North Korea's Dangerous Invasion Bluff

Why Kim Jong-Un Won't Start a Second Korean War

By Christopher Lee

From weapons proliferation, to human rights matters, and to global security—North Korea is present.  It is extremely difficult to find a major international issue in which North Korea is not playing a substantial role.  Despite the small size of its population and breadth of its territory, North Korea has played a “disproportionately important role” in the last 30 years of world history, particularly due to its arsenal of advanced weapons systems and the consternation its warheads create both near and far.

Currently, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear and missile programs are so unpredictable and cloaked in such secrecy that the threat this isolated communist state poses must never be underestimated.  U.S. policymakers and military experts continually reinforce to South Korean President Park Gyen-Hye that recent developments in North Korea, such as substantial increased activity at Punggye-ri nuclear test site, underscores the need for renewed efforts at denuclearization.  While Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities still remain unknown, one thing is clear – Kim Jong-Un is remarkably adept at “manipulating global public opinion.”

Following the death of North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il, in 2011 and the successful power transition to his third son, “Great Successor,” Kim Jong-Un, pundits like Dr. Charles Armstrong, renowned Korea expert and professor of history at Columbia University projected that North Korea would “endure and not collapse.”  Armstrong and others like Dr. Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and a research scholar at Columbia University also surmised that North Korea would continue its provocative rhetoric by conducting further nuclear tests or “a limited but deadly attack against South Korean interests either on the peninsula or in another country.”

Likewise, most experts in East Asian studies and international security formed a consensus that North Korea would never use its nuclear weapons because both Kim Jong-Un and the elites around him recognize that a nuclear war would represent the annihilation of the regime.  For an untested, tyrannical megalomaniac, potential regime collapse must be avoided at all cost.  Kim has the means necessary to launch provocative strikes against his southern neighbor.  But underneath the threats and rhetoric, he grasps that such actions could jeopardize the longevity of his reign.

As suspected, Kim Jong-Un emerged as a totalitarian leader like his father and the “Great Successor” continues to publicly announce Pyongyang’s string of nuclear threats to both South Korea and the United States.  However, in reality, Kim knows his bankrupt economy cannot afford an all-out war with South Korea.  Moreover, South Koreans show no signs of panic after these nuclear launches and sea of fire threats.  Why are the South Koreans so calm?  According to many, the South Koreans know that North Korea will only be able to conduct limited strikes similar to the November 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong-Do because Kim Jong-Un is not likely to start a frontal war.

Kim is not likely launch war with his neighbor because while North Korea may have the fourth largest standing military in the world at approximately 1.3 million soldiers, its equipment is seriously outdated.  Kim’s military equipment (tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and MiG-19’s) goes all the way back to Pyongyang’s alliance with Moscow during the Cold War.  South Korea, on the other hand, continues to purchase billions of dollars’ worth of the most advanced U.S. weapons systems.  Seoul is scheduled to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for their next main fighter aircraft while North Korea struggles to keep their dilapidated MiG-19’s intact without multiple training accidents.  South Korea’s, substantially aided by the U.S., has become one of the world’s most capable conventional forces and “present a formidable forward defense against any possible attack by North Korea.”

In the remote chance of an all-out war, even with its obsolete and nearly unusable equipment, pundits extrapolate that Kim Jong-Un’s military could cause substantial damage in the early stages of the war.  However, any conceivable attack would eventually be repulsed by South Korea’s 600,000 South Korean soldiers armed with advanced military technology and supported by 28,500 U.S. troops.

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Christopher Lee is an active duty Major in the U.S. Army.  A graduate of West Point, he has served for eight years as an intelligence officer.  He is currently a Foreign Area Officer for the Northeast Asia region and a graduate student at Columbia University.

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