Capstones: Storm Clouds over Korea

By Alan W. Dowd
, 2.26.18

The National Security Council (NSC) is reportedly pushing the Pentagon for fresh military options against North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and missile program. As the New York Times reported this month, options range from a limited preventive strike targeting missiles being prepped for testing, to covert operations against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, all the way up to “destroying North Korea’s entire nuclear infrastructure.” Asked about how effective airstrikes against Kim Jong-Un’s missilery and nuclear arsenal might be, Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied that the U.S. could “get at most of his infrastructure.” Given that Kim deploys hundreds of missiles of varying ranges and as many as 60 nuclear weapons, “most” is not a particularly reassuring word.

It’s no coincidence that President Donald Trump devoted a large chunk of his State of the Union address to North Korea.

Kim’s regime is “cruel” and “depraved,” Trump began. It “has oppressed its own citizens” “totally” and “brutally.”

The president then used two real-life stories to make his case against the Kim Dynasty.

“Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia,” Trump explained. “On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea.” Warmbier allegedly tried to take down a propaganda poster in his hotel. He was arrested, charged with “crimes against the state,” and after a one-hour trial in early 2016 sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He was returned to the United States in mid-2017 “on the verge of death,” in Trump’s words, in what doctors called “a state of unresponsive wakefulness.” Doctors surmised that Warmbier had suffered a “cardiopulmonary arrest” and/or a brain trauma that was left untreated.

He died just days after North Korea shipped his half-dead body back to America. “We pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve,” Trump said as the young man’s broken parents wept in the gallery of the House chamber.

Trump then shared the story of Ji Seong-ho. “In 1996, Seong-ho was a starving boy in North Korea,” Trump reported. “One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger. He woke up as a train ran over his limbs.” His legs were amputated. Years later, after returning from a visit to China, he was “tortured by North Korean authorities…His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians,” Trump explained. “He had—and he resolved to be free.”

So, he fled North Korea and “traveled thousands of miles on crutches across China and Southeast Asia to freedom.” His father wasn’t so fortunate; he was caught and “tortured to death.”

Today, Ji Seong-ho lives in Seoul, helps his former countrymen escape the vast torture chamber that is North Korea, and “broadcasts into North Korea what the regime fears the most—the truth.”

There are echoes here of President Ronald Reagan’s rhetorical salvos against what he called “an evil empire.” In so many words, Trump is challenging the American people today, as Reagan did in 1983, “to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history…and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

Make no mistake: the North Korean regime is evil to its core. Its crimes against Otto Warmbier and Ji Seong-ho actually pale in comparison to what a special United Nations panel calls “a wide array of crimes against humanity” and “unspeakable atrocities.” These include “persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons…the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation…extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment.”

Recognizing the “many parallels” between North Korea and Nazi Germany, the chairman of the UN panel concedes, “I never thought that in my lifetime it would be part of my duty to bring revelations of a similar kind.”

In short, if there ever was a candidate for military intervention on humanitarian grounds, it’s North Korea. Of course, any sort of military intervention in North Korea—whether on humanitarian grounds or on national-security grounds—would trigger Korean War II.

That brings us back to the NSC’s push for military options.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles,” the president warned, “could very soon threaten our homeland.” In fact, CIA Director Mike Pompeo has said Pyongyang could have “the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States in a matter of a handful of months.”

Noting that “complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” Trump vowed during his State of the Union address, “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”

Put it all together, and Trump’s comments on North Korea sound like a bill of indictment against Pyongyang—and an argument for military action. Indeed, one is left with the sense that if there is a Korean War II, Otto Warmbier may be remembered as the war’s first casualty.

It pays to recall that Trump’s words are part of a larger train of events that seems to be moving toward war.

In December, Defense Secretary James Mattis told a unit of Army soldiers, “Storm clouds are gathering” over the Korean Peninsula. “There is very little reason for optimism,” he said, adding that there are contingency plans to evacuate U.S. dependents “on very short notice.” On the very same week, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller warned his men, “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.”

Upon returning from Korea last month, Sen. Tammy Duckworth—a disabled combat veteran of the Iraq War—ominously reported, “Americans simply are not in touch with just how close we are to war on the Korean peninsula.”

In September, Mattis warned Pyongyang that “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response.” And in August, Trump declared that North Korea’s threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” 

More worrisome, these words are just background noise to the military moves and countermoves at play on and around the Korean peninsula: spasms of North Korean missile tests; the deployment of three U.S. aircraft carriers to the region; high-profile flights of U.S. bombers over the peninsula; U.S., ROK and Japanese warplanes conducting joint maneuvers; U.S. ground units training in tunnel warfare; missile-evacuation drills in Japan; Washington agreeing to Seoul’s request for the stationing of “strategic assets” (long-range heavy bombers, stealth aircraft, submarines and/or aircraft carriers) in South Korea.

The toll from Korean War I should give us pause: 38,000 Americans, 103,000 South Koreans, 316,000 North Koreans, 422,000 Chinese, some 2 million civilians killed during three years of conventional warfare. Today, we have the specter of a mushroom cloud hanging over the sequel.

North Korea deploys 13,600 artillery pieces/rocket-launch systems, 4,100 tanks, 730 warplanes and hundreds of missiles. It’s expected that every third round fired from North Korea’s vast artillery fields would be a chemical weapon. Seoul would bear the brunt of the blow. With its 10 million residents, Seoul sits just 35 miles from the DMZ. Even a short war, even a conflict contained to the peninsula, even a preemptive strike that gets “most” of Kim’s nuclear, rocket and artillery capabilities would trigger something brutal and bloody for both sides. The Pentagon has projected more than 200,000 U.S.-ROK military casualties in the first 90 days, plus hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. As Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. James Dunford observes, Korean War II would be “horrific…a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes.” Such a war would give new meaning to the term “Pyrrhic victory.”

All of this explains why the measure of success in Korea for U.S. presidents is simply getting through another day, another year, another term without another war. It’s a low bar, to be sure. But given what Korean War II would look like, it’s a worthy goal.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay appeared in Providence.