The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
Why North Korea Doesn't Matter as Much as Iraq
by James Dunnigan
December 30, 2002
Just when you think North Korea is seeing reason and trying to sort out it's political and economic problem, the unpredictable thugs running the place decide that another crises is in order. South Korean leaders are afraid that the leadership in North Korea is losing it. The newly revealed secret nuclear weapons program up there, in violation of the 1994 treaty, was bad enough. But when that program was discovered (largely because a North Korean defector pointed it out for US spy satellites), North Korea basically said, "so what?" To the northerners, their secret program was based on a different technology (enriched uranium gas diffusion, apparently bought from Pakistan) that was not covered by the agreement. The 1994 treaty was very generous for the north. In addition to six million of tons of fuel oil delivered annually, South Korea and Japan were building two 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants in the north. These were replacing the five megawatt reactor (which generates plutonium) that North Korea is restarting, and a 200 megawatt plant that was under construction (work was halted). Both of the North Korean plants were designed to produce nuclear weapons plant, the two 1,000 megawatt plants do not.
The northerners, as was their custom, were delaying work on the 1,000 megawatt plants. For the last half century, the north has consistently negotiated using an irritating stop and go, rant and rave, style. Making outrageous claims and demands has often worked for the north, so they don't see their negotiating style as counterproductive. But the leadership up there has been running a brutal, economically inept police state for the last 55 years, so they can believe anything they want and feel they can get away with it. Until now. The country is starving, and the 1994 deal provided fuel, food and other aid that made the difference between life and death for many North Koreans. Now the North Koreans are trying to keep their nuclear weapons program and still get the life saving foreign aid. But the rest of the world isn't cooperating. The only threat North Korea can make is an invasion of South Korea. This would cause a lot of damage, but would result in the destruction of the North Korean dictatorship. Nuclear weapons are another matter. The threat of nuclear warheads on North Korean missiles improves the North's ability to extort money from South Korea and Japan. But South Korea and Japan are getting tired of the extortion game, and agreed, with the US, to cut off the monthly oil shipments when the North's illegal nuclear bomb program was discovered. What no one knows for sure is whether the North will again do what it did in 1950; believe it's own threats and propaganda and invade the south.
The US has warned North Korea that America can fight two wars simultaneously. While the north demands a "non-aggression" treaty with the US, for 50 years, it has been North Korea that has threatened invasion. Some believe that the north fears it will be the next target after America liberates Iraq. But this has never been part of American military planning. While Iraq has a pathetic army that has already been defeated once by the US, North Korea is a different matter. Not only are the Koreans more formidable fighters, the geography of Korea is mountainous and much more favorable for anyone defending. America fought a war in Korea in 1950-53 and remembers the difficulty of that conflict. No American general has ever recommended advancing north against over a million North Korean soldiers. For the same reason, there is a lot of confidence that any North Korean attack south would be a futile and bloody operation. South Korea is less optimistic, believing that the northerners would make massive use of commandos and chemical weapons to take a lot of South Korean territory. South Korea is not afraid of being conquered, but they do see their largest city (Seoul) destroyed, over a million South Koreans killed and their magnificent economy trashed. For that reason, South Korea is more willing to pay off the northerners, and wait for the dictatorship up there to collapse.
Moreover, while Iraq sits in the middle of most of the world's oil supply, North Korea is bottled up in a northeast Asian peninsula. North Korean hasn't invaded anyone for over fifty years, and has gotten out of the terrorism business. North Korea is dangerous, but not an immediate threat like Iraq.
The North Korean armed forces are formidable, but for all the wrong reasons. With half the population of South Korea, the North has twice as many soldiers. But their equipment is generally of much older design. So the north relies on quantity, and a huge complex of tunnels dug into mountains and hills to hide the artillery, rockets, tanks and even some aircraft. For half a century, a third or more of this army has sat within artillery range of Seoul, South Korea's capital, and home for a quarter of South Korea's population. While the North Korean armed forces have always been first in line for food, fuel and what little money the government could scrape together, it is basically a poorly equipped, badly led and inexperienced force. Training is intense, but the North Koreans have not fought for over half a century. South Korea participated in the Vietnam war and benefits from the more realistic American training equipment and methods. The northerners also have a morale problem in their armed forces. The troops are conscripted from a population that suffers from the most restrictive and brutal police state on the planet. More and more northerners just want to get out. The military officers are a privileged group, and use harsh discipline to keep the troops in line. Historically, armies like this tend to be brittle. The north could order it's troops south, but their army might quickly fall apart in combat. For the north, going to war is the ultimate gamble, and there is fear that North Korea's leaders are in a gambling mood.