Reviewing the options
Kim Jong Il rode out the rocky years of the 1990s and consolidated his power enough to ensure another hereditary transition of power to his son Kim Jong Un. But the prospect of a nuclear strike, made more likely by Pyongyang’s progress in weapons development, has given new urgency to efforts to disrupt the North’s chain of command in the event of war in a preemptive strike.
“This is not anything unusual. People are publicizing it, making a big deal out of it, but there are many leadership targets in North Korea,” says retired Army Col. David Maxwell, a former Special Forces officer who served with U.S. Special Operations Command Korea. “All of the command and control facilities, all of the relocation facilities from Pyongyang, the villas that Kim Jong Un might use during time of war — all of these are potential targets, at minimum, for surveillance and, in extremis, to target people that are at those leadership locations.”
While knocking out enemy leadership in a war is hardly a new idea, the South Korean military has gotten more vocal about its decapitation capabilities in recent years. South Korea’s Army Special Warfare Command announced in 2016 that it was standing up a special operations unit tasked with killing Kim Jong In and other senior leaders in the event a preemptive strike became necessary. For its part, North Korea has accused its adversaries in Washington and Seoul of a bizarre plot to “commit state-sponsored terrorism against the supreme leadership of the DPRK by use of bio-chemical substance.”
But any special operations team would face steep hurdles in getting close enough to Kim Jong Un to kill him.
First, South Korean special operators would have to hitch a ride with their American counterparts in the U.S. Air Force Special Operations or the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to infiltrate the North. Once across the Northern Limit Line, a team would then have to make it past the KPA’s 3rd Corps, which defends the approaches to the capital against invaders looking to land at Nampo and take the highway up or drop from the sky in an airborne assault.
“If the defense by the 3rd Corps and the 4th Corps has failed, the [soldiers of the Pyongyang Defense Command] plan to defend the city section by section, giving time for Kim Jong Un and the Guard Command to move the leadership out into the north-central part of the country,” says Joseph Bermudez, an expert on the North Korean military.
American special operators have carried out multiple such raids in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya since 9/11, swooping in with stealth and speed to capture or kill terrorist leaders on the run. Trying to replicate those feats against a heavily armed nation-state lengthens the odds considerably. “It looks good in the movies, but it’s not something that is easily done,” Maxwell says.
The most practical method might be a missile barrage by either the United States or South Korea. The South’s “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation” plan, announced after the North’s September 2016 nuclear test, calls for ballistic and cruise missiles to flatten sections of Pyongyang associated with Kim Jong Un and his commanders should a nuclear strike appear imminent. Four years before the plan’s rollout, Seoul tipped its hand with the public test of a Hyunmoo-3 cruise missile, shown smashing into a target crafted in the shape of Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
But all the missiles and special operators are useless unless they have good intelligence to guide them to a leader’s location. Getting that kind of sensitive information in a hard target like North Korea can be a quixotic quest, but that hasn’t dimmed the appetite for the enterprise, says Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “Although it never really works, military and political leaders are always drawn to decapitation. It’s catnip for idiots.”
Lewis points to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an example of the problems such missions are likely to hit. In that case, the United States sent stealth aircraft loaded with bunker-buster bombs and cruise missiles to strike a site where American spies believed Saddam Hussein was hiding. Saddam wasn’t there, nor were any leadership bunkers, and the Iraqi dictator wouldn’t be caught for another eight months.
The day after
But even in a scenario where the United States or South Korea succeeds in a preemptive strike against Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s conventional military capabilities ensure that it’s still capable of inflicting catastrophic damage on the South, where the United States has thousands of troops deployed. Nor is it necessarily clear that the KPA would throw down its weapons in the wake of Kim’s death. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has assured U.S. lawmakers that even though the United States would prevail in a war against the North, any conflict would be “more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we have seen since 1953.”
The North’s problems won’t end after Kim Jong Un because the Kim family inheritance encompasses more than just the flesh-and-blood heirs to the throne of Pyongyang. The North’s royal family planted deep roots in North Korean society in the form of decades of brutal misrule and penury inflicted upon its subjects. That bodes poorly for the country’s ability to quickly erect a better society from the ashes of any future conflict. In the end, North Koreans will be tormented by the ghosts of their supreme leaders long after the last Kim is gone from power.
Removing the last Kim — as catastrophically bloody as it would be — might be relatively easy compared with governing the chaotic kingdom left behind.
Photo credits: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustrations