operations against North Korea cannot achieve U.S. policy objectives. Regardless of technological advances in stealth, effects-based targeting, and precision-guided munitions, a second Korean War will be protracted, costly, and devastating. As to the quality of the weapons advantage that the U.S.-ROK enjoys over North Korea, remember Stalin’s comment to Lenin regarding tanks, as a quality all its own. No matter how much “shock and awe” rains down on the 1.1 million-man North Korean army, they are dug-in, well trained, and capable of unleashing a tremendous volume of fire upon Seoul…Unfortunately, it also has the greatest chance of achieving the stated objective of completely, verifiably, and irreversibly disarming North Korean nuclear weapons.

— From a June 2004 studyCarrot, Stick, or Sledgehammer: U.S. Policy Options for North Korean Nuclear Weapons  — by Air Force Major Daniel Orcutt at the Naval Postgraduate School.

North Korea presents a unique problem for America in a number of ways. The regime is extremely hostile to the Untied States and has ignored the obligations signed onto in a number of international treaties. It also maintains stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and claims to be in possession of several nuclear devices…With the danger that North Korea poses, it would be unacceptable to let the destiny of Japanese and South Korean citizens rest solely in the faith of Kim Jong Il’s good will. Because of the regime’s erratic and aggressive nature it is imperative that the United States possess a credible military option should North Korea take action that threatens American, Japanese, or South Korean lives. Thus, the United States has the difficult task of building a credible military option against North Korea while preserving and if possible advancing the viability of a diplomatic solution.

— From a July 6, 2006, Air Force-funded study by Geoffrey Lucas, Dealing with North Korea: Maintenance of Diplomacy and Military Credibility.

By looking back to the Korean War and using operational art to evaluate operations, operational planners will realize that four factors standout as important planning considerations for a possible contingency on the Korean Peninsula.
— The first is the strategic context and China’s role in any action on the Korean Peninsula. China’s presence in the region severely limits any response by the United States to action on the Korean Peninsula…
— The second consideration is terrain and weather. The terrain on the Korean Peninsula presents a particular challenge to operational planners. As they did from 1950 to 1953, restrictive north-south corridors will hinder maneuver and limit the amount of combat power that can be committed forward. Just as in the Korean War, where the echeloning of fires insured a depth not easily countered by the Chinese, the synchronization of counter-land, close air support, long range fires, and direct support fires will produce increased effects in support of ground maneuver units…
— The third consideration for operational planners is force structure. Because of the restrictive terrain, battles in the Korean War quickly became regimental combat team fights. The U.S. Army’s current structure and doctrine designed around brigade combat teams is well suited to address the challenges of another Korean War. The Heavy Brigade Combat Team (HBCT) presents a powerful armored front needed in a direct approach to the enemy with 58 M1A2 Main Battle Tanks and 58 M2Bradley Fighting Vehicles. Even limiting the spacing between armored vehicles to 100 meters, the HBCT can cover a frontage of over 11 kilometers, which is sufficient to cover most of the restrictive corridors an HBCT would be operating in…
— The fourth consideration is civilians on the battlefield. Choke points along maneuver corridors will continue to present a challenge to maneuver units fighting on the Korean Peninsula. This challenge will be exasperated if large groups of civilians begin movement south in a search for food and water. It is believed that a large percentage of the North’s population is already living under the strains of malnutrition.

— From a Jan. 12, 2011, studyOperational Lessons Learned in the Korean War — by Army Major Dale Woodhouse at the School of Advanced Military Studies at the Army’s Command and General Staff College.

North Korea has the potential to significantly threaten stability in the region. The North Korean regime believes it faces major security concerns from both external sources as well as serious internal threats. Because of these threats, North Korean leaders understand they are in a struggle for their survival. In order to protect its survival, Kim Jong-il adopted the concept of Songun (military first) which places the military at the center of the state and the political process in the country.
This policy justifies a military force consisting of 1.1 million active personnel along with a reserve force of approximately 4.7 million. Approximately 31% of the North Korean GDP is used to sustain the force. This posture coupled with North Korea’s isolation has resulted in a country with “little connection to the global economy and few institutional links, making it difficult to influence, understand, and predict decisions that will be made by its leaders…
Most leading experts concur that an attack by North Korea against South Korea to reunify the country by force is unlikely. The DPRK has stated that it will not launch a first strike and will only use military force to defend itself. Furthermore, preservation of power and of the regime is the highest priority for North Korean leadership and they appear to clearly acknowledge that a full scale attack against South Korea would result in the end of their regime.

— From a Mar. 12, 2012, studyU.S. Troops Stationed in South Korea, Anachronistic? — by Army Col. Tommy Mize at the Army War College.

Grim assessments, indeed. While launching any military action at this time would seem suicidal for the North Korean regime, the chance that there is a renegade North Korean general eager to go out in a blaze of glory — especially absent the hotlines that could act as a brake in the event of miscalculation or mistake — cannot be discounted.

PHOTOS: North Korea Ratchets Up Tension on the Peninsula