OP-ED: Premonitions of War on the Korean Peninsula

April 1, 2024

This op-ed was originally published in Arms Control Today on March 1, 2024. The original version can be found here. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Premonitions of War on the Korean Peninsula

March 2024
By Keith Luse, NCNK Executive Director


In the 1964 nuclear thriller “Fail Safe,” a squadron of U.S. nuclear bombers destroy Moscow when the aircraft inadvertently were ordered to bomb the Russian capital.

Although U.S. and Soviet forces were sent to intercept the bombers, launched by accident due to a fault in the electronic system, they failed. The U.S. president, portrayed by Henry Fonda, simultaneously ordered the destruction of New York City in a desperate move to prove that the U.S. attack was a mistake and thus prevent all-out nuclear war between the two nuclear-armed countries1. In the end, New York and Moscow were obliterated, and millions of people died. Despite a hotline that allowed the U.S. and Soviet leaders to talk to each other, they were ultimately unable to prevent Armageddon. It was a haunting, if fictional, case of war by accident.

Such fiction may become reality on the Korean peninsula, which is now a hot spot with verbal volcanic ash spewing from both sides of the 38th parallel. Due to these tensions, which began to build after the failed 2019 Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and later intensified following the election of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, the prospect of war resulting from accident or miscalculation has increased. By all indications, however, this rising threat has been lost on the international community. Global leaders appear numb to the festering crisis, much like the frog that remains in the pot of steadily heating water until it boils to death.

Provocative Behavior

For anyone paying attention, there is no lack of evidence that leaders in North and South Korea are acting provocatively. A prime example is Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, who has emerged as an authorized, key spokesperson for her brother, channeling his sentiments by offering unceasing, critical assessments of South Korean and U.S. leaders.

A case in point was her 2022 reference to South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook’s statement about his country’s capability to launch a preemptive military strike if there were indications of a potential North Korean missile attack on the South. Kim Yo Jong was quoted as dismissing the minister as “the senseless and scum-like guy [who] dare mentioned the ‘preemptive strike’ at a nuclear weapons state, in his senseless bluster, which will never be beneficial to South Korea, either.”2 On the prospect of new sanctions targeting North Korea, she also lashed out, calling Yoon “a running wild dog gnawing on a bone given by the U.S. and his government idiots.”3

Not to be outdone in raising the regional temperature, the Yoon administration in 2022 “reinvigorated military planning for preemptive and retaliatory strikes against the North Korean leadership under the so-called Kill Chain and Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation…strategies, respectively.” Killing the North Korean leader is a priority4

Although eliminating an enemy leader may be a traditional component of military strategy, in this case, South Korea’s personalization of its intent has not been lost on the North Koreans. Yet, rather than intimidating the North Korean leadership, the publicly announced assassination plan, which was conceived years earlier and revived during the Yoon administration, has boomeranged.

The North Koreans reacted by enacting a law that calls for “automatic” nuclear launches if the country’s leadership or command and control systems are threatened, underscoring leader Kim Jong Un’s concern for a so-called decapitation strike. As North Korea enshrined the right to use preemptive nuclear strikes to protect itself, Kim warned that the law makes the country’s nuclear status “irreversible” and bars denuclearization talks5.

If the North Korean leader were eliminated or Pyongyang concluded that enemy actions directly threatening its leadership were in play, institutional buttons automatically will be pushed. There will be no need or opportunity for a North-South hotline conversation to cool tensions. Missiles will be launched, and among other offensive military actions, full-force cyberattacks will be unleashed by North Korean cyber warriors operating from home, China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and perhaps elsewhere6.

Meanwhile, emboldened by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, angered by the failed Hanoi summit, and determined to strengthen his country’s defenses, Kim is rapidly advancing his missile and other military capabilities and putting them on full display. Gone is the day when Russian President Vladimir Putin would warn Kim that making threats of “preventive nuclear strikes” could create a legal basis for military action against North Korea7. Now, Putin is more apt to buy North Korean weapons than act as a check on Kim’s excesses. As North Korea closes in on achieving the capability of hitting a U.S. city with a missile, Kim’s lingering angst over the summit may be defused. It is possible that he will conclude that he will restore the reputational “face” that he felt he lost at the summit only when he has the power to strike the U.S. homeland and can look eye to eye with U.S. President Joe Biden or Biden’s successor as the leader of a nuclear-armed state. As one U.S. analyst noted, in Hanoi, the North Korean leader appeared particularly upset because the results seemed different from what he had been led to believe would occur.

If this is the analysis in Pyongyang, the North Korean leader is being ill-advised by his inner circle. The U.S. president is undoubtedly briefed on the status of North Korea’s progress toward developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking New York or anywhere else in the United States. As the North Koreans get closer to achieving this goal, some Biden administration officials or their successors almost certainly will press for preemptive strikes on Pyongyang to protect the U.S. population.

There is another possible destructive outcome as the North Korean leader seeks to achieve his fullest satisfaction and reclaim his self-esteem after the summit debacle. Kim may be compelled to extract a pound of flesh such as happened in 2010 when the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan sank and nearly 50 sailors died after an attack that Seoul blamed on Pyongyang. The North Korean leader may be planning another surgical strike, mistakenly believing that any South Korean or U.S. response would be limited and manageable.

Even as Kim has been energized by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and his symbiosis with Putin, Yoon too has been emboldened by his meetings with Biden and their joint emphasis on a policy of deterrence that is intended to tame North Korea. The Yoon administration has demonstrated a robust response to North Korean actions, including intensifying military drills, pulling a larger U.S. military presence into the region, and touting the plans to kill the North Korean leader. In December, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won Sik reminded North Korea that “[t]raining for decapitation strikes to take out North Korean leader Kim Jong Un remains an option for South Korea’s military.”8 It is unclear if Seoul is conducting assessments to determine whether specific U.S.-South Korean deterrent actions could trigger further provocations by Pyongyang or even trip the wire of war.

Meanwhile, citing the Russian war on Ukraine, many South Koreans are questioning the credibility of the United States as an ally and advocating Seoul’s development or acquisition of its own nuclear weapons arsenal. If that occurs, North Koreans would protest publicly; privately, there would be smiles and toasts among the military elites in Pyongyang. Their analysis would include the premise that South Korea’s nuclearization would reduce significantly any pressure on North Korea to eliminate its own nuclear program, which is estimated to have produced sufficient fissile material for 50 or more nuclear bombs, according to nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker.

Ignoring Risk Reduction

Despite the tensions and hardening attitudes, risk reduction does not appear to be a priority of either side. A casual negligence in addressing this brewing storm is palpable in Washington, Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, and other capitals where officials should understand how catastrophic another war on the Korean peninsula could be.

One example of this indifferent attitude is the fact that many South Koreans ignored an air defense drill held in August and did not bother to take shelter9. Perhaps international leaders, discouraged by the tight Putin-Kim embrace, have sidelined thoughts about how to engage North Korea. The North Korean leader, however, astutely leverages his timing and interventions with peers in the international community. Why is there no obvious urgency or determination to develop creative exit-ramp options that might be considered by both Koreas and defuse the gathering crisis?

Given the Ukraine war, the October attack on Israel by Hamas, Israel’s far-reaching response, and the myriad of other global hotspots, the U.S. international to-do list is overloaded. For members of Congress who usually are eager to underscore any sign of North Korean aggression, recent moves by Pyongyang showcasing its advancing missile, submarine, and drone capabilities may simply prompt a resigned sigh. For lawmakers who steadfastly support the U.S.-South Korean alliance, worries about the situation on the Korean peninsula getting out of hand are tempered by the confidence that the Yoon government can be relied on to deal with North Korea as need be. Many in Congress may be unaware of the extent to which South Korean leaders are stoking the embers that could become flames of war.

Although the U.S. president has the lead in managing foreign policy, Congress also has a major role to play, and its response to international crises over many years offers important lessons for this situation. Should a nuclear weapons exchange occur on the Korean peninsula, for instance, multiple House and Senate committees would convene oversight hearings with officials from a range of government departments and agencies called to testify publicly and explain what happened. Classified hearings and briefings also would be held. Depending on legislative rules, testimony might be sought from officials of South Korea and Japan, both U.S. allies, and from representatives of emergency relief organizations. Some individual lawmakers would reach out to the Chinese embassy in Washington, inquiring as to why that government allowed developments on the peninsula to evolve into war.

Besides public and classified congressional hearings, members would demand copies of cables and other communications by officials throughout the U.S. executive branch in Washington and those stationed throughout Northeast Asia. The second-guessing would be fast and furious. What questions would be asked by Congress? That depends in part on whether Seoul and Pyongyang continued to exist or were leveled to the ground. There will be much for which to answer. The impact of nuclear strikes on the Korean peninsula would have global implications.

As U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) stated in a February 2006 address to the UN Security Council, “Does anyone believe that proposals for advancing standards of living, such as expansions in education for our children, stronger protections for the environment, or broader health care coverage, would be unaffected by the nuclear obliteration of a major city somewhere in the world? They would not. The immediate death toll would be horrendous, but the worldwide financial and psychological costs might be even more damaging to humanity in the long run.”10

Here is a sampling of possible hearing questions that foreshadow the devastation and instability that such a war would unleash. It would be better to consider such questions now as a motivator for governments to search for a solution that could prevent a debacle.

Questions for U.S. Department of State, Department of Defense, and Central Intelligence Agency officials. What action or combination of events tripped the wire that started the conflict? Do the South Korean and North Korean governments still function and, if so, in what way? Are any of the leaders still alive? Although we know that a few million people are dead in South Korea, what are your estimates of North Korean casualties? As emergency health care workers in Seoul and Pyongyang and other impacted areas were largely eliminated in the catastrophe, who will provide health care services to survivors in both countries? Are discussions underway with the Chinese and the United Nations on developing a strategic plan for how China, the United States, and the UN might provide emergency assistance on the peninsula without getting in each other’s way? Have there been any communications between Washington and Moscow following the nuclear attack on Seoul and Pyongyang, between Pyongyang and Seoul, between Pyongyang and Washington?

In addition, how many U.S. Defense Department ships are available to provide offshore medical services? What other countries are qualified to assist in addressing the challenges associated with this catastrophe? Given Japan’s experience with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, will the Japanese government be consulted on recovery operations? Have reports been confirmed that Russian ships are headed toward the peninsula? Were mutual defense treaties in place between Moscow and Pyongyang and Beijing and Pyongyang? Even though Pyongyang and Seoul are destroyed, do you anticipate an attack by Russia or China on U.S. interests in Northeast Asia or elsewhere? Did U.S. and South Korean officials actively attempt to work with North Korea on exit-ramp options to reduce tensions? Did the Chinese make any effort to assist? Did South Korea and the United States put in place any fail-safe mechanism to prevent the unthinkable that has now occurred?

Questions for UN officials, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental organizations involved in humanitarian assistance. Are the deaths concentrated in Seoul and Pyongyang or spread throughout both countries? Given the large number of U.S. citizens, including military personnel and civilian, living in South Korea, it appears that U.S. casualties may be in the tens of thousands. What medical assistance is available to U.S. military and embassy personnel in addition to those U.S. civilians who survived? Do the human remains examined so far reveal whether weapons of mass destruction in addition to nuclear weapons were utilized? What food and medical supplies are available? Were blood supplies protected during the attacks? Given the radioactive fallout, how many years need to pass before the citizens of Seoul and Pyongyang could return?

The Legacy of Conflict

It is unclear whether most citizens of Seoul or Pyongyang realize that war could be imminent. If it happens, people in both capitals would die after an attack as they walk or shop, take kids to school, or sleep. Older members of the North Korean leadership circle certainly remember the U.S. carpet bombing of their country during the Korean War, including blanketing the civilian population with napalm as skin fell from the bodies of children and adults. As U.S. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off…20 percent of the population.” Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops11.

Despite this gruesome history, some North Korean elders, especially those who survived the Korean War, may welcome a conflict now even knowing that their deaths would be sealed by a U.S. response to a North Korean nuclear first strike. The revenge of spilled U.S. blood would usher in their long-sought personal peace. For this reason, the conventional wisdom among some national security experts in the United States and South Korea that North Korea is unlikely to launch a preemptive attack on South Korea or on U.S interests in the region is farcical.

Both sides have a national memory bank overflowing with deposits of death and destruction caused by the other. Beyond the pain of the Korean War, the older generation of South Koreans will recall, for example, how North Korean agents bombed the South Korean presidential delegation that visited Rangoon, Burma, in 1983. South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan survived, but 21 people perished, including four cabinet-level officials. Even before this, North Korean agents made numerous, unsuccessful efforts to kill South Korean President Park Chung-hee. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer assassinated South Korean First Lady Yuk Young-soo.

If an attack occurs on either or both capitals in the months ahead, victims could die rapidly or linger for days or years, depending on whether the weapons used are chemical, biological, incendiary, or nuclear. Both North Korea and South Korea have been holding defense drills. In the South’s case, it was the first time in six years12.

The attitude of too many experts and veteran Korea watchers that “we’ve been here before and the situation will cool down” is less than convincing. It sends a deceptive message to all who live on the Korean peninsula, masking an urgent situation. Without more awareness and a new determination among leaders to find a new equilibrium, this time the boiling water may not be turned off before the frog dies.

Keith Luse, executive director of the U.S.-based National Committee on North Korea, was the senior professional staffer on East Asia issues for Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed are the author’s own.




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