The North Korean Bomb

Jonathan I. Katz

I have been reading some of the extensive academic and quasi-academic literature (Wohlstetter, Kam, Handel, Betts, etc.) on the problem of strategic surprise, in connection with my Deception and Denial paper (Int. J. Intel. and Counterintel. 19, 577--585 Winter 2006--2007), and more recently because of the North Korean nuclear test. What runs through all these events (aside from the fact that the attacker almost always achieves surprise) are unquestioned assumptions and expectations on the part of the victim that turn out to be invalid.

Forcing the intelligence analyst to make a most likely prediction has the consequence that possible but apparently less likely hypotheses are discarded. Hence a summary with a single ``best'' or consensus prediction, however well thought out, may be misleading and harmful because it may blind the policy maker, commander or planner to the range of possibilities. The adversary's actual acts and the course of events will certainly lie among those possible, but will probably not be those judged most likely a priori; in fact, the adversary will probably deliberately choose not to act in such a predictable manner. Here are some tacit assumptions generally made about North Korea that may be misleading, each followed by an alternative interpretation:

1. The goal of the regime is to survive. But: That would be our first priority. It wasn't Saddam's (or Hitler's); either could have remained in power until he died of old age if he hadn't attacked his neighbors. It may not be Kim Jong Il's.

2. States (with ``return addresses'') don't engage in terrorist attacks. But: The North Koreans have made three attempts to kill the President of South Korea, including a commando raid on his official residence in January 1968, a plot during his visit to Canada in August 1982, and a bomb attack during his visit to Rangoon, Burma in October 1983 that killed several cabinet officers and a number of other people. They also blew up a South Korean airliner in midair in November 1987. The Congressional Research Service has published a list.

3. The North Koreans won't launch a nuclear attack on the US because of the certainty of massive retaliation. But: Would we really kill millions of peasants in an attempt to kill the leadership? How would we even find the leadership? Lesser retaliation would probably miss the leadership and have little effect on an enormous dispersed and low-tech army. Analogy: Even if we were willing to nuke the Pakistan/Afghanistan border, could we be confident of killing bin Laden? What if North Korea's attack on us were not clearly attributable to NK (bomb in cargo container)?

4. North Korea's nuclear test of October 9, 2006 was only 200-500 tons; that's not a credible threat. But: Maybe they'll figure out what they did wrong and get more yield next time. They are evil, not stupid.

5. North Korea's nuclear test of October 9, 2006 was only 200-500 tons: that's not a credible threat. But: Even 200 tons is a lot of neutrons (lethal to several hundred meters) and fission products. If a ground burst, the fallout trail would cover an extensive area. Our exaggerated fear of radiation would imply enormous economic damage.

6. The North Korean bomb was probably a version of Joe-1 (Trinity). But: The reported North Korean statement that they expected 4 KT is inconsistent with the 10--20 KT yield of Trinity.

7. The North Korean bomb was probably a version of Joe-1 (Trinity), too big and heavy to deliver in anything less than a cargo container or a B-29. But: We're not checking cargo containers adequately, they've got airplanes that could carry this, and they will probably figure out how to reduce the mass and volume enough to put it on a missile.

8. North Korea has nothing to gain from a conventional attack on South Korea, which is aiding it economically. But: We'd rather drink the milk than slaughter the cow; they may think differently. Now they can deter us from reprisals. A prosperous South Korea is a rival for power, and a potential source of discontent for the people of North Korea (even more so as more North Korean refugees flow to South Korea via China). The North Korean regime is evidently much more interested in power than in prosperity, at least if the leadership gets its luxuries (just like Saddam, who built palaces from Oil for Food money while his population starved).

9. North Korea is not actually at war with anyone, and probably prefers a tense peace to actual warfare. But: Their counterfeiting of US currency is traditionally considered an act of war. North Korea has stated that sanctions (even the toothless charade at the UN) would be considered an act of war. The present situation is a phony war, not tense peace, and we know how the last phony war ended in 1940.

The fundamental message is that other people think differently than we do. Sometimes this is a matter of deep moral and cultural values; sometimes it is just a matter of there being many possible ways to look at most situations (give an open-ended problem to a class, and if the students are not collaborating they will come up with quite different solutions). We cannot determine what they are actually thinking, but we can consider the ways they might think. We can determine an enemy's capabilities, and must consider possible intent to the limits of its capabilities. For example, while in 1941 we expected the Japanese to attack closer to their homeland, knowing they had the capability (aircraft carriers) to attack Hawaii or the West Coast should have alerted us to this possibility. Similarly, the fact that we thought (in 1940) the Ardennes impassible by armored columns doesn't mean the enemy also thinks so, or that we are right. The best intelligence estimate isn't the enemy's most likely course of action (if he has any inkling of how we would make that estimate, he will make sure to do something different), it is his range of possible actions.

What are North Korea's objectives? Their announced goal is to unify the Korean peninsula under their rule. It seems likely that they also wish to achieve strategic equality with their neighbors (China and Japan, each of which has occupied or dominated Korea in the past); in other words, to become a sufficiently strong regional power that their neighbors will concede disputed boundary territories, which are a few small islands and (more importantly) subsea petroleum reserves.

What are they likely to do? Even before the nuclear test, North Korea had reduced South Korea to a tributary state, sustaining the North Korean regime with money, fuel and food. The chief obstacle to a Korean anschluss (as it was in 1950--53) is the presence of American forces. North Korea probably believes (almost certainly correctly) that it cannot defeat American forces in conventional war, at which our performance in both Gulf wars was superb (we should not forget that the Rumsfeld ``revolution in warfare'' was spectacularly successful in defeating Iraq's organized army before it failed against the insurgency). However, we must also consider the possibility that North Korea believes it can defeat the much smaller American forces in South Korea, or inflict sufficient casualties that we would withdraw them.

A plausible North Korean strategy would be to try to force the withdrawal of American forces, using our known vulnerabilities: an abhorrence of casualties and an unwillingness to sustain them over a period of many years, as illustrated by our withdrawals from Lebanon, Somalia and Vietnam, and our evident discouragement in Iraq. An actual attack on the American homeland is less likely, because North Korea has probably learned from September 11 that such an attack unifies Americans and makes us determined. However, the threat of such an attack, now that North Korea is a nuclear power, may be used as a deterrent, emphasized by ICBM tests or even nuclear explosions in the Pacific.

A plausible implementation of such a strategy and exploitation of our weaknesses would be to attack American forces in Korea (and bases elsewhere in Northeast Asia) with the intent of inflicting casualties or taking hostages (as in the Pueblo affair). Such attacks could take many forms short of large scale invasion: infiltration of South Korea (from the coasts, or possibly through undiscovered tunnels, though the latter would be more plausibly reserved for commandos in advance of a full scale invasion) followed by attacks on small American units or bases, or attacks on American ships at sea (either Cole-style suicide raids or by surface-to-sea missiles). Because North Korea (unlike the Iraqi insurgency) lacks a sea of supporters surrounding American operations, attacks are likely to be fewer but larger, somewhere on the continuum between insurgency and full scale warfare. The use of a nuclear weapon against major American forces (headquarters in Seoul, an aircraft carrier, or a large base such as Kadena) cannot be excluded; such an attack would also demonstrate the vulnerability of our homeland and enhance the effectiveness of North Korean deterrence against reprisal in kind.

What should we do? I have advocated a pre-emptive conventional attack on North Korea for many years (and published a paper on North Korean proliferation and how to prevent it in Strategic Review XXII 74--80, 1994). Less controversially, South Korea should be ready to evacuate Seoul. This would cost almost nothing; it is just a matter of organizing extant resources: Arrange for fleets of buses and rail cars to arrive on short notice, make it possible to switch all highway lanes to southbound, plan refuges (schools?) out of artillery range stocked with food and water, etc. We should move our base in Seoul south, without delay. Why offer hostages?

North Korea has both nuclear weapons and missiles, but very few of them. We should continue to develop and deploy missile defenses, particularly in South Korea and Japan against shorter range missiles. Missile defense has a history of failure (and overselling), but against an enemy with North Korea's capabilities it may be effective.

We are already at war with North Korea. They have announced this as their response to sanctions and they have a history of keeping their word in such matters. The only question is when, where and how they will strike. It will not necessarily be as benign as counterfeiting or missiles landing in the ocean. These are people who have launched terrorist strikes against the South Korean leadership, kidnapped citizens from a sovereign nation with which they were supposedly at peace, dug infiltration tunnels under the DMZ and murdered US soldiers in the DMZ without provocation. They are reckless gamblers, in the mold of Saddam and Hitler (not Stalin and Pol Pot, who were remarkably cautious and succeeded in dying in bed).

Jonathan Katz

Professor of Physics

Washington University

[my last name]@wuphys.wustl.edu