June 1, 2008  

Beyond the joint force

Preparing for the next Korean War

It is early 2012, and six months have passed since the death of North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il. The Korean People’s Army is clearly on the move, but American intelligence officials cannot tell whether it is conducting regular training exercises or if a civil war is breaking out among the post-Kim leadership. Suddenly, a roar breaks the night silence as a salvo of Nodong missiles strikes the mountains of northern Japan. There are no casualties, and North Korea has neither employed weapons of mass destruction nor issued a declaration of war. How does the U.S. and its allies respond?

This March, the American Enterprise Institute organized a seminar that posed this question to a group of experts on security in Asia and found the available answers to be dangerously wanting. Although the U.S. has in recent years modernized its military forces in Asia and worked with Japan to expand missile defense in the region, Washington is not ready to deal with many potential crises that could emanate from North Korea. In fact, it is possible that the response to a North Korean attack would not be principally judged by American capabilities but by the credibility of U.S. alliances. The alliances with Japan and Korea are no longer mere complements to the strengths of the U.S. joint force, they are the building blocks of a successful defense of the Asian Pacific.


All scenario-based planning exercises carry an inherent flaw: No matter how imaginatively we guess the future, time always will take us by surprise. Even if the U.S. has developed hundreds of scenarios while war-gaming a North Korean regime collapse, for example, none of them can predict the chaos that will surround the eventual end of North Korea’s communist regime. Nonetheless, strategy and force planning require that we anticipate both the most likely cases and the worst. Even if we cannot draw the full details of the future, we can limn its contours, test assumptions and develop plans accordingly.

The first step in the scenario-building process is to develop a set of drivers, assumptions about the history of the future that form the essential contours of a likely scenario. North Korea presents a uniquely difficult challenge in this regard, for that country’s political system is almost impenetrable to confident analysis. Kim and his cronies take great efforts to shroud the inner workings of Pyongyang in secrecy. Faced with a dearth of concrete information, Western analysts are reduced to piecing together the likely twists of North Korean politics from anecdotal developments, ever-dubious statistics and propaganda, and their own assumptions.

Even though North Korea is a difficult target for analysis, we still can establish several concrete drivers that will shape the future of North Korean politics, a set of questions that North Korea ultimately will have to answer in its future: Who will take over following the eventual death of Kim Jong Il? Will the Kim regime or any direct successor undertake real economic or political reform? What role will China play in the future of North Korea? The answer to any one of these three questions will have a tremendous effect on North Korea’s future; moreover, the three are deeply interrelated.

We know the North Korean regime is ill-prepared for the eventual death of Kim. Although groomed by his father, Kim Il Sung, for some 20 years to inherit the mantle of leadership, Kim has not made a similar investment in any of his sons or other possible successors. This failure probably reflects the weakness of the candidates: Kim’s eldest son is most famous for failing to sneak into Tokyo Disney on a fake passport, his second son is reportedly considered to be “too feminine,” and his third son is barely out of school. Although Kim has given his two eldest sons a series of appointments in recent years, his unexpected departure from the scene would leave a vacuum that may be filled by violence.

The vagaries of North Korea’s dynastic politics might not be so dangerous if the regime was not facing a constant struggle for survival. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has weathered two nuclear crises with the Western powers, a devastating famine, international isolation and the death of its national founder. Today, North Korea remains intensely isolated as a bastion of militant communism. The fundamental question for Pyongyang remains a simple one: whether it should come in from the cold.

Looking at the relative prosperity of China and Vietnam, the option of pursuing some type of reform may have been a tempting one for Kim when he succeeded his father in 1994. Instead, he introduced the concept of “songun,” or “military-first politics,” through which Pyongyang has rejected any significant reform and instead developed the military as both the greatest political actor and, through international extortion, the bedrock of the economy. The next North Korean leader will have to decide whether to sustain Kim’s songun policy, and it seems that if there is an ideological element to a post-Kim power struggle, it will be over the question of reform.

Finally, China looms in the background, casting its shadow over the questions of succession and reform. The Chinese government views North Korea as a vital strategic buffer against American military power but views the Kim regime as a loose cannon. The cost of supporting North Korea in peacetime is significant: Not only does Beijing subsidize its neighbor, but it also suffers from economic malaise and an unwanted refugee population in its provinces along the border. If North Korean bellicosity resulted in a regional war, China’s economy and precarious political order may collapse. China has attempted to minimize this risk through a series of investments that have increased its influence in North Korea, the wooing of various Korean officials and an effort to manage the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

Looking to the future, the Chinese leadership believes its own political system provides the optimal model for North Korea’s development and is doing all it can to guarantee that Pyongyang eventually will agree. The risk that China faces as it attempts to shape North Korea’s future is that it may become deeply enough involved in North Korea’s dynastic politics to be implicated in a future civil war there, but not so much as to be able to decide its outcome. It is a dangerous game.

These three drivers present the basic parameters for imagining North Korea’s future: the post-Kim regime, the question of reform and the role of China. But even if there is consensus among experts that these factors will shape North Korea’s future, their interpretation has resulted in an analytic cacophony. Where one analyst finds evidence of reform, another sees further proof of North Korea’s authoritarian recidivism; where one finds an indication that Pyongyang finally will dismantle its nuclear programs, another sees evidence that Kim again has duped his international interlocutors. In an effort to make sense of North Korean politics, news reports of such things as the invitation to Eric Clapton to perform in Pyongyang are treated as serious indicators of power — in this case for Kim Jong Il’s second son, who is a reputed Slowhand fan. Put simply, North Korea’s future remains a mystery.


In the AEI seminar game, we postulated an alternative future in which Kim’s failure to solidify a smooth succession before his death leads to civil war between his two eldest sons and their military backers. China wades into this conflict when it attempts to support one faction over the other, which it has lobbied through years of bribery and promises of greater bilateral financial assistance in exchange for reform. Beijing ultimately finds itself on the losing side and can save its position only by propping up friendly North Korean military commanders and issuing an ultimatum to Pyongyang not to conduct any attacks that would destabilize the border. China and North Korea are virtually at war, and North Korean sovereignty has been grievously violated.

At this point in the scenario, the rump regime in Pyongyang lashes out in response to the stalemate and infringement upon its sovereignty, firing a salvo of missiles against Japan. This move simultaneously escalates and internationalizes Pyongyang’s standoff with Beijing and leaves the U.S. and its allies to answer some difficult questions. Do we declare war? Do we intervene diplomatically to solve the dispute between China and North Korea? Do we retaliate and, if so, how? Does South Korea seize upon the opportunity to reunify the peninsula?

Answering these questions creates simultaneous, overlapping crises in the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japanese alliances. South Korea has long formed the traditional front line with North Korea and would bear the brunt of a conflict between the two countries, let alone the cost of reconstruction if Pyongyang collapsed. With the onset of conflict, Seoul would have every incentive to avoid an escalation of hostilities among the U.S., Japan, North Korea or China. From the American perspective, this means that South Korea would be vitally involved in the crisis, but with the principal objective of restraining rather than expanding American policy options.

The alliance with Japan would come under even greater stress. The Japanese government would be shocked into action by an attack upon its soil and very likely would seek to retaliate with a strike against North Korea’s missile silos. And there’s the rub: Because Japan does not possess the capacity to conduct such a strike, it would have to ask the U.S. to conduct one on its behalf. The alliance suddenly would be faced with a key test as Washington would have to decide whether to risk a greater conflict in an effort to demonstrate the credibility of its commitment to Japan’s defense.

This scenario could reach an array of conclusions, but the almost immediate tactical solution would be for the U.S., North Korea and China to strike a three-way deal that would resolve most of their immediate concerns. After all, each has something to offer the other two parties:

å China could provide North Korea with recognition for the rump regime and assurances regarding the country’s sovereignty. China also could provide Washington with a guarantee that no future attacks from North Korea would be tolerated.

å North Korea could promise both the U.S. and China that it would not conduct another such attack in the future. Such a promise could meet both Beijing’s need for the survival of its buffer state and Washington’s desire to avoid an unnecessary war.

å The U.S. could provide the pressure that allows a resolution of the Sino-North Korean standoff on Pyongyang’s terms and, by not retaliating, allows North Korea to survive. As important, the U.S. would be expected to rein in any Japanese response in the future.

This tactical solution establishes something like the status quo ante. After all, North Korea would continue to exist under a new songun regime, China would sustain a relatively robust buffer state along its border, and the U.S. would have the same apparent position in Asia as it did before the crisis. But the cost would be profound: The United States would have largely undermined its position in Asia.

The most damning evidence of a weakened American position in Asia would be the permanent damage to the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Not only would the alliance have failed to protect Japan from an initial strike, but it also would have emerged as an obstacle to any independent Japanese response. For the part of American policymakers, the diplomatic triumph that avoids war with North Korea would demonstrate that American diplomacy not only works best when it is unfettered by allies, but also perhaps when it betrays their vital interests.

The U.S. also likely would suffer a crisis in its own confidence in the region. The value of Japan and South Korea as allies would be highly diminished, and the U.S. may find itself less interested in retaining a leadership role in Asian security. Indeed, the remaining factor compelling America to stay engaged may be its obligation to cooperate with China in a bid to jointly contain North Korea and Japan. In short, this scenario presents a world that looks very much like the one we live in, but in which the strategic logic has been flipped.

The purpose of this exercise, however, is not to find the single solution but to distill the broader lessons that may be applied to a range of scenarios concerning a destabilized North Korea. If we can identify the most important drivers of future strategic challenges, as well as the plausible scenarios, we can draw overarching lessons that apply no matter the circumstances. Several are apparent here.

First, American policymakers need to reconsider what it means when they discuss another Korean War. It is possible that the next conflict on the peninsula will occur as a North Korean civil war, a conflict into which China may be drawn, or even between North Korea and Japan. For decades, American planners have anticipated a war between the two Koreas or between Pyongyang and Washington, but this assumption is no longer obviously valid.

To further complicate matters, China may be central to a North Korean civil war, propping up one side against another — such a role could end quite well for China, in which a reformist leader emerges who nonetheless keeps North Korea firmly in Beijing’s camp. But it could end disastrously, with the ouster of Chinese influence and perhaps even a state of war between China and a new anti-Chinese leadership in Pyongyang. Any outcome would cut to the heart of the Sino-American competition for influence in Asia, as well as the risk that the competition could spill out into a regional conflict.

The possibility of a North Korean attack on Japan reflects two changes in North Korea’s disposition in recent years. The appeal of an attack on Japan has grown as North Korean priorities have shifted from militarily imposed reunification to survival. A military strike against South Korea could quickly escalate to war. In contrast, an attack on Japan may appear almost risk-free to a North Korean leadership. Japan could not directly strike back, and the U.S. may not be willing to if there was no major damage to Japan. Of course, an attack on Japan could effectively drive a wedge between American, South Korean and Japanese interests. There are many reasons, in sum, for a Korean War to bypass South Korea and proceed directly to Tokyo.

The second major lesson is the challenge that the fog of war will pose for America’s ability to monitor developments as they occur in North Korea. If North Korea were in the early stages of a civil war or a standoff against China, it may be difficult for the U.S. to even realize what was occurring. A North Korean missile strike against Japan could be conducted with almost no strategic warning. Although it would be almost impossible for North Korea to launch a major southward invasion without setting off alarm bells in Seoul and Washington, the U.S. now faces a situation in which the danger could fester quietly and explode suddenly.

Combined, these lessons indicate that the U.S. risks being blindsided by a conflict that it is not adequately prepared for. Having long anticipated the likelihood of renewed inter-Korean hostilities, the U.S. may indeed be preparing for the last Korean War rather than the next one.


If the U.S. does not act to redefine its Asian alliances in the face of the evolving North Korean threat, Pyongyang may well redefine them for us. Many steps the U.S. already is taking are useful for indicating American capacity to respond to an attack by North Korea, including the dispatch of stealth bombers and fighters to the Western Pacific, and surge operations of aircraft carrier task forces. In the face of a dangerous North Korea, however, the most important question will not be whether the U.S. is technically capable of conducting any necessary military operations but whether it has the political will to do so.

Successful deterrence requires the target to perceive the threat of retaliation as credible. So long as North Korea perceives a credibility gap in either Japan’s capability to respond to an attack on its own or in American willingness to undertake that burden, it will face an open invitation to attack a close American friend and potentially undermine a crucial alliance. The most useful step at this point for solidifying political will is to invest in the strength of the alliances with Japan and South Korea; indeed, it may well be necessary to redefine their roles in the Asian security system.

The U.S. and Japan require what may be called a combined strike capability — a notional division of roles and missions between the two countries that would allow them to respond collaboratively to an attack by North Korea. This is necessary because it would fill the credibility gap left by the requirement that Tokyo now ask Washington to retaliate on its behalf if it were struck by North Korea. The development of such a capability would require a number of steps, taken as mutual and supportive policy initiatives within the alliance.

A combined strike capability would be constructed around the set of capabilities that comprise a mission: the strike aircraft and the package of such supporting aircraft as aerial refuelers, electronic warfare aircraft, and warning and control aircraft, as well as the usually space-based intelligence capabilities that acquire targets for such strikes. Japan already has several of these basic elements but does not have the training and doctrine to employ them in a single package — nor have the U.S. and Japan trained to employ a combined package. Either of these steps would help to make Japan a direct participant in its own self-defense and enhance the credibility of the deterrent posture of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

The natural conclusion of this logical chain is that the U.S.-Japanese alliance faces a set of threats in North Korea that justify selling Tokyo the F-22 Raptor, the most advanced fighter aircraft in the American inventory and one that would permit Japan to conduct strike missions with a stealthy aircraft. Sharing this capacity with Japan, even if it were not integrated into a complete Japanese strike capacity, would demonstrate the credibility of Japan’s self-defense and greatly enhance the combined capabilities of the U.S.-Japanese alliance.

In this process, Japan must clarify the legal and policy restrictions that currently leave its Self Defense Law a riddle of restrictions in response to narrowly defined contingencies that may not comport to the reality of a North Korean attack. For example, it is not clear that Japan would be able to conduct a proportionate response to a North Korean attack, even though such a counterstrike clearly would be in keeping with Japan’s constitutional restrictions on self-defense. To make matters worse, the current interpretation of restrictions on collective self-defense may prohibit Japan from taking such basic measures as fueling American aircraft that are conducting an attack on the country’s behalf. These restrictions raise the specter of Japan as a burden rather than an ally.

With regard to South Korea, several steps could help avoid a rupture of interests in the event of a North Korean regime destabilization. For example, the U.S., Japan and South Korea should commence a trilateral security dialogue to address how the three countries view the possibility of a North Korean regime destabilization and how they would respond to the contingencies that may arise as a consequence. The reason for this is simple: As discussed in our scenario, it may well be easier for Washington to engage Beijing in a dialogue than Seoul and Tokyo. To manage a future crisis in North Korea, it is imperative that the channels of communication, as well as some basic common understandings, be established.

As with Japan, this scenario also raises particular capabilities that South Korea may desire to contribute to the containment of a crisis in North Korea. For example, South Korea’s Aegis-equipped destroyers could be upgraded to participate in the global missile defense system, a step that would allow Seoul to intercept ballistic missiles headed either toward American military bases in the region or toward Japan. Although such a proposal cuts against longstanding Korean-Japanese tensions, it addresses the crucial South Korean interest: avoiding a regional war without allowing a rupture within the American alliance system.

What do these recommendations mean for the joint force in Asia? For one, that the modernization and realignment of American forces in the region must always be designed to bolster alliance credibility and capabilities. More important, that the joint force in Asia is no longer a purely American entity. In a region where the U.S. is engaged in protracted contests of wills, the first question is credibility. Although American forces in the region have grown ever more capable in recent years, the challenges they face will require the U.S. and its allies to act in ever greater concert.

CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.