It sounds insane, but is North Korea planning a lightning war to reunify the peninsula and present both Washington and Beijing with a fait accompli? Bill Gertz of the Washington Times (1) reports that US analysts are concerned:
U.S. intelligence officials assessing North Korea’s recent bellicose statements are increasingly concerned that Kim Jong-un could use his limited nuclear arsenal as part of offensive military attack that would be calculated to improve the prospects for reunifying the country rather suffering a collapse of his regime.
According to officials familiar with unclassified assessments, the North Korean leader and his military hampered by economic sanctions and a declining conventional military force remain paranoid about a U.S. military offensive.
Reportedly, the regime in Pyongyang is also worried that the Chinese might be willing to replace the Kim dynasty and its backers with more pliable minions, presumably to remove a problem for their foreign relations, since China wants to be seen as a stable power on the world stage, not as the allies of a country that regularly threatens regional peace.
But, given the disparity of power between North Korea on the one hand, and the US and its South Korean allies on the other, how would this war be conducted? Gertz, again:
The North Koreans are calling their strategy “the spirit of the offensive.” It calls for decisive, surprise attacks carried out very rapidly.
The strategy also calls for a four-front war against South Korea and the United States involving strategic missiles with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to destroy U.S. and allied military bases. It would launch conventional military strikes through the demilitarized zone and into South Korea. Special operations commandos would mount rear-guard attacks. Cyberwarfare would take down critical infrastructure.
A nuclear strike itself might involve missile strikes, or even special forces with small suitcase-sized “dirty bombs.”
It’s not a scenario I consider very likely, for a couple of reasons. First, as China analyst Gordon Chang points out, while the Chinese government isn’t all that thrilled with their “friends” in Beijing, the military, an increasingly dominant and assertive faction in Chinese politics. Noting reports of increased Chinese military activity near their border with North Korea, Chang argues that it is possible this is in support of the Kim regime, not a warning to it:
Why would Beijing back the world’s most ruthless regime? The answer lies in China’s fraying political system, which is allowing generals and admirals to cement control over policymaking.
Chinese flag officers gained influence last year as feuding civilians sought military support for their bids for promotion as the Communist Party retired Fourth Generation leaders, led by Hu Jintao, and replaced them with the Fifth, under the command of Xi Jinping. The People’s Liberation Army, which may now be the most powerful faction in the Party, has traditionally maintained its pro-Pyongyang views, and it is apparently using its enhanced standing to push Beijing closer to Pyongyang.
The rise of the military has had consequences. For instance, the PLA has sold the North Koreans at least six mobile launchers for their new KN-08 missile, which can hit the U.S. These launchers substantially increase Pyongyang’s ability to wage a nuclear war and are the primary reason the Obama administration decided last month to go ahead with the 14 missile interceptors in Alaska.
Today, in the Chinese capital there are many academics and Foreign Ministry professionals who know that supporting North Korea is not in China’s long-term interest. Yet where it counts — at the top of the political system — there is no consensus to change long-held policies supporting the Kim family regime.
So the “fear of a Chinese coup” theory looks less compelling. (2)
The other reason I don’t find the analysts’ concerns to be cause (yet) for alarm is that, to be blunt, a blitzkrieg-style assault using WMDs is a sure path to suicide for Kim and his cronies. Killing American troops with nuclear weapons, for example, or blowing off a bomb in Seoul, would generate unbearable pressure on Barack Obama to retaliate — there would simply be no way for him to resist. Likewise with the demand to take out the Pyongyang regime once and for all, though Chinese pressure might be enough to stave off conquest and reunification with Seoul, as opposed to regime change.
The problem, of course, is that the North Korean regime and the thinking of Kim Jong-Un is almost a black box to the outside world, its workings a mystery. What if they believe their own propaganda and think they can pull it off? Nations with far more extensive contact with the outside world have badly miscalculated before: just ask Hitler how his declaration of war on the US worked out.
So, while I don’t think the scenario Gertz outlined is anywhere near likely –I assume the North Koreans are obnoxious and obstreperous extortionists, but still rational actors when it comes to their own survival– it is illustrative of the worrisome possibilities that have to be kept in mind, because our window into Pyongyang is so small and opaque.
(1) Bear in mind that, while Gertz is a solid reporter, the Times is owned by a faction of the virulently anti-North Korean Unification Church. If we’re going to acknowledge the biases of liberal papers like the New York Times, we should also stipulate those for publications generally on our side, too.
(2) It is possible that the Chinese moves are in support of a North Korean attack, but that would mean the most aggressive faction of the military has taken control, and I’ve seen no sign of that. So they may be showing support for Kim, but not that much.
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)