North Korea Just Proved It – WMDs Work
The recent tensions between the U.S. and North Korea appears to be abating. The omnipresent war of words between the two states has escalated in the wake of repeated missile tests by Pyongyang which stoked fears of nuclear conflict. The U.S. military stepped up military operations to signal to Kim Jong-un the resilience of American will. Kim, for his part, threatened to fire missiles at the tiny island of Guam, home to strategic U.S. military installations. Yet despite the rhetoric, war was never very likely, nor will it be in the future.
The hard truth is that North Korea already possess weapons of mass destruction, just not in the normative form. Only 40 miles from Seoul, the bustling and heavily-populated capital of South Korea, are thousands of conventional artillery pieces positioned along the border. Pyongyang maintains the capability to completely level one of the largest and most economically vibrant cities in the world in a matter of minutes. There is simply no means of protecting the bustling metropolis from ruin.
It is not just innocent Korean lives at risk, Seoul is also the site of thousands of U.S. troops and their families, under imminent attack from North Korean forces. If Pyongyang should opt to pursue armed conflict with the U.S. and South Korea, tens of thousands of conventional artillery shells will level the sprawling metropolis. And, yes, it is possible that some of these shells would contain chemical weapons, but most of the destruction will come from non-nuclear and non-chemical warheads.
In a series of interviews late last week, Steve Bannon validated these fears. “There's no military solution [to North Korea's nuclear threats], forget it” said Bannon, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don't know what you're talking about, there's no military solution here, they got us.”
Make no mistake, this is why President Trump, just as previous administrations had done, chose to follow a diplomatic path, even if this risks Pyongyang’s advancement toward fielding nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea’s conventional weapons of mass destruction already have the U.S. in check.
Fortunately, this is not a checkmate. For although it is true that the U.S. and its allies can do little to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile advancements, the recent dustup also underscores just how stable the situation is. Seoul and the U.S. troops stationed there have spent over half a century under the crosshairs of North Korea vast array of artillery, rockets, and missiles. North Korea, for their part, has opted to not follow through on the destruction of her neighbor to the south, as such an act would ensure the complete destruction of North Korea by the U.S. and its allies.
It is mutually assured destruction, writ small. Just like the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, neither side is willing to accept toll that their side would have to pay in an actual conflict.
Not to say that there are no troubling consequences for U.S. national interests. North Korea has proven just how effective weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, biological, or even conventional – can be in neutralizing U.S. military strength. Any nation wishing to make the U.S. beholden to their will can take note of how effectively the possession of massive destructive power can be in forcing the hand of the U.S. After all, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi opted to forgo their progression towards weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps if they had continued their pursuit of more powerful weapons, their fate would not have been so bloody.
What then, of North Korea’s ambitions for even more destructive power? Should the U.S. fear the potential of Kim’s misses streaking across the Pacific toward American cities?
Perhaps. It is more likely that Pyongyang just wants to further entrench themselves against the military threat that the U.S. has arrayed against them. It is important to remember that Kim Jong-un is a young man, an uncertain dictator, and afraid of threats both externally and internally. However, as the dear leader, he lives a posh life and wants to hold on to what he has. Acquiring more destructive power is an effective way to reduce his vulnerabilities vis-à-vis the U.S. And although foreign audiences might take this as the actions of a madman, it is important to remember that the U.S. and the Soviet Union behaved similarly during the cold war. Once both sides had the capability to destroy the world many times over, they still pursued more advanced weapons … just in case.
David Max Korzen is a former active duty Air Force pilot and a graduate of Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He lives in Washington DC and still serves in the Air Force Reserve.
The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Air Force.