Thoughts on the Eve of War

February 11, 2003

Let us consider North Korea’s likely behavior during an American war in Iraq. Some observers have noted that the North’s behavior, which had been difficult but on average constructive, suddenly turned very negative in October. It is no coincidence that this dramatic change in policy followed directly on the heels of George Bush’s public declaration of his intent to invade Iraq. The US has been pursuing the same containment strategy against North Korea that it used so successfully against the Soviet Union. Keep them contained, keep them peaceful, and force them into economic collapse from which a more accommodating government will emerge. North Korea is approaching the endgame. Without economic support from the Soviet Union and China, the North Korean economy has been grinding down towards collapse. North Korea is facing the same abyss that the Japanese faced in 1941, on a much broader scale. The Japanese were faced with the loss of oil crucial to their military adventures. Running out of time, they chose to attack. The North Koreans will do the same thing, only they have a more viable strategy available to them. They don’t need to defeat the US militarily. They don’t even need to conquer South Korea. All they need to do is send a single thrust south along the central axis of the Korean peninsula, curving west just below Seoul. A march of about 100 miles, requiring perhaps 5 days, will pocket Seoul and yield some 15 million hostages. The North Koreans then need merely wait for the disruption in basic services in Seoul to start generating suitably impressive daily mortality figures. Humanitarian considerations will force the US and South Korea to agree to an immediate cessation of hostilities -- under North Korean terms.

This the only logical option available to the North Korean leadership; unless they pursue this course, they face collapse. And their behavior since October can be explained only by this thesis. In the past, their provocations have been directed at gaining advantages at the negotiating table, and so have been carefully meted out: just enough provocation to give them another playing card, but not so much as to discourage their interlocutors from playing the game. But their behavior since October has represented a complete break with the past: they have piled provocation on provocation without waiting for reactions from the US. Even more revealing is their diplomatic invective. Normally their announcements drip with vitriol, but this time there is a fundamental change in the content of their diatribes. Whereas in the past their announcements painted the USA as a bloodthirsty aggressor seeking to destroy the peace-loving North Korean people, now they talk openly of war. While American official reaction paints this all as merely a diplomatic misunderstanding, North Korean communiques drip with references to military conflagration. In an ironic turn, one North Korean official’s public comments used phrasing similar to President Bush’s State of the Union address: if war is forced upon us, we shall not shirk.

To make matters worse, North Korea has had 50 years to build a huge tunnel network along the cease-fire line. It is now large enough to house the entire North Korean army and provide it with complete concealment from satellite observation as well as immunity from air attack. They can concentrate their army at any point on the cease fire line with total surprise and complete immunity. Once they’re out in the open, of course, American air power can be brought to bear -- unless, of course, that air power is concentrated in the Middle East.

I believe that the Bush administration is aware of these possibilities and is attempting to cope by making nice noises in North Korea’s direction, as well as putting heavy pressure on China to restrain the North Koreans. China will likely give the Americans pro-forma support, but it is in China’s interest to see American power in the Far East take a crippling blow. The demonstrated failure of the USA to protect its most important client in East Asia will fit perfectly into China’s long-term strategy of establishing diplomatic hegemony in the Far East. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Taiwan, VietNam, the Philippines, and even Japan will shift their diplomatic positions to be more accommodating to Chinese wishes.

For these reasons, I believe that an American attack on Iraq will mark the high point of American fortunes. Within weeks of the victory in Baghdad, American power will begin a steady decline from which it will likely never recover.