[If the USA and South Korea continue to ignore North Korean threats, Kim Jong Un may feel obliged to do something to restore his credibility. This opinion piece by Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer warns that even a limited local attack could rapidly escalate to full-scale conventional warfare. Gwynne Dyer, OC, is a London-based independent Canadian journalist, syndicated columnist and military historian. Dyer was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His articles are published in 45 countries. This column was originally published on 4 April 2013 –CanKor]
Last week, the Great Successor, Kim Jong-un, was shown signing a decree that ordered North Korea’s long-range missile forces to be ready to launch against the United States, while senior military officers looked on approvingly.
On the wall behind Kim was a map, helpfully labelled “U. S. Mainland Strike Plan,” that showed the missile trajectories from North Korea to Hawaii, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas.
These threats are so palpably empty that the instinct of both the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department is to ignore them.
North Korea has no operational missile that can reach even western Alaska, no miniaturized nuclear warhead to put on such a missile, and no long-range targeting capability.
But the politics of the situation demands that the U.S. government respond seriously to every threat, however foolish.
So next year, the U.S. government will spend another billion dollars or so to place 14 more anti-ballistic missile sites in Alaska, presumably to protect the Alaskan west coast and the Aleutian Islands from a North Korean nuclear strike. And last Friday, it sent two B-2 bombers to drop bombs on uninhabited islands near North Korea, just to remind Pyongyang it can. It’s all a charade, a spring display that could as well be rutting deer. The United States would not even play this game if international and domestic politics did not oblige it to respond to North Korean threats.
But it is playing nevertheless, and the risk of miscalculation is serious.
The North Korean military doubtless understand that it must not get into a nuclear war with the United States, but it may believe that its dozen or so nuclear weapons make it safe for it to use conventional force without facing American nuclear retaliation.
Kim’s threats are being exposed as bluffs almost daily — the U.S.-South Korean military exercises go on as though he had said nothing — and he may ultimately feel obliged to do something to restore his credibility.
It would probably be a limited local attack somewhere, but in the current atmosphere, with both Seoul and Washington determined not to submit to psychological blackmail, that could escalate rapidly to full-scale conventional warfare.
It would be a major war, for although North Korea’s weapons are mostly last-generation, that is not such a big handicap in ground warfare as it is in the air or at sea.
North Korean troops are well-trained, and there are over a million of them. The North Koreans would attack south in a three-pronged thrust, accompanied by Special Forces operations deep in South Korean territory, just as they did in 1950. The geography gives them few alternatives.
U.S.-South Korean strategy would also echo 1950-51: Contain the North Korean attack as close to the border as possible, and then counter-attack up the west coast on an axis heading north through Kaesong to Pyongyang. Even if the North Korean air force were effectively destroyed in the first couple of days, as it probably would be, this would be a highly mobile, hard-fought land war in densely populated territory involving high casualties and massive destruction.
The world has not seen such a war for more than 50 years. We really don’t need to see it again.