The Next Korean War Is No Longer Unthinkable

Kim Jong-un has taken a huge, possibly irreversible, step toward a scenario that every nation — including N. Korea — has been hoping to avoid — a second Korean War. Unfortunately, he’s come closer to that war than he probably understands.

As fearful as Seoul, Washington and Beijing are of a conflagration that will kill thousands (not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands as some fear, but “only” thousands) and destabilize the global economy, a Pyongyang armed with the mere capability to build a nuclear-tipped long-range ballistic missile is an eventually that will be headed off at any cost.

That’s because that technology in Pyongyang’s hands will quickly find its way to Iran which has convinced the world — perhaps more persuasively than N. Korea — that it would gladly use it, most likely against Israel and the US.

If the explosion detected Monday was indeed a miniaturized uranium device as Pyongyang has claimed in its official news release, the test has opened the Pandora’s box of the world’s entirely justifiable fears about having a nuclear missile — or a suitcase nuke — in the hands of tyrants and terrorists.

The problem is, Pyongyang and its young leader remain under the impression that getting dangerously close to possessing the capability to irradiate Seoul, small US cities or a US military base will dramatically improve its power to extort aid and respectful behavior from the international community. In reality, the US and its allies can’t play that game any longer because it is becoming convinced that the clock is ticking toward the inevitable — transmission of that technology to Iran and possibly to groups like al Qaida.

The calculations have already begun in Washington and Seoul of the damage likely to be sustained by the South’s capital city and the Eighth Army Headquarters in Yongsan if a preemptive strike is launched to take out the centrifuges spinning away to produce more uranium fuel as well as the functioning nuclear reactor breeding plutonium. The generals and the simulation engineers are calculating how many days it will take to silence the thousands of artillery pieces that will emerge from their caves to begin a sustained bombardment of Seoul.

A key parameter of the calculation is the number of days it will take to persuade underfed, demoralized N. Korean troops to turn against their superiors and lay down arms. The bombardment may end in a matter of hours or last up to a week before allied planes and missiles have inflicted enough damage to convince the north’s artillery and commando units of the futility of continuing. In that time up to several thousands of the Seoul metropolitan area’s 24 million inhabitants will be killed or injured. Without doubt several tens of billions of dollars of damage will be inflicted on Seoul’s buildings, infrastructure, cars and economic activity.

A fear that has always loomed large in allied calculations is the possibility that Beijing may join in a counter-attack. Fortunately, over the past decade that prospect has virtually disappeared. Today the fate of Beijing’s ruling clique has become far more deeply intertwined with the fortunes of its exporters than with the state of its notional military alliance with Pyongyang. A generalized war in East Asia is as likely to hurt China’s economy — and the prospects for the Communist Party to hold power — as S. Korea’s or the US’s.

In any event, members of the generation of Chinese who fought in N. Korea in the early 1950s to push the UN forces back south of the 38th parallel have either died off are in their 80s. China’s sentimental attachment to the notion of a blood-alliance with N. Koreans has all but faded from the consciousness of the party leadership with the ascension of Xi Jinping’s generation of leaders who were mostly born after the first Korean War.

Equally important to the China calculation is the fact that Beijing stands to increase its regional influence if the current N. Korean regime is replaced. Economic ties between S. Korea and China have grown to the tipping point at which China is replacing the US as the most important market for S. Korean exports. Younger generations of S. Koreans are chafing at having US military bases on Korean soil. Those bases would have far less justification for existence if N. Korea is either absorbed into the South or is ruled by a less militant regime.

Beijing would have little interest in trying to install a puppet or dependent regime in Pyongyang. Aside from the onerous economic burden of being the primary support of a non-functioning economy, such a regime would only justify a redoubling of the US military presence in the South as well as of the US commitment to support an independent Taiwan as a means to preserve geopolitical balance. Beijing is far more interested in absorbing Taiwan than in becoming a modern-day suzerain to an impoverished and backward N. Korean buffer state.

On the other hand, a peaceful Korean peninsula ruled by Koreans without an American military presence would essentially become an economic satellite of a China that will soon boast the world’s biggest economy. A militarily neutral S. Korea would represent a dramatic easing of China’s current fears of a possible conflict over some insignificant islets or over Taiwan with a US-led alliance with Japan and S. Korea.

For those reasons, in the event of a US-S. Korean attack on N. Korea, China would likely send troops into the North to act as a stabilizing force to prevent a mass exodus of N. Koreans across the Yalu. Once the shooting ends, China would help secure order, then depart in a matter of weeks or months, along with US troops, leaving S. Koreans to organize a new order.

The upside of such an outcome is enormous, not the least of which would be the liberation of 24 million N. Koreans from a regime that has kept them among the world’s most miserable citizens. The prospect of getting in on the ground floor of the rebuilding N. Korea would also have strong appeal with the current generation of China’s leaders with large stakes in the mammoth state firms that would likely win the contracts.