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

"I'm just saying we're never going to have South Korean support for that policy," Mathews said. "It's just insanely not in their interest." (Gallucci disagreed, pointing out that in June of 1994 he thought the Clinton administration could have won South Korean support for military strikes on the Yongbyon complex, even though no one could have been sure that the conflict wouldn't escalate into a war.) Mathews advised that before we resort to pre-emption we should make absolutely sure we have truly tried all the diplomatic options. Until we do that, in her view, we won't be able to get international support for pre-emption. "I come back to a series of steps that would be low-cost," she said. "They want us to sign a treaty ending the Korean War? Just say yes. What on earth does it cost us? I don't think we've used all our diplomatic chips in this at all. Before we try military options that have huge costs associated with them, we should try this and prove to ourselves that [diplomacy] fails."

"The problem with that," Adelman said, "is that you never ever know that it failed. You can always say, 'Give me another five years, Mr. President.' Nothing has ever 'failed' until there's an explosion."

McInerney said the key thing we need is better intelligence, so that we can know when terrorists have acquired nuclear materials, and know where Korea's WMD are located. With better intelligence, he said, North Korea becomes an easy military problem to solve conventionally. He repeated his call for placing U.S. nuclear weapons on South Korean and Japanese planes, as a deterrent against attack. And, addressing David Kay, he remarked that he couldn't afford to put 500,000 troops in North Korea if the Kim regime collapsed. "I would like to do it," he said, "but the resources aren't there."

Kay replied, "General, all I would say is that when [U.S. Army Chief of Staff] General Eric Shinseki told the secretary of defense [Rumsfeld] how many troops it would require in Iraq to maintain stability, he did the nation a great service. The secretary of defense did not [do a great service] by saying, 'We can't do it.' Because the problem was there."

"David, we may or may not agree on that number," McInerney said. "Our problem in Iraq has historically been intelligence. This is a small-unit problem—we need five hundred thousand or a million troops. And we don't have that." This conformed with Gardiner's earlier assessment: our military is in danger of being stretched so thin that the troops simply wouldn't be available.

Gardiner called time out, and the official part of the game was over.

At this point various experts who had been invited to watch the war game were asked to offer their observations. Chris Chyba, a former NSC staffer and the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, spoke first. "There's a ticking clock," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't know how much time is left on the clock." In his view, the biggest problem was how to deal with a red-line violation (namely, transfer of material to terrorists) that we aren't likely to know has occurred.

The next two observers were active-duty military officers who had also commented on The Atlantic's Iran war game. Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert and the author of The Sling and the Stone, pointed out that everyone at the table kept saying it was unacceptable for North Korea to become a nuclear power—but everyone also seemed to believe that it already is a nuclear power. "So we're having a really stupid argument," he said. "We're the only people we're fooling."

Hammes disagreed with Ken Adelman's plan to have China pressure the North Koreans by cutting off their food supply. He argued that first, Kim Jong Il has already proved he doesn't care how many people he starves, and second, if we really do crank up the pressure on him we increase the likelihood of a "spasm attack" on Seoul. He also disagreed that we would need to ship 500,000 American troops to the peninsula for stability operations if the regime collapsed. "There are about five hundred thousand South Korean infantrymen who can be mobilized in about four days," he noted—infantrymen who, unlike most American peacekeeping troops, happen to speak Korean.

Army Major Donald Vandergriff, whose most recent book is The Path to Victory, worried that we could be caught off guard by a surprise attack on the South. U.S. intelligence has failed spectacularly in this regard before—think not just of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 but also of the North Korean invasion in 1950. And, he asked, what if North Korea doesn't even try to fight a conventional war but resorts instead to "fourth-generation war," relying heavily on commandoes, assassins, and sleeper cells in the South?

Ray McGovern, the co-founder of a group called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, wanted to know why the Bush administration seemed so unwilling to use the diplomatic measures at its disposal.

"Let's for goodness' sake make our best effort at this," Gallucci said, responding to McGovern's question. "I remember briefing Jimmy Carter once, and he asked me in the middle of this briefing, just before he went to Pyongyang in June of 1994: 'If we make a deal, will they honor it?' And I said, 'I actually have no idea.' Well, now I do have an idea. You cannot count on it. Any deal we cut has to have verification elements in it. I would argue that we really were not hurt by that deal in 1994, that it actually did pretty well—even though they cheated. So I'm not sorry that we did that deal." Gallucci said we should even be willing to offer the North Koreans a security assurance as part of a deal.

"If you're saying we're going to guarantee a Communist regime in North Korea, that's a pretty lousy idea," Adelman said.

"Is that what I said?" Gallucci responded, his choler rising. "I believe I said a 'security assurance,' and that I have always understood we would not attack them provided they abided by the deal. And that's an assurance that I would be prepared to give. When we talked to them, I had an eye-to-eye opportunity to tell them what I thought of their regime. Kang Sok Ju [the leading North Korean negotiator] said to me, 'You're trying to strangle us.' And I said, 'Don't get two things confused. If this works, we're not going to be trying to strangle you; we're going to be going into a new relationship. But don't misunderstand me. We deplore your regime. We believe it is horrendous. We believe you treat your people horribly.'"

Jessica Mathews suggested that one reason diplomacy has not yet been successful is that our own policymakers have been so divided on how to proceed. (This was most starkly revealed in March of 2001, when, one day after announcing that the Bush administration would continue the negotiations begun under Clinton, Secretary of State Colin Powell was humiliatingly contradicted by the president. "We don't negotiate with evil," Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly said in a meeting on North Korea; "we defeat it.") "Any negotiation is a two-part deal," Mathews said. "The first part you have with yourself. I would submit that this conversation makes it clear that we have not had that. We have no sense within this country of what it makes sense to do if you're going to try to engage the North Koreans."

"We used to call that, and still do, 'appeasement,'" General McInerney said.

"I didn't say anything about appeasement," Mathews replied.

"I know, and you won't say anything about it," McInerney said. "One's got to be very careful in taking the diplomatic route. Look, I commend Bob [Gallucci] for the work the Clinton administration tried in '94. But let's not live on the good ship Lollipop and think that we're going to be able to do this again once they have shown that they are not going to negotiate [in good faith]. They cheated us."

"What they have shown is if they can get away with cheating, they'll cheat," Mathews said. "Our job is to be smarter than that. Their having cheated gives us an opportunity to give them a tougher deal."

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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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