WASHINGTON - While the defense industry is struggling to keep pace with one new kind of war that is challenging its ingenuity, another unsettling situation is looming over the horizon-and not far over the horizon: North Korea.
The one ostensible common thread in the two situations is the absolute necessity of keeping weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) out of the hands of terrorists. That’s the stated reason why this country committed troops to Iraq, although those WMDs have proved to be illusory.
North Korea’s WMDs are not illusory. They are nuclear warheads-at least 10 of them, by current Pentagon estimates-plus a variety of chemical weapons (mustard gas, sarin, and VX nerve agent) and biological weapons (anthrax, botulism, cholera, hemorrhagic fever, plague, small-pox, typhoid, and yellow fever).
Moreover, North Korea has missiles that make Saddam Hussein’s look puny by comparison: a medium-range missile known as the No-Dang believed to be capable of hitting Japan, the 1,200-mile Taepo Dong 1; and an advanced version known as the Taepo Dong 2, which theoretically could strike the continental United States.
What is to keep this horrible arsenal out of the hands of terrorists? The short answer: not much.
The only diplomatic barrier is a treaty known as the Agreed Framework signed in 1994 that promises that the United States, South Korea, and Japan will supply light-water nuclear reactors and fuel oil in exchange for North Korea’s freezing its nuclear weapons development.
Everybody expected North Korea to cheat on the agreement, and they did. The situation is becoming increasingly untenable as the North Korean economy continues its downward plunge, making the sale of contraband WMDs to terrorists increasingly attractive.
Like the Vietnam War, which it so much resembles, the current war in Iraq would be a minor skirmish compared to any commitment of ground forces to Korea.
Although the two countries are about the same size, 23 million people in North Korea and 26 million in Iraq, the real difference is the size of the countries’ military forces. North Korea is believed to have the world’s fifth largest military, with more than 1.2 million active-duty troops and 7 million reservists.
What this means is that the military casualties would far exceed the 1,500-plus experienced to date in Iraq. Pentagon experts have estimated that the first 90 days of a conflict in North Korea would produce 300,000 to 500,000 American and South Korean military casualties in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.
The costs would also greatly exceed the $200 billion expended to date in Iraq, and the damage to South Korea alone would gravely cripple the global economy. Consider, for example, that the South Korean capital of Seoul is only 35 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone and therefore a hostage in any North Korean military move.
This crisis is looming at a time when American troops deployed to South Korea are to be drawn down-from 37,500 last year to 25,000 by 2008. This drawdown, pushed through the military bureaucracy by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, makes sense because of the overwhelming U.S. air and naval superiority to defeat a conventional attack.
Countering a potential nuclear attack is another matter. For openers, it puts a high premium on intelligence gathering, which was less than satisfactory in Iraq. In addition to finding the dispersed nuclear sites, air forces will have to fly many sorties to be sure they have eliminated them.
Once again, the situation looks several orders of magnitude more challenging than today’s action in Iraq.
It’s a challenge the United States can ill afford to ignore. Throughout the cold war the whole thrust of nonproliferation was to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of those outside the nuclear club and therefore considered too irresponsible to possess them.
Moreover, Iran and other nations with clandestine nuclear weapons programs of their own will be watching how the United States handles this situation and whether North Korea will be allowed to become an official nuclear power without reprisal.
As a Pentagon reporter for Aerospace Daily during Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s first tour of duty at the head of the Defense Department during the closing days of the Vietnam War, I perhaps see too many parallels between that war and the current action in Iraq.
That may also explain my preoccupation with Asia, where I think the United States has a major future around the Pacific Rim.
I was surprised to read, for example, in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly that the United States still has not signed a peace treaty with North Korea after that country’s invasion of the south in 1950. President Eisenhower fulfilled a campaign promise by signing an armistice ending the fighting in 1953, but it seems reasonable to me that a peace treaty would be in order-and might help to defuse what is increasingly becoming an untenable situation.
At a minimum, it seems to me that we should not let our ongoing operations in Iraq blind us to what may prove to be even more serious challenges in places like North Korea and Iran.
I think our experience in Iraq raises serious questions about the validity of another preemptive strike elsewhere. American troops were not greeted with flowers as liberators, and I don’t think they will be in North Korea either.
In a potential conflict situation such as this, action is always preferable to reaction. Now is the time to get our allies on board and to make it clear to the regime of Kim Jong Il that any military action will trigger a United Nations response, as it did in 1950.
The defense industry’s role in the meantime will be to put increasing emphasis on space-borne surveillance assets, the so-called national technical means, and to be ready to deliver the necessary force-multiplier assets that will offset with superior electronics the numerical superiority of a rogue regime playing in its own ballpark.