- - Monday, May 8, 2017


While most press and governmental comment has focused on North Korea’s ambition to develop a nuclear capability to attack the United States, the essential target of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) under Kim Jong-un is now as it has been since the days of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Today’s Mr. Kim and his war council seek to create a military environment that is most conducive to a successful attack on their southern neighbor, the Republic of Korea (ROK).

To this end, Pyongyang is prepared to attack South Korea over the 38th parallel without additional preparation except for one thing: Pyongyang believes it needs a counterstrategy to a potential American nuclear strike. This, according to the DPRK’s thought process, can only come about if the United States is deterred, even briefly, from a pre-emptive first strike on North Korea when the latter launches its surprise conventional attack along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which is dominated by the North’s more than 12,000 heavy artillery pieces and more than 2,000 very destructive missiles. With in excess of 60 percent of its massive ground force and supporting armor ready to jump off behind this overwhelming barrage, Pyongyang is confident of a full-scale penetration.

North Korea’s diplomats and intelligence assets have not been reluctant to share with their counterparts in Beijing and Moscow their assessment of the lack of ability of the ROK forces, aided by only one American infantry division, to hold back the DPRK’s initial devastating conventional strike. The threat alone of the possibility of a DPRK nuclear missile attack on U.S. soil is calculated to give the North adequate time to drive southward.

U.S. conventional counteraction would require a lengthy and substantial buildup, taking considerable time. Fear of nuclear-level escalation and the expectation of prolonged negotiations with China on finding a peaceful solution rely on Washington being hesitant to use its considerable nuclear capability in a first strike. This situation exists while Washington faces merely the implied threat of a modest and relatively untested North Korean nuclear missile capability.

This thesis hinges on Pyongyang’s analysis that Washington does not have the will to perform a pre-emptive nuclear strike against forward-leaning or even invading North Korean conventional forces. This judgment already has been tested by the lack of definitive action against Pyongyang, even though it is well known that North Korea has the ability to launch a missile attack on Japan — albeit possibly not that well guided. Such an attack might not be thought to be nuclear-capable at this time. However, the ability to equip a missile to fly with a nuclear warhead to relatively nearby Japan cannot be ignored.

Unless Beijing informs Pyongyang it will take steps to deter a U.S. pre-emptive strike, there is little or nothing to hold back a DPRK attack at this time against the South. Furthermore, the longer Washington takes to stop North Korean nuclear missile development, the sooner Pyongyang will find it advantageous to launch a massive conventional attack on South Korea.

In other words, the DPRK is now merely playing for time to launch a surprise attack once again on the ROK. The apparently evolving nuclear challenge actually does not exist if the United States is perceived as being held off by the potential of an attack by Pyongyang on Tokyo or some other major Japanese city. All of which adds up to a simple, though agonizing choice: go with a crushing conventional pre-emptive strike to the extent that is technically possible. The alternative is to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korean hard points and facilities along the DMZ and beyond. In either case, the United States will take a diplomatic blow, but will limit American and allied casualties.

• George H. Wittman has spent 45 years in the fields of operations and analysis of international security affairs.

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