North Korea: The War Game

Dealing with North Korea could make Iraq look like child's play—and the longer we wait, the harder it will get. That's the message of a Pentagon-style war game involving some of this country's most prominent foreign-policy strategists

The secretary of state in this exercise was Robert Gallucci. The dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, at Georgetown University, Gallucci has extensive real-world experience in dealing with North Korea. In 1994 he served as the Clinton administration's chief negotiator with the North Koreans during the crisis that ultimately produced the Agreed Framework. Gallucci did not have to overtax his imagination for this simulation: he had been present at the real versions of such meetings in the White House, including one in June of 1994, when the president considered ordering military strikes on the Yongbyon reactor.

Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, who spent thirty-five years in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot, a commander, and a strategic planner, played the role of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. McInerney conducted flight reconnaissance missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and later completed four tours of duty in Vietnam. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s he served predominantly in the Pacific theater. While there he watched by means of satellite photography as the North Koreans constructed bunkers and artillery installations in the mountains north of Seoul. A military analyst for Fox News, McInerney last year argued in Endgame: The Blueprint for Victory in the War on Terror (written with Paul E. Vallelly) that the key to stopping the spread of terrorism is regime change. McInerney thinks we should invade not only North Korea (if it doesn't give up its nuclear program) but also Syria (if it doesn't end its support of terrorism and surrender the WMD that he believes were smuggled there from Iraq) and Saudi Arabia (if Islamic radicals seize power there).

Filling the newly created position of director of national intelligence was Jessica Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (Mathews and McInerney had clashed over Iraq, and their animosity was easy to see; this lent extra verisimilitude to the exercise, since personal disputes over policy often color debates within administrations.) Mathews directed the National Security Council's Office of Global Issues from 1977 to 1979, and served as deputy to the undersecretary of state for global affairs under President Clinton.

Rounding out the Principals Committee was Kenneth Adelman, who would be serving as secretary of defense. A current member of the Defense Policy Board, Adelman has held a number of positions in Republican administrations. In the mid-1970s he was assistant to President Ford's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld; later he was a key member of Ronald Reagan's foreign-policy team, serving for two years as deputy UN ambassador and for four years as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Like Gallucci and Mathews, Adelman is a veteran of real NSC meetings.

''Let's play," Sam Gardiner said. He announced that he had a memo from the Pentagon asking for a review of the status of our plans for North Korea. He reminded the group that it had been two and a half years since we had told the North Koreans we knew about their clandestine uranium-enrichment program, and nearly two years since international six-party talks had begun—yet the crisis had if anything only deepened.

Gardiner reviewed some of the basic facts about North Korea's conventional military capabilities. The North Korean People's Army, he observed, is the fifth biggest military in the world, with more than 1.2 million active-duty troops and 7 million reservists. One of the most notable components of the People's Army is its highly trained Special Operations Forces—the North Korean equivalent of Saddam Hussein's elite Republican Guard. Consisting of some 125,000 troops, the SOF may be the largest such force in the world. In the event of a conflict on the peninsula, Gardiner said, we would find ourselves not only engaging these troops along the border but also combating their sneak attacks from the rear. Displaying a PowerPoint slide that depicted North Korean tunneling operations along the demilitarized zone since the 1970s, Gardiner observed that the SOF would get behind the front lines not only through hidden tunnels that U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies have yet to find (one of them, according to the journalist Jasper Becker's new book, Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea, is large enough for 30,000 infantrymen to pass through in an hour) but also in small aircraft, boats, and midget submarines. We're improving our ability to contend with the SOF, Gardiner said. But it remains a "big deal."

Next he summarized the North Korean missile program: the medium-range No-Dong missiles that can hit Japan; the 1,200-mile Taepo Dong 1 missiles; and the Taepo Dong 2, which could theoretically strike the continental United States. The Taepo Dong 2, Gardiner said, "changes the strategic equation significantly."

Gardiner paused to get initial assessments from the Principals Committee. CIA Director David Kay responded first, noting that what confounds policymaking on North Korea is how little anyone actually knows about the country. "We believe a lot," he observed. "We actually know very little." Kay thought that the principal objective of U.S. intelligence at this point should be to determine the extent of any connection between North Korea's nuclear program and groups outside the country.

Secretary of State Gallucci spoke next. "This is a country," he said, "that has exported ballistic missiles when no other country on earth is exporting ballistic missiles—a country that has threatened explicitly to export nuclear material." What is so frightening about this prospect, Gallucci said, is that traditional deterrent methods won't work. "If there's an incident," he continued, "the worst we can imagine, the detonation of a weapon in an American city, will we have attribution? Will we be able to track it back to North Korea? Is there any deterrence against [the export of nuclear materials] by a desperate state?"

Secretary of Defense Adelman disagreed with the idea that we don't know what North Korea's intentions are. "We do know what North Korea's strategy is: it is obviously to deter us from attacking them like we attacked Iraq." Adelman said he thought there was "no hope" of changing North Korea's behavior through conventional diplomacy. "Having talks as an objective of U.S. policy is a diplomatic move that gets you nothing," he said. "I know Winston Churchill said it's better to jaw-jaw than to war-war, but there's lots of jaw-jawing that leads to war-war, or that has nothing to do with war-war. So let's not spend time on whether we should get back to 'talks.'" Instead, Adelman said, we should try to induce the Chinese to lean on the North Koreans to give up their nuclear program. How? By scaring them with the prospect of a nuclear South Korea, a nuclear Japan, and possibly a nuclear Taiwan. Once the Chinese recognize that they'll soon be looking at multiple nuclear powers in the region if they don't force the North Koreans to disarm, Adelman argued, they'll be compelled to use leverage against North Korea—by, for example, cutting off its food and fuel supplies.

Director of National Intelligence Mathews returned to Kay's point regarding how little we really know of North Korea. We know far less about North Korea's nuclear program than we do about Iran's, she said. "Uncertainty is the thing that has to underlie the rest of our discussion. There's very little we can say that we know with confidence, either politically or technically, about North Korea." She agreed with Kay and Gallucci about the real danger to our national security: "This is a regime that will sell anything." And she disagreed with Adelman about whether the Chinese could effectively influence the North Koreans. The Chinese, she pointed out, would be reluctant to do anything that might topple the regime and cause a huge flow of refugees across their border.

Finally, Mathews said that we have never really tested whether the right combination of political promises, security assurances, and economic aid would induce the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons. "I'm not saying they would give up their nuclear weapons," she said. "I'm saying we don't know the answer to this absolutely crucial question." Before we resort to more extreme measures, she said, we ought to try to answer it. She proposed that we begin by offering to sign a treaty formally ending the Korean War. (Hostilities ceased in 1953 with the signing of an armistice and the drawing of the DMZ, along the 38th parallel—but no peace treaty was signed, which means that technically the United States and North Korea are still at war.)

"That would say something to a paranoid regime," Mathews continued. "It doesn't mean anything to us; we don't think the Korean War is still going on. But it says something to them. It may be a very valuable bargaining chip, and we've never spent it."

Joint Chiefs Chairman McInerney agreed that the greatest national-security threat posed by North Korea was nuclear transfer, and he echoed Gallucci's concern that deterrence will not protect against nuclear terrorism. General McInerney was more willing than the other principals to contemplate military action, and more sanguine about how easy a war with North Korea would be to win. "I don't think we're concerned that they could overrun the South, because they can't," he said. "Militarily, we are far superior to them. Would there be a lot of carnage? Yes, there'd be a lot of carnage. Would we win? Yes, we would win. Would we win quicker than we did in Operation Iraqi Freedom? Optimistically, I'd say we could. More likely, it would take an extra month. But the fact is, we would win."

To prevent North Korea's nuclear capability from creating an imbalance of power, McInerney proposed stationing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan. During the Cold War, he explained, various NATO countries "sat alert" on U.S. nuclear weapons. The weapons were on European aircraft, but the United States dictated when they could be deployed.

North Korea, he conceded, has the potential to use Seoul, which lies only thirty-five miles south of the DMZ, as a "hostage"—to threaten to turn it into that "sea of fire." But he strenuously disagreed that this means "a military option is not thinkable," as some U.S. policymakers say. "A military option is clearly thinkable, and doable," he argued. "If threatened with the transfer of nuclear weapons from North Korea to terrorists, we have to do something."

Gardiner, in his role as PACOM commander, resumed his briefing. He displayed a map of Korea that depicted the expected North Korean attack routes. Because of the mountainous terrain along the border, the conventional forces of the People's Army would be limited to a few corridors that would be highly vulnerable to U.S. air power. The bottom line: we could easily repel a conventional ground attack.

But, he continued, there are two degrees of desirable victory: "swiftly defeating" the bad guys, and "winning decisively." In a swift defeat escalation is controlled; victory is rapid enough that the conflict remains limited and conventional. In winning decisively the scope of the victory and the number of troops on the ground are sufficient to carry out postwar stability operations. In Iraq, U.S. forces swiftly defeated the enemy (the war was quick and didn't metastasize) but did not win decisively (a big reason why the military aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom has been so protracted).

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Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind and the award-winning Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent ShriverMore

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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