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

U.S. and North Korean soldiers stand guard at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone. (Yun Jai-hyoung / AP)

On the third weekend in March, while America was transfixed by the most exciting NCAA basketball tournament in years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the Far East, in the midst of a series of meetings with her opposite numbers in six Asian countries. Arriving in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, she boarded a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and flew to Command Post Tango, the underground bunker that would be the nerve center for the U.S. military in the event of a war against North Korea. While not quite on the order of Ariel Sharon's parading around the Temple Mount in Israel, Rice's move was undeniably provocative. No high-ranking American official had ever visited the bunker before—and the choice of a military site as the secretary of state's first stop seemed to represent a gentle rattling of the sword. What's more, Rice spoke against a backdrop of computers and television screens monitoring the 20,000 South Korean and American soldiers who were at that very moment engaging in one of their regular war-game exercises—practicing, in effect, to fight a war with North Korea no sane person hopes ever to see.

The North Koreans responded by rattling their sword right back. First they announced they were boosting their nuclear arsenal, as a “deterrent” against U.S. attack. And then, apparently, they began to act: a few weeks after Rice's visit, U.S. spy satellites detected a reduction in activity at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Possibly this meant that the reactor had run into mechanical trouble; more probably, it meant that the North Koreans had shut down the plant to withdraw spent fuel rods in order to reprocess them into fissile material for nuclear weapons. What was clear was that the situation represented a grave international crisis.

Last year The Atlantic addressed a similar crisis—this one centering on Iran's nuclear ambitions—by conducting a war game that simulated preparations for a U.S. assault ("Will Iran Be Next?" by James Fallows, December 2004). As Sam Gardiner, the retired Air Force colonel who ran the simulation, put it, the exercise was designed to produce a “clarifying effect” by compelling participants to think through the implications of certain decisions and plans of action. The result was a bracing corrective to the notion that Iran's nuclear capacity could be taken out with a quick military strike.

The North Korean situation is also ripe for war-game treatment, because of the extraordinarily difficult military and diplomatic challenges it presents. Iran, considered an urgent national-security priority, is thought to be three to five years away from possessing even a single nuclear device. North Korea is widely believed to have as many as ten already, and to be producing more every year. (It is also the first developing nation thought to be capable of striking the continental United States with a long-range ballistic missile.) And whereas Iraq did not, after all, have weapons of mass destruction, North Korea is believed to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons (mustard gas, sarin, VX nerve agent) and biological weapons (anthrax, botulism, cholera, hemorrhagic fever, plague, smallpox, typhoid, yellow fever). An actual war on the Korean peninsula would almost certainly be the bloodiest America has fought since Vietnam—possibly since World War II. In recent years Pentagon experts have estimated that the first ninety days of such a conflict might produce 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean and American military casualties, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The damage to South Korea alone would rock the global economy.

All-out war, however, is not the only—or even the gravest—threat North Korea currently poses to U.S. security. For some years now the fear that has kept homeland-defense experts awake at night is that terrorists will detonate a nuclear bomb in an American city. In fact, the danger that Saddam Hussein would sell nukes to terrorists was a basic rationale for invading Iraq in at least some of the Bush administration's iterations of it. But North Korea is, if anything, more likely than Saddam to do so, if it hasn't already. The country's weak economy has owed its continued functioning in part to the income from vast smuggling networks (primarily for drugs and counterfeit foreign currency) and sales of missiles and other arms to such fellow outlaw nations as Libya, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. At some point the North Koreans may decide they have more than enough nuclear weapons for their own purposes and sell the extras for cash. The longer North Korea keeps producing nukes, in other words, the greater the likelihood that one will find its way to New York or Washington.

Unfortunately, trying to take out the regime's nuclear sites with surgical strikes—an iffy proposition at best, since we don't know where some of the sites are—might provoke a horrific war. And trying to create regional nuclear deterrence by allowing South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan to become nuclear powers would undermine the global nonproliferation system that has been in place for more than forty years. The North Korean regime may be fundamentally undeterrable anyway: President Kim Jong Il has reportedly said that he would “destroy the world” or “take the world with me” before accepting defeat on the battlefield. And as bad as Kim is, what comes after him could be worse. A complete collapse of the regime might lead not only to enormous refugee problems for China and South Korea but also, in effect, to a weapons-of-mass-destruction yard sale for smugglers.

There are still other dangers. If we did successfully invade, our troops would be likely to eventually find themselves near North Korea's Chinese border. The last time that happened, in 1950, the Chinese counterinvaded. (A 1961 treaty obliges China to do so again in the event of an attack on North Korea.) Meanwhile, other nations—most notably Iran—are watching carefully to see whether North Korea will be allowed to become an official nuclear power without reprisal.

All of which is to say that any move in North Korea is fraught with potentially disastrous implications. Time is not on our side, as the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor in April makes clear; the longer we wait to take action, the more nuclear weapons Kim Jong Il may build, and the more threatening he will become. Something needs to be done. But what?

* * *

The seeds of the current crisis were planted late in the winter of 1993, when North Korea declared that proposed International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of two of its nuclear sites represented an unwarranted violation of sovereignty. The Kim regime subsequently threatened to begin converting 8,000 spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon plant into weaponizable nuclear material. As tensions rose, Pyongyang became more belligerent, at one point reminding the South Koreans that it wouldn't be hard to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire.” The United States, for its part, contemplated pre-emptive strikes on Yongbyon.

By the spring of 1994 the United States was probably closer to nuclear war than it had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. On June 15 President Clinton and others sat in the White House Cabinet Room listening to Secretary of Defense William Perry present an array of military options against North Korea. Clinton was preparing to evacuate American civilians from the country when word came that Jimmy Carter—who was in Pyongyang as an independent citizen, not as an official emissary of the Clinton administration—had reached a preliminary deal with the North Koreans and was about to go on CNN to announce the terms. The parties returned to the negotiating table, and in October of 1994 they signed the so-called Agreed Framework. In exchange for North Korea's freezing nuclear-weapons development, the United States, South Korea, and Japan would supply Pyongyang with light-water nuclear reactors and with 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually.

Congressional Republicans attacked the agreement, calling it “appeasement.” The North Koreans eventually cheated on it, a fact nobody disputes; but some have argued that the Agreed Framework was a success despite the cheating. It averted an imminent war, and it shut down the North Korean plutonium program for nine years—thereby limiting Pyongyang's arsenal to one or two nuclear weapons as of 2002, rather than the nearly 100 it might otherwise have been able to develop by then.

In the summer of 2002 U.S. intelligence discovered that the North Koreans had secretly restarted their weapons development using highly enriched uranium. When Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang in October of 2002 to confront the North Koreans, he expected them to deny the existence of the uranium program. They didn't; in fact, evidently they soon restarted their plutonium program, by continuing to reprocess the 8,000 spent fuel rods from Yongbyon (which had been in storage since the signing of the Agreed Framework). In October of 2003 the North Koreans said they had finished the reprocessing—meaning, if true, that they had enough fissile material for up to six new nuclear weapons. The Bush administration, not wanting to appear to reward bad behavior, has since adamantly refused to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. Six-party talks involving China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—regional powers that the Bush administration hoped could help hold the Kim regime to account—began in August of 2003, but after the third round of talks, last June, the North Koreans pulled out, demanding direct bilateral negotiations with the United States.

* * *

All this loomed in the background when, six days after Condoleezza Rice's visit to Command Post Tango, The Atlantic convened a North Korea war game of its own, in Washington, D.C. The assembled knowledge was extensive, and the range of Washington viewpoints more or less complete—hawk to dove, right to left, neocon to realist.

As in our Iran war game, Colonel Sam Gardiner led the proceedings. (Gardiner has run war games for more than twenty years at the National War College and various other military institutions; the strategy that General Tommy Franks used to seize Baghdad in 2003 had its origins in a game Gardiner had designed some fifteen years earlier.) And once again the premise of the game was a meeting of the “Principals Committee”—the highest-ranking national-security officials of an imaginary U.S. presidential administration—to generate recommendations for the president. Gardiner explained that he would be presenting to the principals a military briefing from the perspective of the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).

Playing the part of the CIA director was David Kay—a man well equipped for this job. In the early 1990s Kay served as the chief nuclear-weapons inspector for the IAEA and the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq, and in June of 2003 he was asked by the actual CIA director to lead the Iraq Survey Group that searched for (and never found) WMD in Iraq after the U.S. invasion.

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).

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.”

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.

“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.”

“This is precisely the discussion that needs to take place,” David Kay said as the session ended. “And it is very clear why the president of the United States has to be present at the discussion. Otherwise we have an absolute stalemate. We don't win on a stalemate in this case. And so you've got to decide what risk you're willing to run now to avoid a greater risk later on. And only the president can make that decision.”

* * *

During the next few weeks I had conversations with all the members of the Principals Committee. What had they taken away from the war game? Despite the disputatiousness of the proceedings, was there any consensus about the lessons that could be drawn from the exercise?

There was. The first lesson was no surprise: This is not a situation that is going to get better with time. “Anyone who walks through the North Korea crisis comes through absolutely convinced that it is only going to get worse,” David Kay told me. He came away from the exercise convinced of the situation's urgency—and convinced that the United States has wasted several years, effectively doing nothing while it hoped the regime would collapse. Kay believes that the administration's reluctance to engage the matter diplomatically is dangerous. And that was the second lesson at least three of the principals agreed on: We need—soon—to make a serious attempt at negotiating. “The Bush administration believes that the North Koreans cannot be relied upon to abide by international agreements,” Kay said. “They also believe there are groups so bad that you harm yourself by talking to them. North Korea is a horrible regime—in human-rights terms, one of the worst on earth. But talking to them in no way compromises our moral beliefs.” We need to take another crack at direct negotiation before we go the military route, he said.

For Jessica Mathews, this second lesson was the most important. She felt that the administration was hurting itself by insisting on participating only in multilateral talks, as opposed to direct negotiations with North Korea. “There's nothing in our national-security interest that is better served by multilateral versus bilateral talks. That's a shape-of-the-table issue. If we wanted to say, ‘Okay, they want to have bilateral talks? Fine. We'll have a bilateral subcommittee within the six-party talks’—how long would that take to figure out? Half an hour.” She added, “It's kind of odd that this administration, of all administrations, wants to outsource this policy issue to the Chinese.”

A third lesson was that the transfer of nuclear material to terrorists is the biggest danger we face. General McInerney agreed with that, and with the idea that North Korea was an urgent matter (though he thought Iran was more pressing). But he disagreed on the importance of pursuing talks. In his view, people like Mathews and Gallucci, who are willing to pursue bilateral negotiations, are being naive. He also believes that it's important for Kim Jong Il to know what our military capabilities are, and to know we are willing to use them—which is why he believes that the “bleeding hearts” who say “Oh, God, we couldn't do this” about a war with North Korea (because of the threat to Seoul) interfere with our deterrent message to Kim. Kim needs to know that if he sells nuclear technology to terrorists, “he will get nuclear weapons on North Korea.”

Ken Adelman seemed less willing than any of the other participants to contemplate pre-emptive war with Pyongyang. But he remained unwilling to put much stock in negotiations of any kind, and continued to rest his hopes on the Chinese. He thought the North Korean situation was so intractable that it needed an unconventional approach to shake it loose; the analogy he used was the way Ronald Reagan shook loose the arms-control debate in the 1980s by conceiving of “Star Wars” missile defense. For Adelman the most surprising thing about the war game was that the debate didn't come down to a typical right-left divide. He noted in particular that he had been surprised to find himself to the left of Robert Gallucci in terms of willingness to use force.

Gallucci, for his part, said he was “surprised at how surprised Adelman was that we—those of us who favor negotiation—could end up in a position where we would favor the use of military force.” Gallucci was emphatic that we urgently have to try to negotiate, as a prelude to possible military action, and was frustrated that the Bush administration and some of the war-game principals were unwilling to recognize that. To put his frustration in context, he told me a story.

“When I came back with the Agreed Framework deal and tried to sell it,” he said, “I ran into the same people sitting around that table—the general to my right, Ken across from me. They hated the idea of trying to solve this problem with a negotiation.

“And I said, ‘What's your—pardon me—your fucking plan, then, if you don't like this?’

“‘We don't like—’

“I said, ‘Don't tell me what you don't like! Tell me how you're going to stop the North Korean nuclear program.’

“‘But we wouldn't do it this way—’

“‘Stop! What are you going to do?’

“I could never get a goddamn answer. What I got was ‘We wouldn't negotiate.’”

I pointed out that the North Koreans had—as McInerney emphasized—cheated on the 1994 agreement. “Excuse me,” Gallucci said, “the Soviets cheated on virtually every deal we ever made with them, but we were still better off with the deal than without it.”

To people who say that negotiating with the North Koreans rewards bad behavior, Gallucci says, “Listen, I'm not interested in teaching other people lessons. I'm interested in the national security of the United States. If that's what you're interested in, are you better off with this deal or without it? You tell me what you're going to do without the deal, and I'll compare that with the deal.”

He was adamant that we were better off under the Agreed Framework—cheating and all—than we are now. “When the Clinton folks went out of office, the North Koreans only had the plutonium they had separated in the previous Bush administration. Now they've got a whole lot more. What did all this 'tough' shit give us? It gave us a much more capable North Korea. Terrific!”

For his part, Sam Gardiner came away with one overriding message. “I left the game with a firm conviction that the United States is focusing on the wrong problem,” he told me. “Iran is down the road. Korea is now, and growing. We can't wait to deal with Korea.” The president needs to engage the North Korean question for a very simple reason: “The military situation on the peninsula,” he said, “is not under control.”