This helps explain why Korea may be the most dismal place in the world for U.S. troops to be deployed—worse, in some ways, than Iraq. While I traveled on the peninsula, numerous members of the combat-arms community, both air and infantry, told me that they would rather be in Iraq or Afghanistan than in Korea, which constitutes the worst of all military worlds. Soldiers and airmen often live on a grueling wartime schedule, with constant drills, and yet they also have to put up with the official folderol that is part of all peacetime bases—the saluting and inspections that fall by the wayside in war zones, where the only thing that matters is how well you fight. The weather on the peninsula is lousy, too: the winds charging down from Siberia make the winters unbearably frigid, and the monsoons coming off the Pacific Ocean make the summers hot and humid. The dust blowing in from the Gobi Desert doesn’t help.
The threat from north of the DMZ is formidable. North Korea boasts 100,000 well-trained special-operations forces and one of the world’s largest biological and chemical arsenals. It has stockpiles of anthrax, cholera, and plague, as well as eight industrial facilities for producing chemical agents—any of which could be launched at Seoul by the army’s conventional artillery. If the governing infrastructure in Pyongyang were to unravel, the result could be widespread lawlessness (compounded by the guerrilla mentality of the Kim Family Regime’s armed forces), as well as mass migration out of and within North Korea. In short, North Korea’s potential for anarchy is equal to that of Iraq, and the potential for the deployment of weapons of mass destruction—either during or after pre-collapse fighting—is far greater.
For a harbinger of the kind of chaos that looms on the peninsula consider Albania, which was for some years the most anarchic country in post-Communist Eastern Europe, save for war-torn Yugoslavia. On a visit to Albania before the Stalinist regime there finally collapsed, I saw vicious gangs of boys as young as eight harassing people. North Korea is reportedly plagued by the same phenomenon outside of its showcase capital. That may be an indication of what lies ahead. In fact, what terrifies South Koreans more than North Korean missiles is North Korean refugees pouring south. The Chinese, for their part, have nightmare visions of millions of North Korean refugees heading north over the Yalu River into Manchuria.
Obviously, it would be reckless not to worry about North Korea’s missile and WMD technologies. In August, there were reports yet again that Kim Jong Il was preparing an underground nuclear test. And the North test fired seven missiles in July. According to U.S. data, three of the missiles were Scud-Cs, and three were No-dong-As with ranges of 300 to 1,000 miles; all were capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. (Whether North Korea has such warheads is not definitively known, but it is widely believed to have in the neighborhood of ten—and the KFR certainly has the materials and technological know-how to build them.) The third type of missile, a Taep’o-dong-2, has a range of 2,300 to 9,300 miles, which means it could conceivably hit the continental United States. Though the Taep’o-dong-2 failed after takeoff during the recent testing, it did so at the point of maximum dynamic pressure—the same point where the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and the moment when things are most likely to go wrong. So this is likely not an insoluble problem for the KFR.
The Seven Stages of Collapse
Kim Jong Il’s compulsion to demonstrate his missile prowess is a sign of his weakness. Contrary to popular perception in the United States, Kim doesn’t stay up at night worrying about what the Americans might do to him; it’s not North Korea’s weakness relative to the United States that preoccupies him. Rather, if he does stay up late worrying, it’s about China. He knows the Chinese have always had a greater interest in North Korea’s geography—with its additional outlets to the sea close to Russia—than they have in the long-term survival of his regime. (Like us, even as they want the regime to survive, the Chinese have plans for the northern half of the Korean peninsula that do not include the “Dear Leader.”) One of Kim’s main goals in so aggressively displaying North Korea’s missile capacity is to compel the United States to deal directly with him, thereby making his otherwise weakening state seem stronger. And the stronger Pyongyang appears to be, the better off it is in its crucial dealings with Beijing, which are what really matter to Kim.