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

Gardiner explained that to control escalation in North Korea, the United States, using its air power, would first have to take out North Korea's aging air force. Though many enemy aircraft are bunkered in mountain redoubts, this would be easy. But one major problem could keep us from taking rapid control of the peninsula: chemical weapons. Citing congressional testimony given by General Leon LaPorte, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, Gardiner said that North Korea's chemical weapons could be a "showstopper." "The chemical-weapon thing is big," he said. "We have reason to believe that the chemical weapons are with the forward artillery units that are targeting Seoul. If we don't get those early, we end up with chemicals on Seoul."

Next Gardiner projected a PowerPoint slide showing the range of a Taepo Dong 1 missile overlaid on a map of East Asia. It demonstrated that such a missile launched from the Korean peninsula could reach not only Tokyo, Okinawa, and Beijing but also the U.S. base in Guam. To prevent escalation, Gardiner said, we would need to take out the No-Dong and Taepo Dong missile sites quickly—which would not be easy, because we don't know where those missiles are. Many are hidden in underground bunkers throughout North Korea. The PACOM commander's conclusion: "It's a difficult target set, but we can do it."

We would also, of course, need to take out the nuclear sites. Gardiner flashed a map of North Korea's known nuclear-related facilities on the screen, and then showed a series of satellite photos of various WMD targets. Many of the targets were tucked away in underground tunnels or at least partially obscured by what arrows on the photos labeled as "hill masses." "You begin to see how difficult a target set this is," Gardiner said.

"Is that a euphemism for undoable?" Secretary of Defense Adelman asked.

"No, not at all," Gardiner said. General McInerney practically jumped out of his chair to say "No!"

Gardiner continued, explaining that the first few days of the fight would be critical if we were to have any chance of protecting Seoul. To do so, we would have to get the chemical-delivery systems, the missile sites, and the nuclear sites before the North Koreans had a chance to use them. To accomplish all this we would need to carry out 4,000 air sorties a day in the first days of the conflict. In Iraq, in contrast, we had carried out 800 a day.

Director of National Intelligence Mathews disagreed that Seoul could be shielded: "My understanding is that we cannot protect Seoul, at least for the first twenty-four hours of a war, and maybe for the first forty-eight." McInerney disputed this, and Mathews asked him to explain.

McInerney: "There's a difference between 'protecting' Seoul and [limiting] the amount of damage Seoul may take."

Mathews: "There are a hundred thousand Americans in Seoul, not to mention ten million South Koreans."

McInerney: "A lot of people are going to die, Jessica. But you still prevail."

Mathews: "I just think we've got to be really careful. We've got to protect Seoul. If your daughter were living in Seoul, I don't think you would feel the U.S. military could protect her in those first twenty-four hours."

McInerney: "No, I do. I believe that we have the capability—whether from pre-emption or response—to minimize the casualties in Seoul."

Mathews: "'Minimize' to roughly what level? A hundred thousand? Two hundred thousand?"

McInerney: "I think a hundred thousand or less."

Only a hard-nosed military strategist, of course, can contemplate 100,000 casualties as coolly as McInerney did. He went on to argue that—assuming 4,000 sorties a day, and given our current targeting technology, combined with the fact that the artillery systems firing on Seoul would be fairly concentrated around the DMZ—we would be able to mitigate the lethality of North Korean strikes on Seoul. Gallucci added that the North Koreans would be foolish to waste their artillery on Seoul. "It is insane for them if they are engaged in ground combat," Gallucci said. "They're going to be in desperate need of that artillery for support of ground operations."

McInerney agreed: "If they try to use Seoul as an artillery target, we would destroy their army that much quicker."

Secretary of Defense Adelman was skeptical that the North Koreans would use the same strategy to "break through" that they had when they successfully overran the South in 1950. David Kay reminded everybody that one key difference between 1950 and today is that North Korea may now have "between one and ten nukes, and adequate delivery methods," meaning "they can take out Seoul without using a single artillery round—and I haven't seen anything here that shows we can mitigate that." When McInerney began to argue that maybe we could disable their nuclear missiles before they were fired, Kay retorted, "Our record of attacking mobile missiles in Iraq is not very good."

"That's why our policy must clearly state that for every nuke they use, we will use a hundred," McInerney said.

The other members of the Principals Committee seemed taken aback by this statement.

Gardiner tried to resume his briefing by summing up the sentiment of the committee. "None of the military options is easy—"

Adelman interrupted. "That's a euphemism. Let's talk directly: it would be disastrous."

Mathews agreed. "We can only reach the targets we know about. You can't target targets you don't know about, and there are a whole bunch of them."

"And some targets we do know about, but we don't know where they are," Kay added. "And that's most of the missile force."

The consensus was that Seoul could not be guaranteed protection. And McInerney, who dissented from that consensus, was projecting up to 100,000 casualties in South Korea in the first few days.

Gardiner moved on to the next phase of his briefing, which involved placing the North Korean situation in the context of the U.S. military's other global commitments. President Bush, he reminded the principals, has said that "all options are on the table" with respect to Iran. But if all options (including invasion) are truly on the table for dealing with Iran, Gardiner announced, "then I have to tell you that we cannot do this operation—either in defense or pre-emption—on the peninsula." There simply aren't enough available troops. Hundreds of thousands of troops are tied up because of Iraq. Tens or hundreds of thousands more would be required for Iran, even if we intended only to make a credible show of force rather than actually invade.

Gardiner also pointed out that U.S. military planners have called for a drawdown in the number of American troops stationed in South Korea over the next few years—from 37,500 in 2004 to 25,000 by 2008. Because of our overwhelming air and naval superiority, we still have the "overmatching" capability to defeat a conventional attack. But, he said, "I can't assure that we can swiftly defeat or win decisively." He also said that as the size of his force diminished, he was losing his capacity to deter a North Korean attack.

David Kay observed that since the greatest national-security threat, everyone agreed, was not a North Korean invasion of South Korea but, rather, the North Korean transfer of nuclear material to terrorists, the essential question was how big a force was needed for a pre-emptive attack, not how big a force was needed to deter invasion.

Gardiner argued that we have the capability to deter the North Koreans from either course by threatening to launch nuclear weapons at them. He emphasized that he wasn't recommending that we launch nukes—only saying that a nuclear deterrent might work on the peninsula the way it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. McInerney agreed, and once again proposed lending some of our nuclear weapons to South Korea and Japan as a deterrent against the North. Gardiner recommended a strategy short of that: we should announce publicly, he suggested, that we are moving nuclear weapons—along with nuclear-capable aircraft and missiles—to Guam, and then keep them there as a deterrent while so many of our troops are tied down elsewhere.

Adelman said, "We have got to decide in this group whether to recommend to the president that we use the standard deterrence approach we have used for years"—that is, keeping a strong conventional force on the peninsula—"or whether we want to take a different approach and have less U.S. involvement in this thing." Adelman recommended the latter course, which he said would compel the South Koreans, the Japanese, and the Chinese to deal with the problem.

"You're forgetting the whole history of U.S. nonproliferation policy," Mathews said. "You're encouraging Japan to go nuclear."

"I'm not forgetting," Adelman said. "I may be overriding it."

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Scott Stossel is an Atlantic senior editor and the author of Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver (2004). More

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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