South Korea as the wild card in the North Korean game

George Friedman makes a very interesting point.

The US had little to gain from a war with North Korea; it wanted only to destroy the North’s nuclear program. The war plan was complex, and though it was likely to succeed, “likely” is not a term you want to use in war. North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities were scattered in numerous locations, and many were underground or in hardened sites. And the North Koreans had massed artillery along their southwestern border, within easy range of Seoul. In the event of an American attack on North Korean facilities, it was assumed those guns would open up, killing many South Koreans. Destroying those batteries would require a significant air campaign, and in the meantime, North Korean artillery would be firing at the South.

The US turned to China to negotiate a solution. The Chinese failed. In my view, the Chinese would not be terribly upset to see the US dragged into a war that would weaken Washington if it lost, and would cause massive casualties on all sides if it won. Leaving that question aside, the North Koreans felt they had to have nuclear weapons to deter American steps to destabilize Pyongyang. But the risk of an American attack, however difficult, had to have made them very nervous, even if they were going to go for broke in developing a nuclear capability.

But they didn’t seem very nervous. They seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.

Another Player Enters the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.

With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

There’s more at the link.  It’s well worth your time to read the article in full.

This explains, to my mind, why the US response to North Korea’s undoubtedly aggressive moves has been so muted.  There is no doubt that the USA could turn the whole of North Korea into a radioactive desert – but that would poison parts of China and most of South Korea with fallout, which neither country will accept.  Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea.  If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.

I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue.  That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea’s aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea.  Note that I said “sell” – in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control.  China would instantly have kittens – a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn’t be far behind that.  If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.

Frankly, I see no other way of breaking the stalemate over North Korea.  Can readers suggest anything better?



  1. Force China to accept NK escapees as refugees with immediate transit to SK.

    SK popular opinion is in favor of nukes, so could happen very fast. Currently SK missiles are range limited by agreement with us, this could change.

    Japan is at 9% in favor of nukes, but with constant NK pressure this will change. They have plutonium, so very fast to develop a nuke. And their space program gives technology for icbm…

    Game changer would be cheap and fast way to shoot down artillery rounds.

    Bigger investment by SK, Japan, and US in anti missile would make China unhappy. Especially if destroys MAD option.

    Japan shooting down an NK missile is a possible move. Austin Bay wrote it as one of 5 options.

  2. Deal with it.

    Accept that the DPRK as a sovereign state has the ability and will to have nuclear weapons.

    Agree to formally end the Korean War. The U.S. and ROK agree to not invade or destabilize or assassinate the leadership of the DPRK. The DPRK would also have to agree not to do the same to the ROK.

    Remove US troops from the ROK in exchange for internationally supervised monitoring and sampling from DPRK nuclear reactors to establish "fingerprints" of fissile material.

    In exchange for removing sanctions the DPRK must submit to international inspections and agree to strict non-proliferation measures in regards to missile technology.

    Assure the DPRK if any nuclear material from them ends up in a terrorist dirty bomb or third party weapon that they and their nation will be held personally responsible. The same goes for any nuclear weapon launched against American soil or forces. Reinforce this with a detailed targeting list with the number and types of weapons that will be used if such an eventuality comes about. Impress on them that acting badly will result in the incineration of the entire landmass of the DPRK with high yield thermonuclear weapons airburst to maximize damage and minimize fallout to neighbouring countries.

    After we're disentangled from the mess if the Japanese and the ROK want to develop their own deterrents then by all means have at it. No longer our monkeys. No longer our circus.

  3. As if Japan couldn't be nuclear in a month all on its own.

    But that's not your point, which is that China would lose much face in Asia. MUCH face. And Japan wouldn't even have to buy any nukes, just seem like there's something going on, combined with implausible denials.

    Have you noticed how Trump and Abe are getting to be pals lately?

  4. Treaties are a waste of time. Think about all the treaties that were made and broken during WWII. If S Korea doesn't want to play pull the US forces out and let them sink or swim on their own. They might change their tune as they see equipment and troops being loaded on planes and ships. If they don't, tough sh**.

  5. Agree Korean War should be ended, but I don't think NK wants this, or the regime could survive this…

    My guess it would be against their ideology, Juche.

  6. I'd guess that Japan already has the plans for several types of nuclear warheads. They likely already have many of the fusing and necessary sub-assemblies designed and probably in a vault somewhere. All they probably need to do is manufacture the physics package. That's no small feat for a modern efficient thermonuclear weapon but well within their technical abilities. A year or maybe less if they're in a hurry. They could probably produce a deliverable simple gun type fission weapon in a matter of weeks if they have the nuclear material on hand.

  7. The flaw in your plan, Peter, is that a big part of the rationale for denying nuclear weapons to North Korea is the near certainty that they won't rest content keeping them to themselves. There are strong suspicions they've been helping Iran with its nuke program, and as soon as they've built up a sufficient stockpile they will be eager to sell nukes to anyone prepared to pay. The U.S. does not want to see that happen. Non-proliferation is the name of this game.

    Now you step in with a pro-proliferation suggestion: encouraging Japan and South Korea to nuke up! It flies in the face of long-standing U.S. policy.

    Sorry, I don't have anything better to offer.

  8. NK has helped Burma, Iran, and Syria with nuke technology. Missile tech being codeveloped with Iran.

    Iran is causing Saudi Arabia to consider their options with nukes, and Turkey would soon follow.

    Supposedly NK got nuke plans from Pakistan, who shared them with Libya, and originally got them from China.

  9. Tell SK that they can either back us fully, or we can withdraw our troops. No middle ground. I would hate to try and estimate the cost of our maintaining the troops since hostilities ended, but it's surely well into the billions.

    If they do back us? Tell China they can leash their dog, or we will decapitate him. Give them 72 hours to blockade all of NK and demand they back down and allow inspections. If they refuse, explain to the UN that we have no choice.

    Then nuke every missile site, suspected nuclear facility, and the capitol – when you're sure that the Beloved Leader is there. Enough with the half measures. They've publicly threatened to nuke us. The reprisals are well past due.

  10. These are the only Chinese Options I see:

    1. Hard Sanctions againt NK that result in country collapsing.

    Outcome may be:

    1. Increase in refugees that China has to take care of.
    2. War by NK that uses Nukes against SK. Preemptive Strike.
    3. Artillery Barrage against SK.
    4. Nuke action by NK against China
    5. Reunification of SK and NK, with American troops or at least a democratic government on their Northern Border.
    6. Start of WW3 as Chinese troops rush in and encounter SK and US troops.

    And the Chinese can't trust any agreement with the US, because it may change with our next President!

    Option 2 – Some Sanctions, Good PR. Lots of Nice Words
    1. Does nothing, except hopefully keeps US doing nothing.
    2. Reminds NK who Big Brother is.
    3. Keeps Japan and SK from developing Nukes.

    Option 3 – Chinese Backed Coup
    1. Current NK Leader is aware of this, and keeps on killing potential coup leaders. Such as half Brother that got gassed.

    2. Great if it could be made to happen.

    Option 4: Allow NK refugees easy travel to SK
    1. May cause collapse of regime.

    My guess the Chinese will continue to do the war of words with NK and limited sanctions. And hopes the problems go away.

    My guess US will expand Missile Defence tremendously, as will SK and Japan. You may even see SK and Japan get Nukes.

    I don't know how much of this is true:

    Establishment GOP Puts Cronies over Country on Missile Defense
    By Angelo Codevilla| September 12, 2017

    My gut feel is a lot of it. The North Koreans are going to force a huge increase in missile defense by the US. North Korea as a threat can no longer by ignored by the US and Japan, and the NK are rubbing both our noses in it. This is a dumb strategy, but historically it's worked out well for them.

  11. I wrote about this earlier and came up with a similar solution, only including the possibility of arming Taiwan as well. Then tell the Chinese this is a problem of their own making and it is still within their power to change it by getting NK under control.

  12. The other option is to start with an announcement that we feel the ROK has violated its agreements with the US regarding the defense of the ROK. As such, we no longer feel that it is in our fiscal best interests to continue to pay the exorbitant costs to maintain US forces and facilities in the ROK.

  13. Easily overlooked in the numbers – there is exactly one (1) US Army combat brigade in South Korea. From Wikipedia:

    An armored brigade combat team consists of seven battalions: three combined arms, one cavalry (reconnaissance), one artillery, one engineer and one brigade support battalion. As of 2014, the armored brigade combat team is the largest brigade combat team formation with 4,743 soldiers. An ABCT includes 90 Abrams tanks, 90 Bradley IFVs, and 112 M113 vehicles.

    The utility of keeping that one brigade there is as a tripwire, a visible show of solidarity with the South Koreans, and as a deterrent to keep South Korea from invading the North. The US by itself has no ability to invade North Korea presently on the ground.

  14. My opinion: The best outcome for us is giving nukes to the ROK and Japan. I'd also quietly give them to The Republic of China (AKA Taiwan). I'd do the first two loudly and publicly and also establish good missile defenses for both. Nukes and missile defense under the ROK, Japanese and ROC control. I'd also sell full capability F-16s to the ROC as well, something they don't have at the moment.

    When The Red Chinese have kittens, tell them they are SOL because of their stupidity with the NOrKs.

  15. "USA to announce that … it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea."

    Not sure about SK, but I'm not willing to be that Japan *doesn't* already have nukes. I can just see the US offering nukes, showing off the top line weapons, and the Japanese pull out something that's over and above ours (w/ the Hello Kitty stickers too).

  16. "Not sure about SK, but I'm not willing to be that Japan *doesn't* already have nukes."

    If they already have the parts manufactured, but not assembled, does that count? Over the years, I've read comments from people familiar with the Home Islands, that they could take a long lunch break and put a few together. Delivery methods weren't discussed, though.

    The US stopped designing and building new ones back in the 90's. Now we just refurb old ones.

  17. Sell SK nuclear artillery shells instead of bombs. They know the location of all the NK tubes, but the hardened bunkers they are located in make taking them out problematical. Unless you are dropping 10 kiloton warheads on them.

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