North Korea: Bluff, Threaten, Or Don’t Worry?

The North Korean regime is often described as dangerous and unpredictable, particularly after Pyongyang launches missile tests or explodes another nuclear weapon. Others dismiss the North Korean actions as primarily all bluff and bluster, primarily aimed at solidifying internal political support for the Kim family enterprise rather than a preliminary move toward actually carrying out a military attack against ROK or USA forces in the region.

Related to this has been the current question of whether allies of the United States are “free riders,” securing U.S. military support without contributing adequately to their own support. Two decades ago, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense complained that the U.S. military had more forces in Europe and NATO countries where there was no threat even as NATO members spent far less on their own defense than America spent on NATO support.

The Senator had a point, but with the significant drawdown in the U.S. military after the end of the Cold War the concern was more muted. But with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and more recently  against ISIS and other terrorist groups, the American people are understandably weary of being “bogged down” in the Middle East and are tired of spending treasure and blood for ends that do not appear to have a chance of being achieved any time in the near future.   

The issue of what we spend on defense is thus front and center here in the United States. The 2010 agreement to cap defense spending further heightened this issue as supporters of spending restraint have balked at changing the budget caps although many do support increasing defense spending if offsets are found in non-defense domestic discretionary spending. The administration further exacerbated this problem by first agreeing to increase the budget caps on defense in an October 2015 agreement with Congress but then submitting a defense budget to Congress some $20 billion below the agreed spending level.  

The House Speaker, Mr. Ryan, has put together a balanced budget plan to be achieved over the next decade, but to get there he first had to support the 2015 agreement which also increases non-defense spending. It also puts off for “later” any entitlement reform which is at the heart of the American fiscal mess facing the country. Kicking the proverbial spending can down the political highway is a time tested way of avoiding hard choices, but such strategies have worn thin. Ryan’s plan does, commendably, get to balance but folks want cuts now, not later.

Such concerns are central to the new debate over whether our non-NATO Pacific allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, are also defense “free riders” given the presence of American troops in both countries and the cooperative arrangement we have on such military capabilities as missile defense and Navy deployments. Japan is limited in its defense spending by a constitutional prohibition on out of area deployments, while Japan spends 1 percent and Korea 2.5 percent of their GDP, respectively, on defense, considerably less than the 3.5 percent spent by the United States.

This then takes us back to the first question we raised which was the nature of the North Korean threat to the United States. Central to all of the North’s strategy since its founding has been its goal of reunifying the Korean peninsula under its rule and to use military force to achieve that objective. From this goal the North has never wavered. It is the key foundational basis for its own totalitarian and murderous control over the North. On this the North is fully predictable. The U.S. withdraws, and the North will attack.

In this light, it is easy to understand the prime objective of the North’s military aggression and the rationale for its missile and nuclear weapons programs: to force the U.S. off the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang’s strategy is then to invade the South at a time of its choosing and use its nuclear capability to deter the U.S. from coming to the defense of the ROK people, as we would fear the risk to Los Angeles if we try and defend Seoul.  

Here the reaction of those pushing for the U.S. to leave the peninsula is perplexing. They readily admit our withdrawal might very well precipitate a war on the peninsula but they assure us Seoul would eventually win such a war although millions of Koreans would lose their lives as a result.

This rather cavalier attitude about such slaughter apparently trumps the idea of keeping America’s security commitment to the ROK and Japan intact. Or the benefits such alliances have in defending the trillions in Pacific trade from Chinese predatory actions.

Bringing home our troops and Navy and missile defenses would save at most $3 billion a year if all the troops were immediately retired from the military. But the cost of another Korean war, and the initial casualties in South Korea alone, both civilian and military, from North Korean biological, chemical and dirty bomb attacks would be in the many millions, estimated by some of our past military commanders as in the 3-5 million range in the first 30 days, and 10 million thereafter.

If Seoul, as some have suggested, built its own nuclear arsenal as a consequence of an American withdrawal, and an exchange of such weapons occurred between the two Koreas, some 25 million people could easily be killed.

All so the U.S. could save $125 for every dead Korean.

Withdrawal is not a sound strategy let alone a moral one. It’s plain crazy.