Winners and Losers: Hypotheticals on the Korean Peninsula
First published: 21st July 2016 | Damen J. Cook
What if Japan and South Korea went to war with North Korea, and the United States was not there to help them? The question of whether the US is “not there” because it is nonexistent, severely diminished and unable to project power onto the peninsula, or simply disinclined to participate is (somewhat surprisingly) beside the point. To explore whether South Korea and Japan could defeat the North without American help, one does not need to know why the United States is absent, just that it is, and that its absence is known and expected.
You may already be questioning the point of this thought experiment. Why ask whether South Korea and Japan could defeat North Korea on their own? Especially when it is so unlikely to occur. A fair question.
“Who would win against whom?” queries are not uncommon. Theoretical matchups appear often, from the schoolyard to the classroom. Whether the juvenile “I bet my dad could beat up your dad,” the clearly more intellectual “Batman would definitely defeat Superman,” or the more obscure “If Alexander had not died young and instead had taken his army west to face Rome, he would have crushed the Republic into dust,” these hypotheticals are not unusual. International security analysts pose questions of a bit higher caliber (at least, we like to think we do), such as “What might happen if Iran closed the Strait of Hormuz?” or “Could the United States defeat China in the South China Sea?” Coincidentally, the answer to most of these questions is the same: Everybody loses. But posing the question is important.
To successfully deter an aggressor, a country must have enough power (of any kind, really) to either prevent that aggressor from achieving strategic gains or to make those gains prohibitively costly. For example, the United States deters an invasion on the Pacific Coast because various strategic advantages — the world’s largest ocean, the U.S. Air Force, et cetera — prevent said invasion from ever gaining traction. Israel, in contrast, does not deter an invasion by preventing an aggressor from possibly penetrating its territory and reaching Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Instead, Israel can make such an attempt incredibly costly to its foes, namely through the use of its incredible air power and its small but potent nuclear arsenal. In East Asia, North Korea is deterred from attacking its enemies — be they South Korea, Japan, or the United States — because the United States has the power to obliterate the North’s regime, its military, and indeed the state itself. A Northern invasion is deterred because it can be made extremely costly, not because it can’t accomplish initial gains.
But the capability to totally annihilate the Il regime, its capital, its military, and its food supply (in mere weeks, to boot) may indeed be more than is necessary to deter Northern aggression. There simply must be an amount of punishment that is sufficient to deter North Korea but falls short of complete annihilation. Right?
What if South Korea and Japan alone could put a brutal dent into the DPRK’s military and preserve most of South Korea’s territory? If, in the event of a North Korean attack, these two countries could tear apart the North’s Air Force, sink much of its Navy, severely damage its Army, and prevent a communist reunification of the Korean peninsula, then surely this would be enough to deter the North from even making the attempt. United States policymakers ought to pay close attention to the answer. Because if South Korea and Japan can do this without the ~30,000 American troops stationed near Seoul or the US naval vessels constantly patrolling the surrounding area, then perhaps some of these assets can be reallocated to higher priority potential conflict zones.
The United States is currently in the midst of a drastic strategic rebalance, pouring most of its military resources into the Asia-Pacific. Unnerving and dangerous as the Il regime may be, North Korea is not the greatest threat to American interests in the region. Preserving freedom of navigation — in the South China Sea specifically and the Indo-Asia-Pacific broadly — represents a major security and economic interest for the United States and its allies. It does not behoove America, Britain, India, or their East and Southeast Asian allies to allow China the capability to (sustainably) close such important trade routes as the Straits of Malacca and Taiwan. Successful power projection in these waters, through which trillions flow each year, is incredibly important to securing Western economic and security interests. In this climate — and with an American military that would prefer more ships and planes patrolling the region — perhaps there is a way to free some resources for this goal. The United States keeps about seventy combat aircraft on the Korean peninsula, ostensibly to deter Pyongyang. The US 7th Fleet, with up to twenty-three of its ships based in Japan, bears the same duty. Perhaps if South Korea and Japan could deter North Korea on their own, the United States could allow some of its destroyers, cruisers, submarines, anti-submarine warfare planes, surveillance aircraft, fighters, and bombers to perform other tasks.
Deterrence does not require that one adversary can decisively defeat another; Japan and South Korea need only be capable of making Northern aggression prohibitively costly. If they can do that, then they can shoulder more of deterrence’s burden. I am not arguing that the United States ought to then choose not to defend her allies if they are under attack. Nor am I advocating that the United States should then withdraw from East Asia, remove all military infrastructure in the South and Japan, and leave them to deter a thirty-year-old dictator, his nuclear weapons, and his million-man army all on their own. Yet in an age of sequestration and ever-tighter budgeting, the United States must look in all areas for redundancies, and reallocate them when prudent.
The trouble with wartime hypotheticals — with those ever-prevalent “who would win” scenarios — is that so much depends on who attacks first and what their goals are. The conflict might escalate out of control after an initial incident, as it so easily could have in March 2010 when a North Korean submarine inexplicably fired upon a South Korean warship and sunk it, killing 46 sailors. It may begin with a North Korean invasion, though even that scenario is hardly specific. Pyongyang could open by sending its ~4,000 tanks and hundreds of thousands of infantry rolling towards Seoul, hoping that the South will surrender the city bloodlessly in the face of such overwhelming numbers (and without the United States’ assistance). But this thought experiment is about determining whether South Korea and Japan could deter an all-out Northern invasion, one with the most drastic (and likely) of goals in mind: reunifying the peninsula through blood and fire. If we intend to discover whether our Asian allies can defend against a full-scale North Korean invasion, we need to see what one would look like.
The Kim regime’s ultimate goal would be the complete dissolution of the South Korean government, and Kim Jong Un decides to start as he means to go on. So, in a decidedly nightmarish fashion, Pyongyang concludes that it can simply rebuild Seoul after the war rather than risk failing to acquire it through intimidation. To that end, North Korea simultaneously fires thousands of artillery cannons and rocket launchers on the South Korean capital. All seventy North Korean submarines let loose on the ROK vessels they’ve been tracking. Dozens of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles scream into the air all at once, raining fire on South Korean airfields, armored divisions, naval bases, hospitals, and command centers. Minutes later, dozens more do it again.
Fortunately for South Korea, there is a limit to how thoroughly it can be surprised.
Even more fortunately for South Korea, I gave the North Koreans an awful lot of logistical credit just then. It is likely beyond Pyongyang’s capability to launch a surprise, full-scale, simultaneous Naval, Army, and ballistic missile attack.
South Korean radar, sonar, satellites, and other sensors — not to mention spies — keep an extremely close eye on North Korea. It is, after all, their top priority. The mobilization of four thousand tanks would not go unnoticed. Furthermore, the assumption that all of North Korea’s submarines — or even most of them — are locked on target and ready to fire on dozens of unsuspecting ROK vessels is a generous one. Such a coordinated effort would take weeks or months; plenty of time for South Korean intelligence services to get a whiff of the North’s plan.
All of these challenges, without yet factoring in Japan’s intelligence gathering capabilities or the additional difficulties of fighting two opponents at once.
A full-scale assault on the South alone would put considerable strain on North Korea’s armed forces. Even if the North were to launch a heavy ballistic missile salvo against Japan as well as South Korea — which constitutes most of the extra military effort it could spare in this scenario — the ROK and Japan possess two of the best missile defense networks in the world. Dozens of Patriot short-range missile interceptors, Aegis-equipped Japanese destroyers with a total of several hundred anti-ballistic missile interceptors, the increasingly likely future deployment of THAAD (an incredibly effective medium-range ballistic missile defense system), and last-resort Close-In Weapons Systems like the Phalanx all work together to significantly hamper whatever damage North Korea had hoped to cause. This would leave many South Korean and Japanese air squadrons free to wreak havoc and vengeance. The Japanese Air Force could storm onto the peninsula, rip apart North Korean air squadrons, bomb DPRK tank units steaming through South Korea, and land back in Fukuoka to refuel and rearm.
Even assuming a world in which the North’s highly coordinated, perfectly executed, full-scale invasion played out exactly as I described it, Japan would retain the capability to brutally punish North Korea for its audacity. And all of this, with a minimal amount of South Korean – Japanese coordination.
But North Korea’s invasion will not play out perfectly. Because how often do they, really? And, for reasons discussed later, South Korea and Japan will coordinate reasonably well.
So we assume, fairly, that North Korea did not catch South Korea or Japan entirely by surprise. Perhaps instead of sinking most of the ROK navy, the North’s fleet of submarines is able to pick off a few destroyers, a handful of frigates, a submarine or two, and (I’m being a little generous again) half of the South’s corvettes. This still leaves a very capable force, one presumably eager to showcase its technological superiority. All South Korean frigates can carry six anti-submarine torpedoes, some carry land-attack cruise missiles, and some carry helicopters outfitted for naval warfare. Most South Korean corvettes carry six torpedoes and twelve depth charges (a lower-tech weapon against submarines). Many South Korean destroyers can carry either 24 or 32 land-attack missiles and they all have some sort of anti-submarine and anti-ship capability. The South Korean Navy also has over a dozen submarines of their own, each with anti-ship and anti-submarine weaponry. And finally, the South boasts 80 patrol vessels armed with machine guns and torpedoes, 16 anti-submarine warfare planes, and over 30 helicopters suited for naval warfare. The North’s blue-water navy — its 70 submarines and about 12 frigates — hasn’t a prayer.
The North Korean Navy, from its surface vessels to its submarines, is decisively and painfully outclassed. South Korean submarines are faster, quieter, equipped with much better sensors, and — not insignificantly — at least 30 years newer than their Northern counterparts. Many of the DPRK’s frigates were built in the 1960s and 70s and do not possess even basic defensive systems like the Phalanx or more modern anti-missile interceptors. The Sariwon-class frigates, North Korea’s most popular model with five active vessels, hails from the 1960s and does not even carry anti-ship missiles or anti-submarine torpedoes. They are equipped with the Type 351 Radar, the Chinese copy of a Russian radar first introduced in 1960. Unsurprisingly, the Sariwon frigates also lack electronic warfare capabilities. This distinct lack of modern warfighting technology and capability is emblematic of the North Korean Navy writ-large. But, predictably to students of strategy or asymmetric warfare, the DPRK has invested in hundreds of patrol vessels — glorified little speedboats loaded with a few torpedoes or anti-ship missiles and a 14.5mm machine gun. These patrol vessels would swarm bulkier South Korean ships if not addressed, so I imagine that South Korean Admirals will be particularly grateful for their own patrol vessels and naval warfare helicopters.
Though the South Korean Navy could dominate their Northern adversaries, it may not be in South Korea’s best interests to devote quite so much energy to sinking the DPRK Navy, a notably less threatening force than its Air Force or Army. If South Korea and Japan coordinate their counterstrike, they could become much more than the sum of their parts. With a skillful division of labor and resources, the South Korea – Japan alliance could demolish North Korea’s most important assets with a minimum of redundancy.
Consider the Japanese Navy. Or rather, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. Japan’s ships, with the sole mission of self-defense, possess no land-attack cruise missiles. What it lacks in land-attack capability it makes up for in dozens of naval warfare helicopters and over seventy anti-submarine combat aircraft. Many of Japan’s destroyers possess anti-aircraft and/or anti-ballistic missile capabilities. The Japanese Navy, with roughly forty surface vessels sharing a minimum of 400 anti-submarine torpedoes or missiles, over 70 anti-submarine combat planes, and over 90 anti-submarine warfare helicopters can certainly sink most — if not all — of the North’s submarines and frigates. This effort would take weeks, and it would definitely include the loss of several Japanese vessels and planes, but Japan would nonetheless cripple the DPRK Navy. And, to reduce redundancies, it ought to do exactly that.
The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force is designed to sink enemy navies and shoot down approaching aircraft. It is decidedly better at this than the South Korean Navy, but the South Korean Navy can effectively strike land targets. Specifically, it can pummel North Korean surface-to-air missile batteries, clearing the way for an air assault. So, shrewdly, the allies play to their niches but share tasks where appropriate.
The North Korean assault has begun, and allied vessels are sinking. The Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea are teeming with North Korean submarines and the North’s few surface vessels. North Korean patrol vessels begin to swarm nearby South Korean corvettes and destroyers.
The South Korean Navy sends its helicopters and its own 80 patrol vessels after the DPRK’s deadly, missile-wielding speedboats. Japan assists this endeavor with its own helicopter-carrying warships, if any are within range. The Japanese and ROK navies put their P-3C Orion anti-submarine planes in the air, aided in their search by the navies’ own submarines. Between the alliance’s combined weight of nearly a hundred P-3Cs (an astonishing number), North Korea’s submarines are unlikely to survive long. The planes are not alone: Japan can also spare several of its spectacular anti-submarine warfare destroyers, just to ensure that the North’s fleet is sufficiently crippled. South Korean Incheon-class frigates and KDX-II and KDX-III destroyers, not necessary for the anti-submarine fight, are free to unleash their hundreds of land-attack cruise missiles on the North’s air defenses and its ballistic missile launch sites. Whichever of South Korea and Japan’s 30 submarines not currently engaged are free to mop up the rest of the North Korean Navy.
It will not be easy. Many South Korean and Japanese vessels will sink. Too many helicopters will be shot down. There will be accidents, technical malfunctions, and sheer bad luck. Thousands of allied soldiers will die. But it will be decisive.
And nobody had to put fighter aircraft in the air, though the South has about 160 and Japan at least 120 that would have been up for the job of anti-naval warfare. But that’s good — the alliance is going to need those planes soon.
There are still a few thousand DPRK tanks charging through the DMZ, followed immediately by tens or hundreds of thousands of armored infantry. North Korea has had thousands of artillery and rocket launchers pointed at Seoul for decades, waiting (sometimes even patiently) for the order to fire. Depending on the true readiness of these units — a highly debatable topic — and how many additional launchers the North was able to covertly prepare for battle, anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 of artillery systems are firing on Seoul and nearby airfields, military headquarters, communications centers, radar facilities, and armored units. Not to mention homes, schools, hospitals, and financial institutions.
There is virtually no scenario where Seoul does not fall. Even if South Korean artillery and rocket launchers (a force about half the size of their aggressor’s) instantly delivered effective, widespread counter-battery missions against the North’s artillery in an attempt to stem the tide, incredibly severe damage is done to Seoul in the first few minutes. North Korea is known for their almost laughably dramatic and fantastical rhetoric, but their continued promises to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” hold true. Thousands of rockets and mortars and artillery shells tear the city apart. At least hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — of civilians die. The ROK president and military commanders are whisked into a protected bunker and mission command and control center, where the war rages on.
The South Korea – Japan alliance may be able to hold the line somewhere near Seoul, or perhaps within a hundred miles of it. Seoul is, as the citizens in our scenario have been gravely reminded, uncomfortably close to the North Korean border. This is why the North was able to hit the Southern capital with little to no warning: artillery and rocket launchers sitting on the Northern border struck Seoul without moving an inch. But these weapons have limited range, and the North will rely on a blitzkrieg to push beyond this range. They will face stiff resistance; stiffer still if Japan and South Korea effectively coordinate their response.
South Korea fields roughly 2,400 tanks to North Korea’s 4,300, a ratio of about 1:1.8 The infantry ratio is similar. Not ideal, certainly, but not incredibly worrisome either. For one thing, the South’s equipment is much more modern and deadly. For another, the ROK Army also boasts ~250 attack helicopters armed with anti-tank weaponry. (The Pentagon’s Report on North Korean Military Power, in describing just how superior the North’s armored divisions are to other military units, notes that they are the “best-fed.”
Military branches are, suffice it to say, not generally ranked by the food security of their soldiers. The North’s armored divisions are undoubtedly its best trained and best prepared for war. But it is rather telling that one of the metrics used for measuring DPRK military readiness include food availability.) Holding the line against the North Korean Army under these conditions would be decidedly unappealing, but not quite daunting. At least, not until North Korea brings its Su-25 attack aircraft into the fray — escorted by MiG-29 and MiG-23 fighter aircraft — and begins towing its artillery and rocket launchers within range of South Korean tanks. Then, despite the South’s formidable air defense network, the ROK may be in need of some cavalry. And cavalry it shall get.
As part of its opening salvo, the North launched several hundred ballistic missiles at the alliance. It likely possesses as many as 300 missiles capable of reaching Japan. Though these could not all be launched at once, the initial attack could include dozens. Whether the DPRK would fire on armored units, airfields, naval bases, military hospitals, artillery, command and control centers, financial centers, or ballistic missile launch sites is unclear. Assuming the ROK and Japan’s Patriot batteries and Japan’s ballistic missile defense destroyers perform well, much of this attack could be shrugged off. Some, however, would definitely hit their targets, as the North simply has enough missiles to punch through the alliance’s missile defenses. And the North is bound to fire on an area not covered by missile defenses. Even a small number of successful strikes could be severely damaging to Japanese and South Korean military hardware.
In this scenario, partially due to my best judgment but also partially to be generous to North Korea for the sake of the argument, the North’s ballistic missile barrage cuts the South Korean Air Force by two-thirds. Any North Korean military commander worth his salt would saturate South Korean and Japanese airfields more than most other targets, perhaps excepting naval bases. Either the ROK or Japan individually could dominate the North Korean Air Force, but a successful ballistic missile barrage on allied airfields would give the North’s Air force a much better chance of survival. So, the North cuts the South’s air force by two-thirds. North Korea has fewer missiles that can reach Japan, many of those missiles are less technologically reliable, and Japan has significantly better missile defenses — so Japan’s air force is only cut down to eighty percent.
That’s still a lot of cavalry.
The South Korean Air Force puts its last twenty F-15K in the air, loaded to the brim with SLAM-ER air-to-surface missiles and 23,000lbs worth of bombs. Armed only with ground-attack munitions, they’re escorted by a dozen F-16C/D Block 52s, each carrying six AIM 120 air-to-air missiles and two AGM HARM missiles designed to destroy enemy air defenses. These are accompanied by one of the ROK’s four Boeing E-7As, Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft (AEW&C). Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft are essentially powerful radar and computer systems with wings. Boeing’s E-7 can detect enemy aircraft — such as North Korea’s MiG-29s and MiG-23s — from much farther away than South Korea’s F-15s and F-16s could possibly see them. The E-7 then communicates the enemy’s location to the F-16s, and the F-16s can then fire at enemy planes before their own aircraft’s radar could have detected them. These thirty-three ROK planes stream towards North Korean formations, eager to dominate the air just as thoroughly as their navy is ruling the sea. South Korea’s E-7s quickly detect North Korean aircraft and paint a picture of the battlefield to their partner F-15s and F-16s. The North Korean Su-25 ground-attack aircraft — the formidable, Russian-designed planes that had been strafing South Korean armored units — are knocked out of the sky. North Korean MiG-29 and MiG-23 escorts, hopelessly outranged, are blown apart without the chance to fire on their F-16 adversaries. Even if the South’s four E-7s were destroyed or unable to deploy in time, the North’s MiG-29s and MiG-23s would be badly outclassed. Twelve modernized F-16s armed with a shared total of 72 air-to-air missiles enjoy very good chances against a sizeable force of MiGs flown by comparatively inexperienced DPRK pilots.
The surviving F-15Ks drop their bombs on the North Korean tanks and infantry, hurl their SLAM-ER missiles at others, and turn around. The F-16s press forward and sling their AGM HARMs at North Korean air defense systems such as the S-200 and SA-13. Most of them hit their target; a few F-16s are shot down in the process. The rest return home.
The respective air forces are not done yet. Not nearly.
By now, eighteen Japanese F-2s armed with anti-ship missiles have taken off from Misawa and Fukuoka and are patrolling the western Sea of Japan, sinking frigates (and perhaps strafing patrol boats) where they find them. Sixteen Japanese F-15s, eight F-4 Phantoms, and an E-2C AEW&C reach North Korean armored divisions within two hours of the South Korean F-15s having left the area. The Japanese F-15s, each with their six AAM-4B anti-aircraft missiles, can fire on North Korean planes from 75 miles away. The DPRK Air Force never gets close enough to fire its own weapons. What remains of the North’s best planes — the MiG-23s and MiG-29s — fall to the Japanese air superiority fighters. The Japanese F-15s are also loaded with bombs while the F-4 Phantoms are carrying six Maverick air-to-ground missiles each. They unload on North Korean armored units, infantry divisions, artillery, and rocket launchers.
Together, these air forces can do this all day. And they do. They repeat the above cycle several times over the course of the week. Though, with the logistical struggles presented by continued North Korean ballistic missile barrages, Japan and South Korea certainly cannot keep this up indefinitely. Airfields are still being damaged, albeit at a much slower rate, and other missiles may have struck important command facilities or ammunitions depots. At some point, the alliance is going to run out of missiles, bombs, usable landing strips, or skilled pilots. But they do not need to keep this up forever — just until the North retreats. So, Japan and South Korea continue their air operations as frequently as they can for as long as they can. The North Korean forces are slowly, steadily pushed back.
As the North Korean capital, Pyongyang represents one of the highest valued targets for the ROK – Japan alliance. The North’s military leadership, Kim Jong Un included, would undoubtedly have retreated to underground bunkers by the time Japan or South Korea strike the capital. Predictably, Japan and South Korea could perform much more successful strike if their respective air forces flew the mission together.
After the 2011 round of North Korean nuclear weapons tests, South Korea purchased 150 GBU-28 “bunker-busting” bombs from the United States, weighing in at 5,000 pounds each. The ROK could load its F-15Ks with these GBU-28s and drop them on North Korean military bunkers (among other targets). The F-15s would need to survive North Korea’s formidable air defense systems, most notably Russian-made S-200s and SA-13s, which fire surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at encroaching aircraft. A less advanced version of these systems shot down a US F-117 stealth fighter in 1999 during the Kosovo War. To successfully perform the mission, the South Korean Air Force escorts its F-15s with F-16s loaded with aforementioned HARM missiles, weapons designed specifically to destroy air defense systems like North Korea’s. However, not content to rely solely on their SAM batteries, the DPRK fields every available aircraft to defend Pyongyang. South Korea’s pilots must fight their way through DPRK surface-to-air missile batteries and fighter jets to strike the capital. This, after the ROK lost a majority of its planes and airfields to North Korean ballistic missiles. Fortunately for South Korean pilots, they need not fight alone.
Japanese F-15Js fly alongside their South Korean counterparts, armed with eight air-to-air missiles each. Fortunately for the poor military logisticians coordinating this massive, international air mission during wartime, only a few F-15Js are required to adequately defend their South Korean partners. North Korea’s Air Force is simply not capable of scrambling enough planes to warrant more than ten F-15Js. An Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft would be substantially helpful here, but not strictly necessary. With South Korean F-15s ready to unload bunker-busting bombs, ROK F-16s destroying North Korean SAM batteries, and Japanese F-15s securing the airspace, the alliance drops tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on the North Korean capital.
It is extremely unlikely that Kim Jong Un survives the month. Japan and South Korea’s air forces are both capable of penetrating North Korean territory and slamming Pyongyang, levelling the city with bombs and air-to-ground missiles. The alliance will lose planes in the attempt, something they are willing to risk if it means the decapitation of the Kim regime. Even if Kim Jong Un is successfully hidden away in a protected, impenetrable bunker, he is at significant risk from his own generals. The young leader is, in reality-based 2016, struggling to fully consolidate his power and stamp out opposition among military and party elites. In this fictitious 20XX scenario, where Kim Jong Un has launched a failed attempt at reunification, one that has demolished much of his Air Force and Navy and accomplished few strategic goals, the danger of domestic assassination is real.
The North wanted to reunify the peninsula and vanquish its enemies. Instead, its Navy is depleted, its Air Force is crippled, and its Army is hamstrung. Some of its air defense network remains intact, but the ROK’s HARM missiles and ship-launched cruise missiles have destroyed much of it. Its ballistic missile stocks are low or nonexistent, and too many of its launchers have been destroyed by South Korean ships or allied Air Forces. Its armored divisions are a shadow of their former selves, and what’s left of the artillery and rocket launchers can’t get back in range.
South Korea and Japan suffered heavy losses at the tips of the North Korean ballistic missiles: Army and Navy bases with their ships, soldiers and tanks; airfields with their planes; shipbuilding sites and manufacturing facilities; oil refineries; and hospitals and schools.
And Seoul is burning.
But South Korea has held, and both the ROK and Japan can rebuild, eventually. North Korea has accomplished exactly none of its major strategic objectives, and the Kim regime has likely collapsed. North Korea cannot recover.
There are numerous ways that a war between the DPRK and an ROK-Japan alliance could play out. But some outcomes remain highly likely throughout: The DPRK’s military is largely gutted; the peninsula is not reunified under communism; Seoul burns; the Kim regime collapses.
Millions die. Everybody loses.
This article’s thought experiment did not include the active participation of China. Nor did it feature cyber or nuclear warfare.
It is certain that the three parties to our scenario will have prepared to deploy — and defend against — cyber warfare attacks. Cyber warfare is nevertheless unpredictable and secretive by nature. Accurately asserting exactly which assets North Korea would focus its efforts on, and how successful they might be, would be prohibitively difficult.
Little about North Korea’s specific cyber capabilities is known, or at least confirmed and unclassified. Demonstrations of North Korean hacking prowess come sporadically; their successes are reported while their failures largely ignored. Still, North Korea has definitively shown that it can seriously harm the cyber infrastructure of South Korea’s banking system and (allegedly) breach Sony’s security systems. Whether these successes predict success for an attack against Japan’s radar systems, command structures, or electronic warfare aircraft remains unknown. Japan and South Korea are understandably tight-lipped about the integrity and strength of their cyber defenses, and North Korean rhetoric about any of its offensive capabilities ought to be taken with mountains of salt.
Fortunately for the academic integrity of today’s thought experiment, cyber warfare is also unlikely to be a decisive factor in a war between these parties.
The possibility that any party could sustainably shut down another’s entire electrical grids, cripple their electronic warfare units, or disable most of their radar facilities is rather slim. Cyber-attacks are hardly designed to force an enemy to surrender. They usually take the form of massively expensive, monumentally inconvenient, dangerous setbacks. Take the Stuxnet virus, largely seen as one of the most successful cyber-attacks in history. It damaged thousands of centrifuges and set the Iranian nuclear project back by months or years. It cost Iran significant financial resources to repair and replace the centrifuges and to scrub its computers of the virus. But while the virus was notable for causing major physical damage to the components it infected and is seen as an impressive demonstration of cyber warfare’s potency, it still did not cripple the nuclear program. If North Korea can, in fact, shut down Tokyo’s electrical grid or render most of Japan’s ground-based radars useless, these would be incredibly expensive setbacks. Depending on the attack, it could take months to recover and it could add months to the war, turning it from a hard-and-fast conflict to a long, bloody crawl. But South Korea and Japan possess the money, industrial base, and technologically advanced societies necessary to recover from even a devastating North Korean cyber-attack.
Nuclear weapons do not play a prominent role in this thought experiment. While nuclear weapons can theoretically be used as tactical offensive weapons, they have little place in our scenario.
First and foremost, the North would have little wish to govern radioactive ruins. And while the North would likely face widespread insurrection among its newfound citizens if it conquered the peninsula, hurling nuclear weapons at Southern cities all but guarantees a protracted insurgency — one North Korea could ill-afford after an expensive and bloody conflict. Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons are best seen as tools to assure his regime’s survival. The United States and others became significantly less likely to perform surgical strikes or punitive missile assaults against North Korea once the North could respond with nuclear missiles. Nuclear weapons are, after all, deterrent weapons — they can protect a state from being coerced or attacked.
They are also tools of last resort. The North would not use nuclear weapons if it could win by other means. If victory appears in sight, then nuclear weapons come with many more costs than benefits. Nuclear attacks on Japan or South Korea would guarantee that the North never finds another trading partner (and, by extension, food source). Firing a nuclear weapon also practically ensures that other states, determined to prevent the emergence of another uncontrollable conqueror, decide that intervention is worth the costs. Various European powers, Australia, and perhaps even India, China, and Russia would see the Kim regime as a global virus in need of extermination. Kim Jong Un would, then, only fire nuclear weapons when he no longer cares about trading partners or the involvement of other states. The DPRK would use nuclear weapons to “go down swinging,” as a last-ditch effort to ensure that Japan and South Korea pay for the crime of winning.
China’s role in a war started by a North Korean invasion is not guaranteed, nor is it particularly likely. China is rapidly losing patience with its increasingly ill-behaved neighbor. Chinese rhetoric following some of the North’s 2016 missile tests was unprecedentedly harsh. In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi slammed the DPRK, saying that UN Security Council sanctions must be passed to force North Korea to “pay the necessary price and show [North Korea that] there are consequences for its behavior.” After the January hydrogen bomb test, The New York Times described Chinese diplomats as “furious.” Tellingly, the Chinese government was not censoring pervasive online criticism of Kim Jong Un in January and February of 2016, following the North’s provocative missile tests. Various posts on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) dubbing the dictator “Kim the Fat,” calling him a thug, and comparing North Korea to a virus were all left uncensored. In September 2015, Kim Jong Un publicly declined China’s invitations to celebrations marking the end of World War Two. The past year has been fraught with diplomatic scuffles and dust-ups between China and North Korea. In this climate, would China really defend its East Asian ally with military force?
Though China’s patience is approaching paper-thin, a frustrating and somewhat unpredictable neighbor is still preferable to the alternative: a US-backed neighbor hosting powerful American radars, sensors, and spies. So, despite their frustrations with their increasingly belligerent ally, the Chinese still support Pyongyang and would defend it from an attack or invasion. However, would China assist North Korea if it attempted to violently reunify the peninsula? Almost certainly not. China would spend staggering amounts of diplomatic energy trying to convince the North not to invade, and our thought experiment assumed that all of these attempts failed. If North Korea invaded the South and attacked Japan, as it did in this article, it is much less likely that the Chinese military actively participates on Pyongyang’s behalf. Such a reckless, remarkably bad decision may be the final straw for the Chinese Communist Party, the signal that their ally has officially become more trouble than it is worth.
The Chinese government would still insist on playing a major role in the post-war transition. China will, after all, be contending with millions of North Korean citizens fleeing northwest into Chinese cities and villages. But while the Chinese government and military prominently feature in the war’s aftermath, I find it unlikely that China would fight its powerful neighbors to defend an ally that has sealed its own fate (and that now actively defies China’s wishes at nearly every turn).
South Korea and Japan clearly have the capability to make Northern aggression prohibitively costly and to prevent the North from accomplishing its strategic goals. They obviously have a strong interest in doing so, and their resolve to defend their own homeland is unquestionable. Without any American assistance, North Korea can be successfully deterred.
I do not advocate for an American withdrawal from South Korea or Japan, nor should the United States avoid involvement in any war the DPRK might launch. Far from either. I do, however, firmly believe that America keeps more power surrounding North Korea than necessary to preserve its stated strategic objectives. With higher priority potential conflict zones threatened by more powerful potential adversaries nearby, the United States can certainly afford to reallocate some of its current resources from the peninsula. Perhaps instead of a few destroyers constantly staying within a few hours’ reach of North Korea, the US Navy could feel freer to keep just one or two nearby. With such powerful Japanese and South Korean air forces, with F-22s stationed in Japan, and with China’s grip on Southeast Asian airspace tightening, the United States may not need to keep seventy aircraft on the Korean peninsula.
I also do not advocate that the United States make force adjustments tomorrow, or even next year. Indeed, the South Korean and Japanese militaries hardly have any experience working together, whereas the American military has a strong relationship with both armed forces. The above scenario would have gone much, much worse for our Asian allies if it occurred today, when the South Korean and Japanese armies could not possibly coordinate to the degree I described. But the United States can and should push her allies closer together.
Japanese and South Korean relations are already trending in the right direction. Japan finally apologized last year for its wartime crimes against the Korean people and agreed to pay reparations, and the two countries recently established a military-to-military emergency hotline, including a direct phone line between the respective defense ministers. Going forward, the United States should hold annual or semiannual trilateral ROK-US-Japan naval and air exercises. After several years of this, the United States should strongly — strongly — urge Japan and South Korea to hold annual ROK-Japan bilateral exercises. (Or biennial; military exercises can be quite expensive.) Once the ROK-Japan bilateral exercises are underway and looking promising, the US Navy and Air Force should reconsider its regional force structure. Western interests would be better served with destroyers and carrier strike groups willing to venture farther from the Korean peninsula. They may even be served better by eventually moving US fighter aircraft from South Korea or Japan into Southeast Asian allied territory, provided said allies agree.
South Korea and Japan are powerful states, capable of robust and effective self-defense. They ought not be left to do it alone, as the United States has a strong interest in ensuring that Japan and South Korea win a potential war as quickly as possible and with the fewest possible casualties. But the United States could still help ensure a decisive, speedy victory after lightly restructuring its forward-deployed forces. In an era of sequestration, the United States would do well to reallocate its resources to the areas and missions where they can have the greatest impact. America can more effectively “rebalance” itself to the Asia-Pacific without leaving its allies to fend for themselves. The United States, as well as her East and Southeast Asian allies, will ultimately be the better for it.
 Kunsan Air Base Fact Sheet, US Air Force, (http://www.kunsan.af.mil/AboutUs/FactSheets/tabid/1943/Article/412721/kunsan-air-base.aspx)
 PG Sariwon Class, GlobalSecurity.org, (http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/dprk/p-sariwon.htm)
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