Refocusing on High Intensity Conflict: The North Korean Case

By Danny Lam

DPRK’s track record and motives over decades affirm that deterrence (or sanctions) as usual will not work.   The modus operadi of extortion (now with Weapons of Mass Destruction) is a feature of the Kim Dynasty and represent a fundamental departure from every previous regime that sought a nuclear arsenal that elude explanations via conventional deterrence theory that focus on regime survival.

Deeper understanding of the DPRK’s perspectives and statecraft traditions is essential to crafting a new DPRK strategy.

A recurring theme in the Northeast Asian region’s history is how a small, cohesive, well organized group (often organized on ethnic lines) was able to time and time defeat the incumbent (and on paper stronger) Dynasties ruling over the Chinese Empire.   That was the case for the Mongols, Manchus, First Sino-Japanese war, CCP vs. the ROC.

Overlaid on top of this is the millennium long conflict between the Japanese and Chinese empires and how Korea regimes eked out an existence between two (and then more) great powers. The end of WWII brought a stability to the area enforced by the U.S. which temporarily froze the normal dynamic of the region: except in China where the ROC was unceremoniously run off the continent.

Had the US and allies not intervened, DPRK would likely won the Korean war and Taiwan would have been successfully invaded by the CCP.

Post War stability is now reverting to traditional patterns of conflict and statecraft that have characterized the region for more than a millennium.

This history speak to the dangers of presuming that realist calculations of relative power that so much define European statecraft automatically apply in Northeast Asia. Japan was not deterred in going to war against the much stronger Russia, Imperial or Republican China, or the US. Japan won every war except with the US which could have turned out to have been a draw.

The CCP, similarly, had a tradition of taking on much stronger ROC forces who recognized that they are a greater threat than the Japanese, and ultimately winning.

Similarly, the PRC was not deterred from armed clashes by the nuclear armed Soviet Union during the Sino-Soviet dispute.

In all these cases, the (on paper) weaker power did far better than expected.

The historical memory and tradition that a highly organized and cohesive group can defeat on paper established powers that are on paper much stronger is deep in the mindset of Northeast Asians in general, and in the Koreans and their close ethnic brethren the Manchus that dominate the Northeast Asian provinces.

A related feature is the willingness of these groups to coalesce (as Genghis Khan achieved), and willingness to take on allies as they conquered and assimilate technologies from the conquered.

The mindset of DPRK’s key officials are at least 50 years old — still in Cold war, still thinking of winning at “all cost”, very much like the United States prior to the end of WWII.

Few Americans wish to be reminded that toward the end of WWII, the Allies nearly ran out of targets to bomb in both Germany and Japan.   Post War, and particularly post PGM Revolution notions of restraint in the use of WMDs (deterrence), limiting collateral damage, avoiding unnecessary civilian deaths, or the revolution brought about by PGMs to achieve war aims with little unintended harm to civilians are alien to the DPRK regime and their military.

What matters to the DPRK is winning. And in such a calculus, they have reverted to the Northeast Asian historical norm.

This perspective suggest that DPRK’s calculus of risk, reward, cost, etc. will be very different from western models.

DPRK propaganda and bravado such as threatening nuclear attacks on CONUS or the sinking of a US carrier should not be automatically dismissed. Nor should their stated goal to force the US out of the Korean Peninsula and compel ROK to “reunify” on their terms.

These threats are at least as credible as the threats Genghis Khan made in 1207 against the Western Hsia Empire.   Coincidentally, Genghis Khan’s war aims was to acquire a tribute paying vassal.   DPRK is pursuing similar goals today.     ROK is a prime and plausible candidate to become a tribute passing vassal to DPRK in the near term, leading to reunification longer term.

The appeal of DPRK “aggressive Confucianism” should not be underestimated in South Korea, who, beneath their public persona, exudes pride at how Koreans are a nuclear power — even if it is in the hands of DPRK.

The US should not automatically take it as a given that ROK will fall into line with allied interests or perceive the ICBM nuclear threat to the US as a threat to the Korean people as a whole. Nor should ROK cooperation to eliminate nuclear weapons post bellum on the peninsular be a given.

The larger question is, can South Koreans resist the siren song of history? Who can the DPRK count on as their supporters beyond significant elements in the ROK?

The involvement of outside powers in the Korean peninsula is another longstanding historical theme.   Korean regimes have historically had to balance their relationship with all the region’s powers, which in the post war era, for the DPRK, became a network of anti-establishment powers like USSR, PRC, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, etc.

Thus, it should be presumed that any resumption of conflict with DPRK will very quickly result in participation from outside. Given attitudes, history and preparation, the DPRK has positioned itself to try to take off the table any quick decapitation option off the table. Although given the nature of the regime, there is always concern that intrigue at the top or strikes directed to take down the top leadership might work.

But the West can not necessarily assume that this is the only or the most viable option.

A long war against DPRK will likely be the defining conflict of the century, with consequences similar to either WWI or WWII. The US and Allies is not up against an “isolated” North Korea.   North Korea may be presently “isolated”, but once conflict breaks out, it is a foregone conclusion that outside powers will intervene very much like the Spanish Civil War.

Korea will be the testing ground for weapons, tactics, and doctrine by every state and non-state actor that harbor a wish to undermine the incumbent international system dominated by the US and allies.     Assessments of DPRK military capabilities without taking into account likely contribution from their allies will end badly: DPRK is not Syria.

Who are likely to be DPRK’s supporters this time around?

North Korea, for all their alleged isolation, have forged an extensive network with numerous “anti” states and non-state actors. What’s more, DPRK is no longer the Stalinist centrally planned and tightly controlled economy (circa 1960 – 2011).

It is now transformed into an economy very similar to PRC’s southern provinces circa 1978.   Significantly, the porous border with Russia, China, and the booming illicit sea trade with neighboring states have exploded under Kim Jong Un with extensive participation by both state and non-state actors including many criminal syndicates.

If trade sanctions failed to work against a highly vulnerable Stalinist DPRK economy, it has almost no chance against a mixed economy with plenty of room for non-state actors to participate.   That is, in fact, what the NY Times recently reported.  That is before the PRC’s explicit refusal to impose “airtight” sanction “humanitarian” trade including food and energy. North Korea consumers fewer than 76,000 bbl/day of oil.

Rather than being the trump card of PRC, An embargo on oil exports to DPRK can be worked around by entrepreneurs with tanker trucks via the land border, or at sea with much larger transfers. Absent air strikes on land shipments and a complete blockade of all shipping that is unlikely to be sanctioned by the UN, it will work.

ISIS did it, why not DPRK?

No doubt the DPRK will do at least as well as Rhodesia under Ian Smith at sanctions busting.

This brings us to the point that supporters of North Korea are not just rogue states (or penniless ones), but major regimes like Iran, Pakistan, the Northeast Provinces of PRC, Russia, and indeed, found within  South Korea as well. Over and above these are long term linkages to Syria, Taiwan, Venezuela, jihadists, and global criminal syndicates that DPRK have had dealings with from counterfeit currency, narcotics, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, cigarettes, liquor, to arms.

Any active conflict with DPRK that do not end in regime change within 90 days will result in all these networks being activated by DPRK for the war effort.

During the first Korean War, intervention by Russia and China, after the initial surprise, required physically large, visible transfers of troops, war material like munitions, heavy weapons, on top of food, fuel, and other logistics. Interdiction of these bulk shipments is not a problem. If the Korean war restarts, much of the bulk shipments will be “humanitarian” shipments of food, fuel that the US will find extremely difficult to interdict politically. Smaller shipments of key components, knowhow, etc. that make or break a modern war can virtually slide through any known feasible sanction regime.

It is irresistible for Beijing China and their many “local” authorities, together with Russia, to use a Korean conflict to collect as much intelligence as possible on US and allied militaries. Whether authorized by Beijing China or not, entities from PRC will likely be furnishing DPRK with technical assistance, critical parts, assemblies, knowhow, and ad hoc transfers if not to test out the equipment against the US.

Russia still retains bitter memories of how the U.S. funneled arms like Stingers that played no small role in their defeat in Afghanistan. It would be hard to see Putin restraining many organizations in Russia, especially the criminal syndicates that control the Far East, from intervening.

Assessments suggest that DPRK can acquire a mid-late 1970s capability similar to Canada or Australia, or late 1960s UK in conventional weapons without great difficulties within six months of a conflict. Indeed, a few relative small shipments (e.g. 10 TEU containers) of component parts can substantially increase the lethality of a significant portion of legacy DPRK systems like artillery or short range ballistic missiles, or greatly improve the performance of their existing air defense systems.

This is over and above what DPRK can do to improve their nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities “on the fly” should their supporters like Iran and “local” PRC governments decide to support them.

The U.S. cannot assume DPRK missiles will not work, or be the relative primitive versions seen to date.   Once the spigot for aid is opened, it is conceivable that DPRK within a relatively short period of time can field an ICBM force that is close to the sophistication of Pakistan’s, with penetration aids, decoys, and tactics specifically intended to overcome defenses within a matter of months.

Should Beijing China fail to deliver on mitigating the DPRK threat, the U.S. and the allies presently have a an potentially outdated OPLAN 5015, with or without the use of WMDs. Given the rate of advances that DPRK have proven over the past two years, the window for military action with limited WMD risks to CONUS may be closing in as short as 3 or at most 5 years.

That is not enough time for a full scale re-orientation, training and rearmament of US and allied forces who have spent two decades fighting rag-tag terrorist armies.

An urgent program to facilitate better conventional and nuclear military options with deliverables measured in months and at most a couple years need to be on the agenda for the Trump Administration and Congress.

Editor’s Note: We have focused for some time on the need to look at North Korea as it is and is evolving rather than through the lens of the 1953 war. This means that the Command needs to be led by a USAF general and a high intensity war plan developed with relevant nuclear capability woven into it.

And the thoughts about shifting the Command to South Korean leadership is a virtual non-starter because of the centrality of the nuclear weapons issue to any war fighting and/or deterrence equation.

And dealing with North Korea is the harginger of things to come in terms of the acceleration of U.S. and allied capabilities to fight a high intensity war, rather than the slow mo wars of the past decade.

This requires a shift in resources, an emphasis on accelerated introduction of new warfighting capabilities and training, training, and training for new operational tempos and challenges.

The template of the last decade is dysfunctional for dealing with threats which are clear and present dangers to the homeland.

In effect, the Trump Administration might be facing a triple transition.  The first is a rapid transition to shifting resources to preparing to fight high intensity conflict.  The second is to position the US and the allies to fight a long war with ISIS, in which insertion forces and intervention without long ground engagement is required.  The third is to recalibrate Afghanistan away from a significant ground war with large numbers of US and allied troops needed for operational control of territory.

As the then NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander put it in our interview with him last year with regard to the revitalized nuclear threat to North America from 10 and 2 O’Clock:

Question: The nuclear dimension is a key part of all of this, although there is a reluctance to talk about the Second Nuclear Age and the shaping of deterrent strategies to deal with the new dynamics.

With regard to Russia, they have changed their doctrine and approach.

How do you view their approach and the challenge to us which flows from that change?

Answer: Both the Chinese and Russians have said in their open military literature, that if conflict comes, they want to escalate conflict in order to de-escalate it.

Now think about that from our side. And so now as crisis escalates, how will Russia or China want to escalate to deescalate?

They’ll definitely come at us through cyber.

And they’ll deliver conventional and potentially put nukes on the table. We have to treat the threat in a global manner and we have to be prepared to be able to deal with these through multiple domains, which include cyber, but that’s not in NORAD or NORTHCOM mission sets.

We clearly need the capacity to have the correct chain of command in order to confront this threat; and if you look at where we are today with NORAD or NORTHCOM, we are only dealing with an air defense threat and managing to that threat.

We are not comprehensive in a manner symmetrical with the evolving threat or challenges facing North American defense.

This is a notional rendering of the 10 and 2 O’Clock challenge. It is credited to Second Line of Defense and not in any way an official rendering by any agency of the US government. It is meant for illustration purposes only.

Question: Clearly, the new leadership in North Korea is working to shape new nuclear and strike capabilities.

There probably is NO homeland defense threat more pressing and clear and present than the nuclear threat from North Korea.

How do you view this challenge?

Answer: I own the trigger to deal with this threat in consultation with the National Command Authority.

We are prepared to shoot in our defense.

We have invested in a ground missile defense system in Alaska; we have 44 interceptors in all. We have a sophisticated system of systems in place, but we need to improve its robustness as the system has been built over time with the fits and starts politically with regard to the system.

I testify along with the head of the Missile Defense Agency with regard to our system and the ways to improve it.

We need the maintenance and modernization of the system and the tests in order to assure ourselves that it’s going to work and I have high confidence in the system at the current time.

Then, we need improvements in the sensors. And we need investments and research and development to get us on the correct side of the cost curve, because both the theater ballistic missile defense and ballistic missile defense of the homeland have been on the wrong side of the cost curve.

We’re shooting very dumb rockets down, inexpensive rockets, with very expensive rockets, and we’re only doing it in the case of ballistic missile defense in mid-course so that the debris doesn’t fall on the homeland.

What we need to do is invest in those technologies that keep them from being launched, detect them, kill them on the rails, kill them in boost phase, start knocking the count-rate down instead of just taking a single rocket and shooting it down in mid-course.

It is about the kill chain, and shaping a more effective missile defense kill chain which is integratable in the overall North American NIFC-CA type capability which can integrate air and sea systems which is important to deal with the evolving threat environment.

But one has to think through our deterrence strategy as well.

What deters the current leader of North Korea?

What deters non-state actors for getting and using a nuclear weapon?

What will deter Russia from using tactical nuclear weapons in the sequence of how they view dealing with conventional war?

It is not my view that matters; it is their view; how to I get inside the head of the 21st century actors, and not simply stay in yesterday’s set of answers?



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One response to “Refocusing on High Intensity Conflict: The North Korean Case”

  1. ed johnson says:

    I agree with this analysis, but I can only be extremely pessimistic about the West’s future.

    To counteract the DPRK threat requires coordinated, intelligent planning from the Allies which would convince Kim that his WMD program is just not worth it.

    NATO is not interested in such planning.

    The U.S. political and academic establishment, for the most part, has no interest whatsoever in the survival of the West.

    Indeed, they focus on such issues as allowing biological men to shower and toilet with girls rather than the clear existential threat posed by the DPRK and other rogue entities such as Iran and Daesh.

    Kim has turned Clausewitz’s premise: “War is a continuation of politics” on its head. For Kim war is the Hegelian motor of history. War provides the raison d’être for the state, profit, deterrence, and a means to extract revenge upon the U.S. and other countries which helped to slaughter hundreds of thousands of North Koreans, c. 1950 – 53.

    Today the DPRK is Sparta and the West is Athens; we all know how that conflict turned out.

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