2003 January 29 Wednesday
Why Military Option Against North Korea Unattractive

A war against North Korea would cost tens of thousands of US casualties, an equal or greater number of South Korean military casualties, hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilian casualties, and months to fight. The US lacks a quick and efficient means to knock out the North Korean artillery pieces that are burrowed into caves. Those artillery pieces are within range of the densely populated northern suburbs of Seoul. The North Korean civilians would similarly suffer appalling losses as the fighting moved into North Korea. The military option for dealing with North Korea is quite unattractive.

In 1993, shortly before the last crisis triggered by North Korea's then-unfulfilled quest for a nuclear bomb, a classified Pentagon estimate said a conventional war with North Korea would require four months of "very high-intensity combat" by more than 600,000 South Korean troops and about half a million U.S. reinforcements to the regular contingent of 37,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea, or about half the total U.S. fighting force.

Since then, in some respects, the trends have only deteriorated, according to Army Col. Dean A. Nowowiejski, a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as a regional war planner in South Korea from 1995 to 1998. North Korea has been moving more and more troops and long-range artillery, with ever greater fortification, closer to the Demilitarized Zone.

Bribery of the entire regime is not going to work because even if North Korea would be willing to accept a deal it will not accept the kinds of terms that would make verification possible. That leaves sanctions. But its doubtful that China will go along with a sanctions regime that is strong enough to bring about the downfall of the North Korean regime.

Doing nothing is not a wise option. The North Korean regime has demonstrated its willingness to sell any weapons it can build to any other regime that has the money to pay for them. It is realistic to expect they will be willing to sell nuclear weapons once they have made enough for their own purposes. Then we will face a Nuclear KMart selling nuclear weapons to all comers.

Faced with options that are either unattractive or unworkable we have to ask if there are any other possibilities. One interesting question is whether there is any chance of an internal overthrow of the North Korean regime. If the North Koreans realised just how much worse off they are than their South Korean cousins they might be more motivated to overthrow their government. But the North Koreans are probably the most isolated population in the world. Any reduction in that isolation would tend to make the North Koreans see just how much better off they could be if their government was removed. I've previously suggested that a much bigger effort should be made to reach their populace with, for instance, sea drops of floating packages that contain extremely small radios that could run off of sunlight or mechanical winding. Still, even populations suffering under terrible regimes who are aware of the conditions outside their countries rarely manage to rise up and overthrow their governments. Successful popular revolutions are rare even under conditions of terrible suffering.

On the Winds of Change blog Trent Telenko (whose posts I generally enjoy reading btw) has recently argued that corruption could bring down the North Korean regime.

n North Korea, a much larger standing army was required earlier in the history of the communist state. This resulted in the Army filling many of the "ecological niches" in regime politics that in other communist states were held by the Party and the secret police/forced labor camps. The end result was corrupt regional power groupings centered on the various Army Corps. These military leaders are North Korea's "Tony Sopranos" and like their TV name sake, they chose a weak leader they could dominate, Kim Jong Il.

Once these North Korean "Tony Sopranos" got in the habit of disobedience for the sake of corruption to line their pockets, they became "a little bit pregnant" in the disobedience department regarding other things, hopefully including suicidal orders to bombard Seoul. This is why I feel there is little chance of that.

I find this argument to be Panglossian. Yes, it sure will be great if corruption in North Korea eventually bring downs the North Korean regime. But historically regime decay has taken decades or even centuries. The Soviet Union collapsed but its notable that it was the oldest communist regime when it finally fell apart. By the end of the Soviet era the party apparatchiks had lost their fervor for the system. That loss of fervor in the USSR was caused in part because successive generations of leaders promoted fawning deputies who had less doctrinaire enthusiasm than their bosses. An essential element in the regime decay of the Soviet Union was the passage of time that allowed successive generations of leadership to rise up, each less fervent about communism than the generation before it.

Lets look at some contrary examples. Fidel Castro, running a much newer communist regime, still rules in Cuba. Also, the Chinese regime, about the same age as the North Korean regime and both of a few decades more recent vintage than the Soviet Union, has managed to morph itself from a totally communist system to a sort of state crony capitalistic system without losing its control of China. It is possible that the North Korean regime could follow the Chinese example and hang on for decades before an internal revolt brings it down.

Is there anything that can be done about the nature of North Korean regime? It is possible that the spread of corruption in North Korea could be accelerated. The intelligence agencies of the United States and South Korea should look for ways to arrange questionable business deals for North Korean military officers. The more North Koreans that have foreign bank accounts and secret corrupt business deals with Western businesses that they need to hide from their government then the more pressure there will be for them to operate in ways that undermine the authority of the North Korean central government. Still, I'm not optimistic that this sort of approach will bring down the North Korean regime soon enough to prevent it from playing the role of Nuclear KMart before it collapses.

We still need a better solution to the threat posed by North Korea.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 January 29 02:52 PM  US Foreign Preemption, Deterrence, Containment

Tom Holsinger said at January 30, 2003 4:42 PM:

There were some details in Trent's links whose significance might have been missed. NK's drug-smuggling to earn hard currency is not centralized under its intelligence organizations. Each "army" corps does its own too, which means each has had its own contacts with foreign gangsters for more than ten years. Throw in that its people have enough dollars for the government to try to steal through a currency exchange for Euro's, and the piles of TV sets being smuggled in from China (betcha the buyers are not watching North Korean television shows), and it is clear that big-time corruption is in progress.

IMO Trent was dead on. The regime thinks of nukes as another form of "Juche" aka independent regime-protection, but what really keeps them going is China's fear of South Korea's freedom. The regime won't start selling nukes until it has enough of them for what it deems deterrence against American attack. By then it will probably be gone.

IMO it's a race between rot from the inside and rot from the outside. The former includes possible collapse of its rail system. See my column, "The Gangster Confederacy" on StrategyPage.com.

Randall Parker said at January 30, 2003 5:39 PM:

Tom, I understand that the corruption is not centralized. But lots of corrupt regimes with competing centers of power have beggared their populaces and survived for many years.

Here is Tom's Gangster Confederacy column.

Lebanon is not an analogous precedent. The civil war in Lebanon was made possible by the plethora of religious and ethnic factions (btw Robert Fiske's Pity The Nation: The Abduction Of Lebanon is enlightening on this score in spite of his obvious biases and intellectual limitations). Those kinds of factions do not exist in North Korea. The only way the North Korean regime could collapse from internal fighting would be if the various army corps started fighting each other over rights to smuggling franchises (US gangsters in 1920s and 1930s Chicago may well be a better model than Lebanon). So the outcome depends on whether the officers can work out jurisdictional disputes.

Whether North Korea economically collapses depends on decisions made in Beijing. US and other Western aid sources have funded the maintenance of the North Korean regime and in the process saved the Chinese a lot of money. But if the Western aid stays cut off then the Chinese still have the option of stepping in and providing the funds to keep the North Korean regime afloat. Is it worth a few hundred million per year for the Chinese to do that? I think so. Though they could still make a mistake there and step in with too little too late.

I'd like if very much if you and Trent turned out to be right about this. But to repeat: Popular revolutions rarely bring down regimes. Also, North Korea lacks the ethnic and religious divisions to cause civil war in the Lebanese or Yugoslavian style. If China wants to pay to keep the North Korean gangsters in power then it probably can also effectively adjudicate disputes that might arise in the officer corps.

I think a more likely outcome than regime overthrow will be increased Chinese influence over North Korea.

Trent Telenko said at January 30, 2003 8:12 PM:

Neither Tom Holsinger nor I am speaking of popular revolutions. We are talking murder most foul, stage managed to look like one.

This particular passage:

"But historically regime decay has taken decades or even centuries. The Soviet Union collapsed but its notable that it was the oldest communist regime when it finally fell apart. By the end of the Soviet era the party apparatchiks had lost their fervor for the system. That loss of fervor in the USSR was caused in part because successive generations of leaders promoted fawning deputies who had less doctrinaire enthusiasm than their bosses. An essential element in the regime decay of the Soviet Union was the passage of time that allowed successive generations of leadership to rise up, each less fervent about communism than the generation before it."

...has an incorrect assumption.

The Soviet Union did not fall of its own weight. The Reagan Administration murdered it.

Just as a man with a terminal illness can be murdered, so was the terminally corrupt Soviet Union put down by both a multifaceted campaign of economic, military and cultural pressure that terminally over extended the Soviet economic system and by an information warfare program that so disheartened the party apparatchiks as to the system's future that they ripped off the Soviet State they thought was doomed (to feather their own nests) rather than fight to preserve it.

And the Americans who did the deed are working for the Dubya Administration.

The story of the Soviet Union's take down was written in "Victory: The Reagan Administration's Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union," by Peter Schweizer and can be purchased at this link:


Randall Parker said at January 30, 2003 9:24 PM:


I understand that the Reagan Administration helped catalyze the collapse of the Soviet Union. But is the USSR a good analogy to North Korea? North Korea isn't occupying other countries. North Korea isn't trying to compete across the board militarily. The North Korean regime is just trying to maintain control of their territory. North Korea has already gone thru a far more severe economic collapse than the Soviet Union did in the 1970s and 1980s. The North Korean economic collapse featured mass starvation and the regime still didn't lose power. What is different about North Korea? Among other things it still has a massive Stalinist style prison system. Its suppression of dissent and disloyalty is more like the Soviet Union in the Stalinist period than like the the Soviet Union near its end.

The Soviet Union didn't have a sugar daddy to support it. North Korea can be propped up by China if China decides to prop it up.

Tom Holsinger said at January 30, 2003 10:53 PM:


My reference to Lebanon and Somalia was to their end state as failed states, not the cause of their becoming failed states. That is a question of degree. A Somalian style collapse of North Korea would be the death of millions with many millions more becoming refugees to the South or China.

You assume that North Korea can be propped up by food, fuel and hard currency. I don't. Administrative mismanagement there is so bad that no amount of aid can save the regime. Only outside force can, which is the specific reason I mentioned Lebanon, which is run by Syria through a combination of local proxies and its own forces. Can you think of a North Korean neighbor who might fill that role?

This is why my Strategy Page column made such a big deal about administrative incompetence by Kim Il Sung, his son and their supporting factions. China will have to de facto take the place over and put some of their own people in effective charge. IT DID BEFORE - 1951-56.

Only Chinese intervention and management, not merely Chinese aid, can keep North Korea from collapsing. Not popular revolution - collapse.

We couldn't keep North Korea going if we tried, and we're not going to to try. China can't keep it going either. China can only take it over and maybe run it the way Syria runs Lebanon. But, as you said, "Though they could still make a mistake there and step in with too little too late." That's what I think will happen.

IMO you significantly underestimate North Korean corruption. EVERYTHING was for sale during the past famine. That didn't stop. What are North Korean elites watching on their Chinese-made TV sets?

Trent, I'm not talking about the US helping North Korea go down. They don't need our help. What we should be trying to do is arrange for as soft a landing as possible.

Randall Parker said at January 30, 2003 11:41 PM:


My guess is that the regime won't allow China to come in and assume a management role until it gets really desperate. I could imagine the regime even splitting seriously over the issue. I wonder how good Chinese intelligence penetration of the North Korean regime is and whether its good enough to be able to pull strings well enough to get China invited in to manage some parts of the government and economy.

I also wonder whether China's intelligence penetration is good enough for it to have a clear view of what is happening between the factions within the officer corps. If the Chinese leaders have a clear view of what is going on then they will know when and how to intervene.

If the regime is as incredibly corrupt as you say then another question is whether the CIA can buy a lot of influence and information. But the problem the CIA has is to make contact with enough people to try to bribe them in the first place. As of a year ago 13 European countries had embassies in Pyongyang. (and note that they are watching The Sound Of Music). Two year s ago there were 142 countries that diplomatically recognized North Korea and North Korea had 50 embassies abroad. So there are governments which are positioned to try to run spy rings in North Korea. But it is my impresion that foreign diplomats are greatly restricted in their movements around North Korea and of course they would be easy to monitor since they would stand out wherever they go.

Also, North Korea is in such desperate economic straits that it has shuttered some of its foreign embassies and made the remaining embassies look for ways to raise money to pay their own salaries (resulting in corruption and drug smuggling as I'm sure you are aware). It should be possible for the CIA to offer cash to recruit North Korean embassy workers in various countries.

Randall Parker said at January 31, 2003 8:38 AM:

Tom, If you don't see a popular uprising bringing down the North Korean regime then what is the exact mechanism by which you see it falling? A coup by disgruntled officers? Will those officers then negotiate a merger with South Korea? Or a civil war started by officers fighting each other? Or a partial privatization that then turns into a popular uprising? But again, you say the regime isn't going to be brought down by a popular uprising.

Tom Holsinger said at January 31, 2003 3:44 PM:

Randall, North Korean regime elites are watching the usual foreign videos on their made in China TV sets. That's a death & dismembering offense, but the police have been bought off. And the officer corps has had unsupervised contacts with foreign gangsters for almost ten years. So much for the police state - adequate bribes get people out of most anything as long as they're not obvious threats to the spoils system.

I expect the regime will go down in the next big famine, which seems to be coming soon. Millions of North Koreans will walk into China looking for food, followed by millions more walking into South Korea. That wouldn't be a popular uprising - just hungry people trying not to starve to death. And the regime protection forces won't stop them this time due to corruption, their own flight (some), etc. Discipline has broken down.

I agree with you that the big question is whether China will intervene in time to prop up a facade of a North Korean state. IMO they won't.

John Moore said at January 31, 2003 9:37 PM:

The problem with North Korea is immediate. They are already cooperating with Iran and other dangerous states in the areas of both nuclear weapons and missiles. It is only a matter of time before they sell their weapons to the highest bidder - which may be Al Queda.

For this reason, we cannot wait for the North Korean government to fall. They have lasted over 50 years, so the odds of them falling over just in time are miniscule. Unless we know that they are going to collapse, we cannot base policy on the possibility.

Either North Korea needs to be convinced to stop its nuclear weapons project, or it needs to be stopped. We are dealing with a clear case of nuclear blackmail here, and it is appropriate that we respond in kind.

If necessary, we should destroy the nuclear facilities with air strikes. North Korea needs to be made aware that if they respond with an attack on us, the south or Japan, that we will use our nuclear weaponsagainst them. If they believe we will use them, even that nutty regime is unlikely to call our bluff.

All of the calculations so far assume that the war will be conventional. Given that the war would be about weapons of mass destruction, and started as a result of nuclear blackmail, the use of nuclear weapons is justified and appropriate. The US should not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to protect our soldiers and the population of South Korea. Used properly, fallout can be minimized (see this summary of nuclear weapons effects).

Randall Parker said at February 1, 2003 11:13 AM:

Tom, I think the size of the elite that is watching foreign TV and movies is pretty small. They hardly have any electricity in most places. I don't think the size of the informed elite is big enough to catalyze a big change.

From what I have read (and I'd be pleased to read some convincing evidence that this has changed) the average North Korean is still given intense indoctrination in schools and in workplaces. They are still mostly in the dark about the rest of the world.

Seems to me that the crucial element on this debate that we (or at least I) need to understand better is the question of the state of mind of the masses and the lower level party cadres. Its my impression that in spite of corruption in the military and in the higher levels of North Korean society most people still don't know the extent of the corruption or much about the outside world. After all, the top levels of Soviet society lived a cushy existence with forbidden goods once Stalin died. It took decades for that lifestyle to totally rot the Soviet system.

Here's a well read friend (who I think wishes to remain anonymous) giving me his impression of the internals of North Korean society at this point:

North Korea can go indefinately, even without external support. Read some of the NBC reports on the gulag. That place is just a nightmare. It is a nightmare of total thought control. The folks telling stories from the torture camps indicate that they continued to believe the propaganda even after they themselves were put into the camps. They incidentally describe how tiny children are indoctrinated by the need to guard their thoughts at nursery school age, lest it cause trouble for their family. A system where the leader is a god, and nobody - nobody - hears or sees anything to cause them to doubt it as they grow up. Where reasonably intelligent and privileged aparatchiks take a year in a torture hell hole, resembling a Bosch painting, before it occurs to them that maybe something is wrong. Bush is right to have a gut reaction to Kim as evil. The problem with it is the system appears to be so totally evil that even if you cut off the head, how do you deal with the pus? Personally I feel there is far more of a case for international cooperation and concern to remove Kim and heal North Korea than Iraq. The place is insane, inhuman, and incredibly dangerous. But of course it does not contain anything important like oil, and its neighbors all prefer to wait it out, so the USA has no interest in lancing that boil.

I disagree with him about the US interest in dealing with the problems posed by North Korea. Top adiministration figures see North Korea as the greater threat precisely because it threatens to become Nuclear KMart.

Now you can quibble on his "nobody" mention. Surely some people know that Kim Jong-il is not a god. But it is my understanding that the mind control system in North Korea is still running pretty intensely. I think some of the comments that the Japanese kidnappees made when they returned to Japan were an indication of just how distorted the view of the world is from within North Korea (granted they had to be careful out of fear but some of what they said demonstrated enormous naivete). Still, I'm less than totally certain about the state of mind of the average North Korean and open to persuasion on that point.

So my bottom line here is that the response of the North Korean masses to a future famine depends majorly on their state of mind about the regime and the larger world. I think the correctness of your argument depends on whether the North Koreans know enough to know they ought to just walk out in the millons.

One other point: South Korea might not be willing to let the famine become intense enough to lead to regime collapse.

To John Moore: The biggest threat from North Korea is its ability and willingness to become Nuclear Kmart to the world. That's not quite so immediate. But if we let them stay in power then they will become even harder to remove by force since they will have more nukes to use in defense. But moving against them means that hundrends of thousands and perhaps millions will die. South Korea's reluctance to use a military solution is understandable.

Randall Parker said at February 1, 2003 6:51 PM:

Let me correct myself on one point: televisions are not just available to the top elite in North Korea. However, the question is just how many people have TVs that can tune in to stations that are not North Korean.

Tom Holsinger said at February 2, 2003 10:21 AM:


North Korea has become an unusually incompetent kleptocracy. The former USSR was a full-bore kleptocracy by 1988. Iraq and Syria are kleptocracies. So are most Latin American countries.

The phenomenal administrative incompetence of North Korea's kleptocracy means it is a self-solving problem. This is why my Gangster Confederacy column made such a point of showing how the present incompetence is a North Korean characteristic rooted in the state's creation.

If ordinary North Koreans are so ignorant of the outside world, why do they have so many dollars that the regime is trying to nab those via a currency exchange for the mighty ECU (European Currency Unit)?

And you missed the implications of my column's statement that some of North Korea's limited food stocks are being sold for hard currency, though famine is imminent. That is what will happen with any aid. If South Korea gives food aid to North Korea, North Korean elites will sell the food in China for hard currency. If China gives a lot more food aid, or oil aid, to North Korea, most of that will never leave China. It will be sold for hard currency on the black market in China by North Korean elites and their Chinese associates. THAT is what corruption means.

I repeat that North Korea can't be propped up. Its regime is too far gone in corruption. China might take the place over, but nothing less can keep the place going and we both suspect the Chinese won't act in time.

Randall Parker said at February 2, 2003 12:02 PM:

Tom, Malawi sold off its grain reserves right before a famine hit. The Malawi government is still firmly in power and its only a run-of-the-mill non-Stalinist kleptocracy without an intense system of repression and indoctrination. Kleptocracy is not a self-solving problem. If it was then there'd be fewer kleptocracies in the world.

North Koreans and dollars: The amazing thing about markets is that they transmit only the information needed to make trades. Anyone outside of North Korea will transact trade in dollars. So North Koreans trading with the outside world learned that dollars were useful. Soon enough that information spread inward as trade on black markets extended inward. People can learn the value of the dollar without learning even where the United States is on the map or why everyone else thinks dollars are great. All the popularity of the dollar in North Korea tells us us is that it has a sizeable black market. We still don't know what percentage of the North Korean economy is a black market. My guess is that its still pretty low. I'd love to see some good hard estimates based on objective data though.

If China wants to make sure that its food aid is distributed in North Korea I think it has enough influence with Kim Jong-il to arrange for that to happen. Chinese trucks could drive it in and deliver it to villages if necessary. China has the means available to prop up that regime. The question we have to ask is does it have the will to do so?

BTW, I read that the dollar-Euro exchange was done in part to give the regime opportunity to grab some of the dollars. Not everyone who tried to do the exchange was allowed to exchange in full.

I have since posted a long follow-up to this discussion with many links to information about North Korean refugees and regime control.

daniel both said at June 15, 2003 7:30 PM:

North korea is the only communist country i like.it

needs to upgrade its army way more though. thats my

defenition of communism have a military thats makes

other nations crumble thinking of having a war

with you.an outstanding economy.and you are the only

one with your millitary bossing around the

civilians who are more of slaves building your

country. ive talked with many Russians. the soviet

union was weak,they were nothing.russians only

thought that karl marx and lenin were right they

were wrong and still think it today were are

they now there in that shithole russia and

all those other leaders somewhat like lenin

who made them fall like idiots. my communism

rules like iron.

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