- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Lt. Gen Daniel P. Bolger, U.S. Army (Retired)
Best Defense guest columnist
Talk of a renewed Korean War has been in the news lately.
I know this enemy. My father served as an infantry sergeant in the Korean War. I patrolled the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the fall of 1990, back when the 2nd Infantry Division still had a front-line sector. I commanded the 2nd brigade, 2nd Infantry Division from 1998 to 2000 and then returned as the division chief of staff from 2002 to 2004.
Since then, like a lot of soldiers, I spent my remaining time in uniform in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. But even as most of us dealt with insurgents in South Asia, some Americans have continued to keep watch in Korea. And those guys in Pyongyang have kept yapping. Worse, they’ve been beavering away on nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
What can I tell you about the North Koreans? Well, listen to them. They’re not hiding their cards at all. Their strategy is right out there in the open. Long live the Kim dynasty! Reunify Korea under the North! Death to America!
North Korea is all about the Kims. Everything north of the DMZ trace is designed to keep this strange family in power. Joseph Stalin is the model for these guys, and in their endless devotion to propaganda, purges, and prison camps, the Kims have proven at least as paranoid and vicious as evil old Uncle Joe. Kim Jong Un will do whatever it takes to keep his regime. He saw what became of Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddafi. That’s not where Kim Jong Un intends to end up. It points right to the other two parts of Kim’s strategy.
Reunification of the Korean peninsula under the North is utterly unlikely. Still, in the isolated North, reunification serves as the White Whale, the ultimate goal. It offers the justification for every privation to include an outsized military that sucks up most of the impoverished North’s resources. North Korea’s armed forces are numerous. But they’re also ill-trained, equipped with a collection of ancient Soviet-era weapons, and certain to lose control of the air and sea in the opening days of a second Korean war.
That granted, it’s unwise to underestimate them. North Koreans have consistently surprised Americans, starting in the summer of 1950 and continuing to this very day.
The northern troops endure brutal discipline. They’ll fight, and fight hard, especially to defend the hills and ridges of their own country. The tunnels up there are deep and extensive. Pyongyang’s regiments will probably never win another Korean conflict. But they will kill way too many of the twenty million South Korean civilians living within artillery range of the DMZ. They’ll kill Americans, too. Those guys up north won’t win. But they won’t quit, either.
As for the United States, the North is determined to deter us. That’s the reason for the nuclear tests, the missile experiments, and the wildly belligerent statements. It’s hard to imagine North Korea’s ramshackle 1950s-era factories producing a fleet of reliable, long-range nuclear-tipped missiles. One or a few, maybe, and they’d be of questionable military value. If any fired in anger, North Korea would cease to exist. Kim Jong Un knows that. But for him, all that matters is the danger posed to America. To strike North Korea pre-emptively, would we dare trade Honolulu or Los Angeles? I don’t think so. Kim doesn’t think so either.
So he’ll keep hooting and hollering. For six-plus decades, we have put up with this brand of crazy rhetoric. Through it all, the uneasy armistice of July 27, 1953 has held. There have been armed provocations, ambushes in the DMZ, coastal raids, the capture of the USS Pueblo, the sinking of the South Korean frigate Chonan, and political assassinations attempted and consummated. South Koreans and Americans have died. Some from the North have, too. It’s frustrating. It’s tragic. We hate it.
But it’s the bad versus the worse. There has been no renewed conventional Korean conflict with tanks, heavy artillery, fighter-bombers, and certainly no nukes. In the worst stretch of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union erected the ugly barrier that divided the city of Berlin in 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy chose to accept it. “Better a wall than a war,” he said. JFK had it right. Defend South Korea? Absolutely. Isolate and pressure North Korea? Sure. But that’s it. Better a DMZ than a war.
Lt. Gen. Bolger served three times in Korea, all with the 2nd Infantry Division. He commanded Army advisors in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad. He’s the author of eight books and numerous articles on military subjects. His upcoming book is about the Vietnam War.
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