North Korea: What Now, What If? by Brigadier General Joe Shaefer

North Korea: What Now, What If? by Brigadier General Joe Shaefer

Brigadier General Joe Shaefer drafted this thoughtful essay on the North Korea crisis for the NSF. General Shaefer has over 30 years of politico-military experience, including as a U.S. Army infantry and psychological operations officer, and as a Special Forces A-Team commander. He transitioned to the Air Force, where he served as a senior military analyst, attache (Burma), and mobilization assistant to the Directors of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Air Combat Command. We are pleased to provide this timely analytical piece for our Forum readers. Ty

North Korea: What Now, What If?
Brigadier General Joe Shaefer

The consensus opinion on how best to deal with North Korea (the DPRK) is that we must exhaust all diplomatic and other solutions short of war.  I take that to be blindingly obvious — but what do we mean by “diplomacy?”  Some American leaders seemed to think it meant talk, talk, talk until we wear the other side down with excessive and brilliant blather.

That is not diplomacy.  Diplomacy is the art of negotiation taken to a higher level.  I count among my friends and colleagues many now-retired ambassadors and senior State Department leaders.  In fact, the State and Defense Departments work hand in glove: diplomacy is the velvet glove and within that glove is the iron fist that gives adversaries a reason to listen.

Without the intelligent use of the velvet glove, this nation has resembled the bull in the china shop, blindly knocking precious things to the ground before accidentally crushing them.

But without the iron fist, the velvet glove is nothing but a pretty thing to be trampled by the hooves of other bulls.  For many years our velvet glove has been filled with nothing but hot air.  Our adversaries quickly discerned and abused that weakness.  Russia has scoffed derisively when the empty glove is waved before them.  China, more falsely polite, has merely disregarded American threats.  Even upstart would-be hegemons like Syria, Iran and North Korea realize they can push, push, and push some more with our lines in the sand transient things subject to regular, confused, and disorderly retreat.

So, yes, of course we must pursue diplomatic and all other “reasonable” avenues with the DPRK.  However, the diplomatic approaches we have advanced previously have been less avenues than cul-de-sacs, however.  Here’s why:

As long as Russia enjoys twisting the American tail and the Chinese enjoy tweaking our nose, Kim Jong-un is in the catbird seat. His protectors will give him whatever he needs.  Particularly for Russia, this is an inexpensive way to distract the US from Syria, Crimea, Transnistria and everywhere else.  Since the US has never offered a quid pro quo velvet glove or seriously threatened with the iron fist there have been no ill consequences for Russia.

As for China, I don’t believe it is in the Chinese cultural realm of cognition, at least since the late 1940s and China’s civil war, to believe there is anything to be gained by diplomacy.  China’s idea of diplomacy, as amply demonstrated during the past 68 years, is to delay, stonewall, agree to agree then selectively interpret what the definition of “is” is.  Under the current leadership, China’s concept of negotiating is simple: If you win, we lose and we cannot therefore allow it.

Anything that makes the U.S. look weak in its inability to handle even a small nation like North Korea works in China’s favor by nudging fence-sitting neighbors closer into China’s sphere of influence.  Worse, it makes once-solid US allies doubt American willingness to come to their aid if threatened.

On the other hand, if the Chinese leadership is seen as reining in a client state under duress from the US, they lose face and worse: they lose their current momentum of carrying forward as the heir to dethroning the US in Southeast Asia, the ‘Stans, Africa or anywhere else.

The mistaken view that diplomacy is about talking, not acting, is never more evident than the targets of US sanctions.  Rather than advise China we can and will show the  world their backing of the DPRK is a state-approved and state-sponsored support mechanism, we sanction only individuals and small companies, all quite expendable to the Chinese regime and easily replaced.

Why not give Chinese leaders advance notice they must rein in the cheating as a national strategy or we will raise the stakes?  Let’s allow them to quietly avoid losing face.  If they do not respond, apply sanctions where they belong: on the nation itself.

Instead we apply sanctions a Band-Aid at a time, giving China the opportunity to adapt incrementally as each wound heals.  These selective sanctions make the U.S. a laughingstock.  Such sanctions insignificant to the point of being mere posturing next to all the sources of income the DPRK receives. If you doubt it, just look at photos of Pyongyang from 1995 or 2005 or 2015 and today.  It is bigger, better, sleeker, and wealthier than many Western cities.

The DPRK receives direct (and continuing, no matter the photo op trucks stopped at the border) aid from China and Russia.  They receive funds from Iran and Syria for their missile, nuclear, chemical, and biological technologies.  They even receive aid from South Korea (ROK), $247 million over the past 20 years as an “incentive” to make the North less truculent.  (“How’s that working for you?”)

As a result of America’s failure to call out the Russians and Chinese for their actions in using their puppet Kim Jong-un, most nations see the DPRK as America’s problem, not theirs.  An example?  Some 30% of the “guest workers” in Kuwait, a nation the U.S. saved from ruin just 26 years ago, are from North Korea.  Cheap, or slave, labor is currently more valuable than stopping a potential global nuclear tragedy.

If North Korea is permitted to succeed in building inter-continental delivery capability with nuclear warheads, what nation might next be forced to comply with a DPRK demand?  How many nations might determine they, too, must be able to respond in kind?  With adult supervision, nuclear proliferation could be stopped right now.  If not, this may well be the year future historians will cite as where proliferation began in earnest:  that point at which the U.S. failed in the information warfare space by failing to persuade the world the DPRK was a global problem.

So what are the more realistic options I would advocate?

First, in conjunction with our tougher diplomatic stance, what I call The Three C’s offer real hope of stunting or reversing the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions and appetite for truculence: Covert (deniable,) Clandestine (deniable and hidden,) and Cyber.  The North Koreans are quite capable in all three areas; with Chinese and Russian help they are exceptional.  The U.S. has to be better.

Will at least some such U.S. operations in these three areas fail?  Of course.  Will some be exposed?  Inevitably.  So what?  No matter the mock outrage from the recipient of a covert, clandestine or cyber op, it has been a long time since 1929, when incoming U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down the (surveillance) Cipher Bureau with the dictate “Gentlemen do not read each others’ mail.”

Besides, in many places in the world, particularly those run as autocracies, anything that happens to them or they do to themselves is going to be blamed on the Americans anyway.  The CIA is the convenient whipping-boy for hurricanes, tornadoes, spontaneous uprisings, and cloudy days when sunshine was hoped for from every incompetent tinhorn dictator around the world.

Why is it the United States has become so meek in fearing what others might think or propagandize?  It is not the role of a great nation to be everyone’s BFF.

When considering our fear in taking action, I am mindful of statesman George Kennan’s remark during the Fulbright hearings in 1966, “The United States should not jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse.”  The U.S. does not need boots on the ground in every corner of the world where the warring sides are intent on murdering each other.  We have enough unsolved problems here at home.  But when we are truly threatened, we need to stomp down hard on whatever creature may threaten our survival.  Before that foot-stomp we must give clandestine, covert and cyber a chance.

Second, if real diplomacy and the Three Cs do not dissuade further development, we need a more realistic discussion with China, suggesting that if they don’t take unilateral action we will be forced to.  Does China really care if the DPRK is a nuclear power?  Is it part of their strategy for the future?  Only if they have a proxy they can direct while disclaiming responsibility.  But those days are fast receding.  Kim Jong-un with nuclear weapons is as much a threat to Tokyo, New Delhi – or Beijing — as he is to Honolulu or D.C.

With a few under-the-table carrots, China might be persuaded, for its own security, to take unilateral action for regime change and attitude adjustment in North Korea.  China would look like responsible heroes for saving the world from a nuclear threat, it would still keep a vassal state separating it from the ROK, and it could pick and choose the military leaders that stay and those that are purged.  The Chinese leadership has much experience and fewer scruples in this area than the U.S.  The follow-on promises from China to protect North Koreans with China’s nuclear umbrella might just work.  China needs the US consumer.  It is time America used that leverage appropriately.

Third, the Unthinkable.  If the above courses do not prove effective, we must take immediate and overwhelming action.  Let there be no doubt who the elephant in the room is.  I certainly hope that it doesn’t come to a U.S. pre-emptive strike, but the first DPRK missile that barely misses Japan or South Korea will force the U.S. to act.

To stand by and talk about solely diplomatic solutions and sanctions is to force those two nations as well as Taiwan, Thailand and any other U.S. ally to face the fact that the U.S. will not stand by them with anything but hollow words, and that China must be kowtowed to.

It is our military’s job to think the unthinkable and create realistic strategies to consider even 6-sigma events as “not probable but still possible.”  If it must come to this, let it be us and not our children who would face a future foe more capable, more truculent, and more likely to be joined by a number of newly-emboldened and newly-nuclear despots.

We must think several moves ahead.  By giving the DPRK “a little more time” again and again, mistaking the lack of an attack upon the US or its friends as some sort of victory, we will also have given Iran and others “a little more time” to field and launch their own nuclear weapons against their own neighbors and NATO members we are sworn by Article 5 to defend.

I want diplomacy and the Three C’s to work, first and foremost. Stunt North Korea’s research, let their facilities witness the accidents such dangerous research leads to, and covertly confiscate funds and material channeled to the DPRK.

Failing that, I’d like to provide the incentives necessary for a quid pro quo wherein China takes the initiative to remove the nuclear threat.  China may well face an existential crisis with an unstable nuclear-armed neighbor that will become ever bolder and more irresponsible.  Provide China the trade guarantees they so desperately need.  Carrots and sticks – sometimes they both look a great deal alike to the outside observer.

If none of this works and the U.S. is forced to act before it is too late, how would it be done?

Our American warriors have been deployed to wage unconventional warfare (with their hands tied tightly behind their backs) for so long that most outside the U.S. military have forgotten that we still field the most advanced conventional warfare capabilities in the world.  This gives the lie to the hair-pulling that “Seoul would be demolished immediately” and the “…if just one of their ballistic missiles gets through” thinking.  That’s mouse thinking.  We are the elephant, peaceful until threatened.

If it comes to a pre-emptive strike, there would be casualties – call them by a less sterile name: death and destruction.  It’s called war.

But if the United States were to use its air and naval assets in a combined strategic thrust, and ground combat forces from the ROK and U.S to protect the South from a dazed and disorganized but possibly still determined foe, the first 60 miles from the DMZ north must and would be a smoldering wasteland within hours.  Pyongyang would be next, with pinpoint targets selected in advance.

All those scary North Korean tunnels into the south?  Collapsed.  All that artillery poised to raise down upon Seoul?   Mostly destroyed.  Think not about our tentative forays with “as few troops as possible” and with rules of engagement determined in air-conditioned conference rooms in D.C. with catered lunches.  Think the 1990-1991 Gulf War, where the velvet glove is removed and the iron fist is deployed.

The precision, dependability and sheer number of American weapons systems would obviate the need for a nuclear confrontation.  America has the weapons, the training and the warriors to destroy the enemy’s nuclear sites with some rather unconventional conventional weapons designed to do just that.  Bunker-busters, tunnel-busters, drone decoys, etc.  I can only imagine this nation has other systems that have not yet been declassified that are designed to be deployed in a scenario such as this.

It would then fall to the Republic of Korea to locate and incapacitate or kill the North’s sleeper agents already in the South.  There might even be a limited counter-attack from the DPRK.  But almost all its alleged might is within that 60-mile deep area north of the 38th parallel so such a counter-offensive would be feeble at best.  Since our goal is only to destroy North Korea’s ability to wage nuclear war we would not want to occupy DPRK territory.  ROK and US ground forces would be in a solely defensive position, dug in and highly capable of defeating any counter-offensive.

This still leaves the issue of the destruction of the actual ballistic missile, chemical, biological and nuclear facilities spread around the country.  Fortunately the only such facilities on the Chinese border are the uranium mines at Wiwon and Hyesan (with another, Najin, near the Russian border.)  These need not be targets as uranium in this form poses no danger.

Still, America’s most important strategic goal that fateful day would be to repeatedly (starting now) assure North Korea’s two nuclear-armed and missile-capable neighbors that, if such an event ever “did” come to pass, all systems would be locked on the DPRK, all weapons are conventional, that no action would be taken closer than 20 kilometers from their borders and then only as surgical strikes with no ground troops involved, and that no attempt would be made to alter the 38th parallel armistice agreement by military means.

This level of incoming firepower would not go unnoticed by the Russians and the Chinese so they should be made to understand early on this would be limited but deadly and thorough.  Having prepared them for this day with the goal of them choosing the better course of taking care of the DPRK problem child themselves, we would still advise them of our only recourse within the first second of our offensive.  (By the next second, they would have the SIGINT, MASINT and other signature giveaways and be tracking our aircraft and incoming missile trajectories.)

If the U.S. has the benefit of complete surprise, the North would simply not have the firepower to inflict serious damage to the South.  Still, innocent civilians will die.  It is a terrible thing to know that an action the US takes will have such consequences as the DPRK responds I, even with diminished capabilities.  I submit that many more, possibly hundreds of thousands more, will die if we and our allies, including South Korea, having made Herculean efforts in diplomacy, sanctions, the Three Cs, and engaging China with something they might value for more than a nuclear armed hard-to-control neighbor, still equivocate.

Would China enter the fray as they did on October 19, 1950?  Not likely.  In 1950 China was convinced the U.S./UN forces would cross the Yalu.  They had just defeated Chiang Kai-Shek’s (U.S.-supported) Kuomintang army and established the People’s Republic of China the previous year.  They saw U.S. diplomats and strategists already debating “Who Lost China?” and MacArthur’s fiery rhetoric about finishing the job.  The Chinese believed this was the United States’ opportunity to redress that wrong.  They attacked as much to wage war on someone else’s territory rather than their own.  Re-enter diplomacy to ensure they understand our aim is limited to removing a specific threat.

What would be the most likely Russian and Chinese reaction, besides the usual sanctimonious blathering and propagandizing?  Russia would be unlikely to give up its gains elsewhere to protect a DPRK that threw them over in favor of Chinese patrimony.  U.S. acceptance, for instance, of the former Russian, then Ukrainian, now once again de facto Russian, Crimean peninsula is of far more strategic importance to Russia than North Korea.  Real diplomacy by seasoned diplomats is more like horse-trading than sipping cocktails in white tie and tails.

China might consider it a blessing in disguise.  They will have rid themselves of an unruly stepchild, gained great propaganda value from proclaiming yet again that the U.S. was a danger to the world, and still preserved essential trade with Europe and America.  Not a bad bargain from the Chinese perspective.

I asked above, “But if none of this works and we are forced to act before it is too late, how would we do it?”  If forced to act before a greater catastrophe were upon us, I hope we would do it with surprise and with overpowering, over-done, overwhelming conventional weapons delivered by men and women who hate war but know it is sometimes necessary to avoid a fate even more hateful.

Better to live to accept the admonishment of enemies and fair-weather friends than die because we failed to accept the responsibilities thrust upon a great nation.

© J.L. Shaefer 2018

Brigadier General Joe Shaefer served 6 years in US Army special operations and 30 years in Air Force human intelligence and operations.  A former professor at American Military University, he writes and speaks on geopolitics and international affairs.