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Everything Old is New Again: a Brief Retrospectus on Korea and the Cold War

In the early 1950s mathematicians at the Rand Corporation played “scratch pad” war games in an effort to calculate the consequences of a Soviet conventional invasion of Europe. They determined that the logical place for such an attack would be the two lowland corridors between the Vogelsberg and Rhon mountains and in the process formulated the Fulda Gap theory of U.S. strategic warfighting.

NATO became the means by which the envisioned “firebreak” onslaught of Soviet forces along that corridor and the North German Plain would be slowed, and then halted, by our threat to use tactical/intermediate nuclear weapons. The Rand crew bequeathed to their strategy successors the doctrinal pornography of the evilness of Soviet intentions, dismissing Moscow’s declarations that its operational code for military action was purely defensive. Encircled and hemmed in by NATO, the Soviets believed their sole recourse in the face of nuclear attack would be an attempt to overrun Western Europe and hold it for ransom.

By 1989 U.S. strategists were roundly applauding themselves for the success of a containment policy which had deliberately overestimated Soviet capabilities while exacerbating its domestic excesses. It’s doubtful that any of those policy descendants of Herman Kahn and Bernard Brodie noted that the Soviets had essentially collapsed four decades earlier when their elites traveled to the West and returned home with hi-fi sets and pocket calculators.

A number of that last bastion of the nuclear priesthood — Ronald Reagan’s people — are still very active and in a perversely piquant way currently find themselves involved in a genuine reality show.

Welcome to the Korean Peninsula.

 

***

Isn’t it interesting how Korea currently resembles, in Secretary Rumsfeld’s words last month, “old Europe”? Rumsfeld was dismissing German and French concerns about a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq as an antiquated Cold War–era attitude. And yet, with Korea, we now find ourselves back at the scratch pads with those Rand action figures, the Red players and the Blue players, and we’re looking at a classic replication of the Fulda Gap scenario, only this time it’s writ large, with mutual enmity and intransigence increasing daily, and firepower and manpower out of all proportion to the geographical confines.

One wonders if the Bush administration really understands that events in North Korea are no longer merely a manageable sideshow to its obsession with Iraq, and that a pause in the intensifying rhetoric and countermoves is essential. Rumsfeld’s charge last week that North Korea is a “terrorist regime” prepared to peddle its nuclear weapons technology, and his decision to put 24 long-range bombers on alert for reassignment to Pacific bases, indicate that either Washington hasn’t yet grasped the severity of this East Asian crisis, or it is truly embarked on messianic two-front brinkmanship. In December Rumsfeld stated that the U.S. was equipped to “win decisively” if the North’s nuclear program incited a war.

Within the Bush curia are those who typify the creed of the worst of the hardliners, post-Rand. Most prominent are Reagan-era holdovers Paul Wolfowitz and Ricard Perle, former academics turned simulated-war badasses, the sort of tough guys who savor national power projection as a soothing palliative for a personal inability to successfully sucker punch a Fred Rogers.

Such a mindset allows scant room for anything but the most self-interested diplomacy, if that, as borne out by Bush’s dismissal of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s groundbreaking “sunshine policy” initiatives with North Korea and the U.S.’ substitution of a “tailored containment” program of economic intimidation of the North. Compounding this, of course, were Bush’s “axis of evil” remarks and his comment that he “loathes” North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and would be happy to see his regime “topple.”

Mired in isolation, scarcity and autarky, since signing the 1994 Framework Agreement with the Clinton administration the North has been consistent in seeking U.S. guarantees of nonaggression and normalized relations in exchange for its willingness to cease its enriched uranium programs. But the 1994 agreement, which promised two light-water reactors and diplomatic and economic relations as barter for North Korea freezing its Yongbyon graphite reactor, was never fulfilled, apart from the fuel oil shipments. The North resumed uranium-enrichment efforts in 1998, the same year the U.S. and South Korea revised their joint Operations Plan 527 to include preemptive strikes against North Korea and staged simulated attacks at an Air Force base in North Carolina.

Last October, after admitting to violating the agreement, North Korea again offered to curtail its nuclear ambitions in return for a peace accord and an end to sanctions. Bush demanded that Pyongyang stop its program first, and then Washington cut off the oil when it refused. Unless the North accepts that precondition, the U.S. will not enter into direct talks, and the administration appears to be confident that shunting the matter over to multilateral organizations will be successful. The U.S. has approached the International Atomic Energy Agency to act as its surrogate after receiving pointed reminders from China and Russia that we bear the major responsibility for a solution.

***

A North Korean newspaper warns that “total war” would be the result of any preemptive U.S. action against the Yongbyon nuclear plant, which went on line again last week. That’s a particular refrain the Cold War–victor caste probably never thought they’d hear again. And the North has just announced that any Security Council sanctions levied against it this week will constitute a declaration of war. The request for a Council emergency session was made by the IAEA.

The North Korean army (KPA) is trained in the primacy of offense, with a mix of Soviet strategic and Chinese tactical methodologies, and numbers1.1 million troops, along with 1.8 million first-line reserves. It has 5 million other reservists and has armed most of the general population as cadres for rear area defense and protracted war purposes. Arrayed against it are 672,000 South Korean (ROK) and 37,000 U.S. troops. Seventy percent of KPA regulars, 8,000 artillery units and 2,000 tanks are deployed within 100 miles of the DMZ. They are protected by some 4,000 hardened underground facilities, with stockpiles sufficient for four months’ combat.

Should a KPA breakout unfold, the warning time will likely be only a few hours or days. Massed artillery fire will accompany infantry and armored units in the rush through the Munsan, Kumwa and Chorwon corridors to what remains of Seoul. It’s probable that chemical weapons will be used by the KPA, and at the outset. North Korea’s objective will be to advance down the rest of the peninsula and reunify the country within 30 days.

Kim Jong Il has little left but an army. Nearly 60 years ago Stalin found himself in a similar fix, and we misread his intentions toward us, which ushered in four decades of strained diplomacy and tripwire anxiety. The situation in North Korea is the most urgent issue facing the nation. It deserves an approach that doesn’t smack of our own desperation and belligerence.

This column first appeared in 2003 in the San Francisco Call.

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John Hutchison publishes the San Francisco Flier.

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