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

Nobody else was comfortable with the idea of a nuclear Japan; Kay and Mathews objected that it would undermine long-standing U.S. policy, and McInerney objected because he thought existing treaties obliged us to keep Japan and South Korea under our own nuclear umbrella. Mathews proposed that they move on to the next item, since it was clear that "on this point we're going to have to go to the president with divided opinion."

Before moving on, however, Gardiner wanted to come to consensus about where to draw the "red line" (or lines), the crossing of which would trigger international sanctions—and perhaps ultimately a pre-emptive strike by U.S. forces. There was some discussion of whether a nuclear-weapons test would constitute a red-line violation. For Gallucci, it was the transfer of fissile material. "That needs not only to be laid down as a red line but reinforced repeatedly," he said.

"Would you do a pre-emptive attack if transfer happens?" Adelman asked.

"I would mean what I said: 'We will not tolerate that. And we will act against you.' That's all I would tell them."

"But in this room what would you say?" Gardiner asked.

Gallucci responded haltingly. "I would strike at whatever facility—within the context of our capabilities, the protection of Seoul. And I would ask for good advice on how we would do this to protect ourselves. But I would, either immediately or in the fullness of time, use force to end that regime."

McInerney was blunter. "I would say to the North Koreans, 'If a nuclear weapon or weapons go off in the United States, you are a target'"—even if we don't know for sure that North Korea was responsible.

Gallucci didn't want to do that. "The idea that if a nuclear weapon were detonated in an American city without attribution, we would tell North Korea we were going to attack them, does not sound like the United States of America. We have to do better than that. And I don't want to wait, by the way, for the detonation of a weapon. Let me be clear here: the trigger for my action is not detonation; the trigger is incontrovertible evidence that the North Koreans have transferred fissile material to a terrorist group."

"But you'll not get that incontrovertible evidence," McInerney said. "That's my point."

"I believe we have to begin to act before that happens," Gallucci said. "I would advocate—and I am now going to use softer language—moving toward the use of military force to deal with the accumulation of fissile material even before transfer. When exactly you do that—I think that's got to be squishy. I'm not prepared to tell you exactly when that is."

After a break in the proceedings, the game resumed. Gardiner explained how our understanding of the North Korean situation has changed in light of our experience in Iraq. Specifically, we now know how catastrophic "victory" can be. If the Kim regime were to collapse, the most urgent national-security priority would be securing all chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons facilities, to prevent smugglers and terrorists from seizing them. There would also be, he said, a monumental refugee and "internally displaced person" problem—North Koreans flooding south toward Seoul and north into China—that could become a large-scale tragedy if chemical weapons had been unleashed. And there would be the additional challenges—now quite familiar to us from Iraq—of restoring public security, figuring out how to reform existing security forces, establishing the basic outlines of a functional national government, and preventing a widespread humanitarian disaster.

Ken Adelman strongly disputed that the collapse of the Kim regime would be a problem. "When you win the lottery, you've got to worry about your tax payment. I'm just saying these are wonderful problems to have."

"If you're prepared for them," Kay said.

Gardiner presented some numbers. Given the North Korean population of 23 million, and the number of U.S. troops it has taken to (not very successfully) maintain order and prevent looting in Iraq (population: 26 million), he estimated that it would take 500,000 ground troops to carry out stability operations. "These don't all have to be Americans, but if the historical record is correct we've got to have five hundred thousand somebodies in the North," he said.

Gardiner then came back to the question of timing. He displayed a graph that charted targeting difficulty and threat on the vertical axis against time on the horizontal axis. The graph showed that as time passes, and North Korea develops more nuclear weapons, the targeting challenges for the U.S. military grow considerably. It's hard enough to take out one or two—or eight or ten—nuclear devices if we don't know exactly where they are. The task of destroying fifteen or twenty, or eighty or a hundred, before any of them can be launched becomes substantially harder. And the threat that one of them will be sold to a terrorist greatly increases. "The problem of time is a very serious one," Gardiner said.

Gardiner summarized his assessment so far, and gave his PACOM recommendation to the Principals Committee. "The targeting dilemma is growing," he said. "We need to begin to plan seriously for the pre-emption option."

There was a moment of stunned silence. "What did you just say?" Adelman asked.

"We should prepare to pre-empt and change the regime in North Korea" within the next twelve to eighteen months, Gardiner said. "From a military perspective, to kick this can down the street doesn't make sense."

McInerney said pre-emption wouldn't be necessary if we had a strong enough nuclear deterrent. And Mathews said she thought everyone was too obsessively focused on the Korean threat, at the expense of attention to other dangers we risked exacerbating. "We have forty-five years of trying to build a world that's safe from nuclear weapons," she said. "I think we ought to keep in mind that we have an equal threat long-term having five or six nuclear powers in Asia. I think it does mean the collapse of the nonproliferation regime, and that's a serious threat to U.S. interests."

Kay remained more concerned about what would happen if the North Korean government fell. "The collapse of a nuclear, chemical, and biologically armed state is a serious national-security threat not just for us but for the whole world. We ought to have a contingency plan for what happens if that regime collapses. Because if you don't, Iraq is going to look like child's play."

Gardiner asked everyone to summarize. Based on the discussion in this meeting, what would they recommend that the president do?

David Kay went first. "The first thing that's clear to me out of this discussion is the importance of reinvigorating the diplomatic approach. Now, we may disagree to some degree about whether it can be a solo Chinese effort as opposed to a combined effort, but I think we all agree: of all the alternatives we've explored, a diplomatic approach that led to something would be far better, and less risky, than any of the others. The president has got to be told he's got to try to do this seriously—and it's better to do it sooner rather than later." Kay also observed that the North Korean crisis places an extraordinarily heavy burden on the intelligence system. If we agree that we would have to respond if North Korea transferred nuclear material to terrorists or accumulated more fissile material, then we've got to be able to know with a high degree of confidence when those things have occurred. To simply say we think the lines may have been crossed is not enough.

Once the red line gets crossed, Kay said, "then you do have to start thinking about pre-emption. You also have to think about what happens if you win."

Robert Gallucci agreed about the need to "do something." He argued that we should use the Chinese "as aggressively as we can, within reason"—as long as we also recognize that for diplomacy to have a chance, we need both carrots and sticks. If diplomatic options do not work, Gallucci added, we need to turn to military ones. He concluded by highlighting Jessica Mathews's point that if we're not careful we could end up in a world that has more nuclear states. "That," he said, "would be catastrophic."

Ken Adelman said again that he didn't think diplomacy could work without more leverage from China, and that he would recommend to the president that we actively draw down our force strength in the region, thereby compelling this to become a Chinese problem. "I don't want the United States to take the traditional approach of reinforcing troops, adding nuclear weapons—all the things we've done over the last forty years. We need to give the region more responsibility."

Jessica Mathews disagreed with Gallucci that evidence of a transfer of nuclear material to terrorists would be grounds for war. "I think we get a real Pyrrhic victory," she said. "I don't think you get support out of South Korea. You're asking them to die, to destroy their country, because of a potential threat that some amount of plutonium or highly enriched uranium [might end up in] Washington."

McInerney asked her whether she would "rather wait until the first nuke goes off in the United States" before attacking.

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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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