Bombing North Korea’s sacred statues would be gratifying but foolish

Bombing North Korea’s sacred statues would be gratifying but foolish

Today, North Korea scolded the South for its reported plan to destroy two giant bronze statues in Pyongyang if the North issues any further provocations. Experts on the conflict, speaking with Foreign Policy today, tend to agree with the North: This would be a really bad idea.

The South Korean plan first surfaced yesterday in the Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo, which cited government sources saying a surgical strike on statues of patriarchs Kim Jong il and Kim il Sung would convey an important message to the North Koreans:

The statues are considered sacred in the North, and any damage to them could deliver a huge psychological impact. "If North Korea launches another provocation, our military has developed a plan to respond with air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missiles to strike not only the source of provocation as well as support and command forces, but also some statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il," a government source here said Sunday.

The towering bronze statues deifying the late Korean leaders reside atop Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang. While the analysts we spoke to noted that South Korea has patiently endured military bombardments, provocations and insults from the North for years, they raised a number of concerns about the wisdom of the hypothetical strike:

Technically, this would be difficult to pull off

"It doesn’t make sense to me," Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told FP. "The air defenses around Pyongyang are much tougher than around the naval and air installations on the West Sea. I think their general practice in the South will be to hit the regional command HQ responsible for any provocative strike –and the most likely spot for a NK hit would be on the West Sea."

These statues are a non-strategic target. The strike wouldn’t be worth it

Wiping out the statues would be gratifying from a nationalistic standpoint, noted Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I think this stems from a strong South Korean determination to send a message to North Korea that nuclear weapons acquisition has not given North Korea the capacity to use its nuclear status as an instrument of blackmail toward the South," he told FP. But Snyder emphasized that the statues are "non-strategic targets." Not only would they not weaken North Korea’s military, but hitting them wouldn’t guarantee a proportional response from the North. " The South Korean response places a premium on the North ensuring that it also has a plan for managing escalation control stemming from any conflict." Of course, no one can say for sure what the North would do.

Are you crazy? This would ignite a Second Korean War.

Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-South Korean Institute at Johns Hopkins, said this kind of a strike would almost certainly escalate the conflict beyond anyone’s control. "If South Korea were to bomb the statues, this would effectively be the start of the Second Korean War," he said. "Bombing Mansudae Hill would be like the North Koreans bombing the Blue House [the South Korean president’s residence]. How can either country stand down from that?"