Why We don’t turn South Korea into an Island

Or; a list of reasons not to use overwhelming force against North Korea

By John O. Sullivan

Feature Image retrieved from Cracked.com

“If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a preemptive nuclear strike. The United States must choose! It’s up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not.”

North Korean Propoganda Video


It seems like these days, rogue states that have beef against the United States are a dime a dozen, with North Korea, Cuba, and Iran obviously being at the top of the list when it comes to states of concern for both our government and many of our citizens. While Iran may be coming back into the international fold with the potential shuttering of its nuclear program, and Cuba possibly following the same path post-Castro, North Korea still remains very much at large. On New Year’s Day, dictator Kim Jong-un said in a televised address to his subjects that North Korea was in the final stages of developing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), a large, multi-stage missile capable of carrying one or more nuclear warheads and with sufficient range to strike the continental United States. This was not the first time in recent years that North Korea made American headlines through aggression and fear mongering.

A few months ago, North Korea shocked many Americans by “declaring war” on the United States as a direct reaction of new U.S. sanctions against North Korean leadership.

Earlier in 2016, North Korea confirmed what American and South Korean monitoring systems suspected was a Hydrogen Bomb test;

In 2014, North Korea threatened “decisive and merciless countermeasure” against the United States over the release of comedy film “The Interview;”

In 2013, North Korea “entered a state of war against the US and South Korea;”

Let alone that the United States never signed a peace treaty with North Korea, and is technically still in a state of war with North Korea, despite a lack of overt action.

This leaves the question, why do we tolerate their continued belligerence?

The United States of America has 1.2 million active duty personnel and an additional 800,000 reservists. These forces, 2 million strong, are steeply outnumbered by North Korea, which has an estimated 9 million available soldiers (Though there have been reports in the past that these troops, like most North Korean citizens, live in a state of continual malnourishement). But it’s not all about raw manpower. The armed forces of the United States are also equipped with half a trillion dollars in military spending (more than anyone else in the world and a third of all global military spending), which has bought the most advanced armaments in the world (For example, see DARPA’s “Self-Aiming Bullet”). There is very little question that the United States would win a war against North Korea. Even without putting boots on the ground, the Air Force and Navy alone have sufficient capability to thrash the North Korean military into submission without ever putting a single American soldier at serious risk of harm. So the question remains, with one of the most deranged, virulently American-hating, dictatorial leaders on the planet clearly bent on developing nuclear arms, why don’t we step in and rain America’s powerful and mighty vengeance from the heavens and put an end to it once and for all?


Because that’s not how Super Powers behave.


Yes, we could visit our wrath upon this small, angry nation, but what would we gain? The simple fact, so often not understood by most Americans, is that North Korea cannot hurt us unless we go to them. They have no striking ability beyond their immediate surroundings and have little ability to project power. The only means they have to hurt us is if we come to their doorstep and ask for a fight. They are contained, with their (ever more reluctant) ally China to the North, water to the East and West, and the largest minefield in the world separating them from long time enemy South Korea. While they may be having some success in the development of Weapons of Mass Destruction, especially of the nuclear variety, the deployment and delivery of said weapons is more than half the problem. North Korea’s failures in delivery mechanisms (missiles) have been widely documented. I remember in my sophomore year of college, after the news media reported a new round of North Korean weapons tests, a friend of mine asked me as we lay on the sun in the quad, “Do you think we’re safe here? We’re so close to the capital…”


North Korea’s expected missile ranges. Graphic originally shown on BBC


So to be clear to all our readers, current research seem to agree that North Korean missiles can, at best, reach Alaska or some US Pacific territories such as Guam and Midway. But, the missiles under that best/worst case scenario are largely untested, and what few tests that have occurred have all been failures. Though North Korea has successfully put two satellites into orbit (out of six attempts), it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean they have the technology to successfully launch an ICBM. Researchers at the Union of Concerned Scientists have pointed out that an ICBM must reach a far higher altitude on a much shorter burn time (read: a MUCH faster rocket) than a communications satellite. Further, while NORAD believes that North Korea has the technology to attach a warhead to a missile of sufficient range to hit the west coast of the United States, such missiles still remain largely untested, and those same officials are doubtful of North Korea’s ability to actually aim these missiles accurately. For now, Kim Jong-un’s claims of an ICBM-capable North Korea remain more propaganda than truth, and the U.S. homeland is not currently under a serious threat from a North Korean missile strike.

To further illustrate this point that North Korea is largely unable to strike outwards, let me tell you a story about the North Korean navy. The Korean People’s Navy, as it is known (though I am sure the Korean people would prefer food to eat, rather than a Navy), is made up of some 60,000+ personnel and a thousand-something ships, split organizationally into two navies, an Eastern and a Western. These naval forces of North Korea are largely considered to be a brown-water navy, which is a navy limited to coastal actions, rather than a blue water navy, a navy capable of ocean actions and maneuvers. This limitation is largely based on two factors: capability and fuel. In contrast to the United States Navy, which projects our influence across the globe, the North Korean navy does not have the equipment nor the navigational capability to travel beyond its own coast, acting more as a coast guard than a navy. In fact, the ability of the North Korean Navy to travel is so little that it predicates the East/West fleet organization. Even in peacetime, it is almost impossible for a ship of the Western fleet to visit the Eastern shore and support the Eastern navy, or visa versa. Simply put, the North Koreans have almost no ability to strike at America. Their navy can hardly move from the sight of its own shores. Their army is contained by the world’s largest minefield. Their missile tests have been spectacular failures. North Korea certainly has the ability to strike at our allies in Japan and South Korea, and perhaps has the ability to strike with missiles at our bases overseas, but certainly they do not have the ability to strike us here at home. Again I say, we as American citizens must strive to see through the self-serving, fear-mongering hype of the media, and understand that we do not need to destroy these people who have so little ability to harm us.

Further, our allies in the region would greatly prefer we didn’t go to war. North Korean nuclear strike capability, though limited, likely has the range to extend a nuclear attack to South Korea or Japan. Again, North Korea has little ability to project power beyond those immediate surroundings, which means that they will almost certainly focus both their nuclear and conventional forces on their immediate neighbors and enemies, South Korea and Japan. As their homelands are within North Korean striking range, Japan and South Korea would almost certainly bear the brunt of the cost of any war with North Korea, in terms of lost military personnel and equipment, damage to national resources and infrastructure, and harm to the helpless, bystanding civilians which are almost always hurt and killed when war is waged. As we learned in 1950, a sudden human wave from North Korea, even of ill-equipped, ill-trained, conscripts can run the risk of overwhelming a combined force of South Korean and American troops, and would necessitate an increased American and international military presence to preserve the national integrity of South Korea. While the tactical situation in the region has changed dramatically since 1950, reigniting the conflict would put two of our best allies in the world and two of our only allies in all of east Asia at extreme risk, with the only possible benefit, the total destruction of a regime that, as was previously stated, has already been contained through strategic and tactical measures. Additionally, as in the Korean War, in a scenario where the United States re-initiates open hostilities, it is likely that China will likely feel compelled to get involved. This reaction would NOT be good for the United States. Our relationship with China will likely define much of 21st century, and we need China as a partner rather than an enemy in dealing with North Korea, as well as their cooperation (or at least compliance) in creating an independent future for Taiwan. Antagonizing North Korea aggressively and preemptively will not only severely worsen our relationship with China, but it runs the extreme risk of drawing their military into action in a campaign against an international coalition, as well as endangering Taiwan’s future. China does not want yet another another strong democracy on its borders, and we can count on its intervention to save North Korea as a buffer between itself and South Korean/American strategic influence.

Further, there is the cost involved. War is expensive. In 2013, the cost of the Iraq War broke the $2 Trillion mark. A conflict in North Korea will not end quickly. The North Korean high command will not surrender easily. A war in North Korea, even if it starts in the air and the seas (bombs and cruise missiles and jet fuel still cost money, by the way), will almost certainly end with a large international coalition, composed primarily of U.S. soldiers, with boots on the ground forcing a regime change, securing the countryside, rooting out guerrilla militants, searching for North Korean WMD’s, serving as a security force and pseudo-government, and providing for a peaceful democratic transition. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. If we have learned anything from the mistakes made in the Middle East over the past twenty-five years, the United States’ long term interests in regions of conflict would be well served by following Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule — “you break it, you buy it,” and staying deeply involved on the Korean peninsula after such a hypothetical conflict to provide aid and reconstruction efforts. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the spillover effects into Syria in the present day are a perfect study in why it is important to stay involved post-conflict, and that only raises the total lifetime price tag on a renewed armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

Finally, preemptive armed action into North Korea would only damage our relationships on the world stage and corrode our nation’s moral authority. Not only would such a military action heighten tensions with China, but it could well bring international disparagement on the United States. U.S.-led action in the Persian Gulf War followed a long build-up and U.N. sanctions. U.S.-led action in Korea was U.N. approved (thanks for boycotting the meeting, Stalin. Decisions are made by those who show up). U.S.-led NATO action in Iraq and Afghanistan was not approved or endorsed by the U.N., but after the initial honeymoon period, that military action garnered a great deal of anger and resentment, not only from the international community but also from our own citizens. A preemptive, unprovoked, unilateral action into North Korea could only have the same tarnishing effect on our relationships and image around the world, and would be a blight upon our moral authority as a leader among nations.
Ultimately, as much as North Korea might frighten and anger ordinary american citizens, military action in that part of the world is decidedly not the right course of action, despite our ability to impose, through force, our will on to that country. Doing so would only cost money, political capital, and American lives, not to mention our nation’s moral high ground, and it would accomplish little but the wholesale slaughter of an untold number of impoverished, malnourished, conscripted North Koreans while bogging our armed forces down in nation-building for a decade or more. Hardly a moving victory. North Korea is contained and can’t hurt us from where they are, and let’s keep it that way. Instead of alienating China and the rest of the world community with unilateral military action, let’s take bilateral action alongside China, and improve our relationship with China and our standing in the world community while bringing North Korea to the international table peacefully while forcing them to play by the same rules as everyone else. Ultimately, we shouldn’t invade North Korea, because it’s just not the right thing to do. Just because it would be easy and make us feel good for a while doesn’t mean we should attack a country that can’t possibly defend itself against the best equipped and most powerful fighting force in the world.

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