Let me just re-iterate: I don't believe that there will be war in Korea in 2011, as the stakes are just too high. Having said that, the prospect for war have never been greater, at least not since the conclusion of the first Korean War in 1953. I read somewhere earlier today that making predictions involving North Korea has always been a complete crap-shoot. Which is why I'm publishing this little post, on the off-chance that I might miss the biggest story of 2011.
If there is to be war in Korea, it may go like this.
The 2011 Korean War
First off, the parties involved (North Korea, South Korea and the U.S.) know that war between them will change everything, and cause devastation on a scale not seen in decades. War will not be a limited engagement, and it would likely be fought with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Unlike the last Korean War, the new war would also be limited in terms of time, likely starting and ending within a 3 month span, given the nature of the war we can expect.
North Korea’s military capabilities are often understated in North American mainstream media. Their actual capacity to wage war remains a bit of an unknown, particularly with regards to the effectiveness of their medium and long range missiles and nuclear capabilities. Certainly the North has promised to nuke Japan in the event of a war. Given the strategic circumstances on the ground, the North would almost certainly have to follow through on that promise (taking out the U.S. air base in Okinawa for starters), even though it would mean nuclear retaliation from the U.S.
North Korean Hedgehog
If the North is going to have any hope of surviving as a political entity, it knows that it must use everything that it has at its disposal during the first few days of the war. Expect a North Korean “hedgehog” to bristle forward with conventional, commando and nuclear attacks. When it’s a “use it or lose it” situation, the North knows that it must give the U.S. everything it has, and this includes nuclear attacks.
For those familiar with the game "Diplomacy", the "hedgehog" is the classic opening manuever for Austria-Hungary, which sees Fleet Trieste move to Venice; Army Vienna to Galicia; and, Army Budapest to Rumania, in an effort to expand fast and furiously. Austria, surrounded by four other great powers, has the unenviable task of choosing a successful survival strategy: use diplomacy to play the powers off against one another (which is the reactive strategy); or force the issue, call the shots, and have the other powers react to its provactive opening. That's the hedgehog. In a real war situation, North Korea doesn't really have any other strategy, other than to go full tilt right away, once it's clear that it's to be war, and not just a limited engagement. North Korea must maintain the initiative in the opening few days of any war.
U.S. Nuclear Response
The U.S. would likely find itself constrained in the use of nuclear weapons, opting for the use of tactical battlefield nukes over larger city-killers, because the U.S. would not want to bring China into the confrontation by targeting civilians (not to mention its ally, Japan, being downwind of radioactive fallout). For the most part, China would likely sit back and watch things develop for a little while before choosing to intervene. While the war would likely be short and extremely sharp, the notion that the North could ever be liberated by the South and the U.S. would simply be an unacceptable situation for China. Therefore, it would not happen.
More likely, after a few days of nuclear exchanges, which could see South Korean and Japanese cities (and perhaps Seattle) wiped off of the map, the South and the U.S. and South Korea would find their conventional forces well into the heartland of the North, while fighting small rear-guard actions against North Korean commandos along several locations of the South Korean coast. Ultimately, China and/or Russia will say “enough” before North Korea collapses (but after most of the North’s nuclear arsenal has been used up), and begin to negotiate an end to hostilities, which could see Chinese occupation of the North. I wouldn’t imagine that there would be outright conflict between China and the U.S., because I think that the U.S. position on the Korean peninsula, despite physically gaining ground, would be irrevocably weakened in the long run.
Bringing the Conflict to an End
The U.S. would clearly have received a bloody nose from North Korea, and would face the global consequences from having initiated a nuclear exchange (even if the U.S. doesn’t fire first, it's going to take the heat for provoking a nuclear conflict). In this situation, a further stalemate on the Korean peninsula arising from a negotiated settlement just isn’t going to sit right with Americans, especially given the use of nuclear weapons. We can expect more war-mongering from the U.S. in this circumstance, especially if Americans believe that they did not receive the satisfaction of justice being meted out against the evil North Koreans before Chinese intervention concluded the conflict. Down the road, that spells very bad news for U.S.-Chinese relations.
Essentially, none of the main parties involved in the conflict would emerge the winners here. The true winner would ultimately prove to be China. A bloodied, if belligerent U.S., which acquiesces to peace in the face of potential Chinese aggression, will begin to lose its foothold in Korea and eventually Japan. In the long run, with a disengaging U.S., both Korea and Japan will begin falling into Chinese orbit in a way which would not be possible if there is no war. As long as there remains tension in Korea between the North and South, the status quo guarantees the U.S. a place of prominence. Change that status quo, even with a new and uneasy peace, it’s all going to change.
Who is going to finance the rebuilding of South Korea (which in a war is going to suffer massive economic collapse, due to the North’s intense artillery bombardment)? The U.S. will hardly be in a position to do so, especially with Japan reeling from its own nuclear attacks. Only China (and possibly Russia) will be able to lend a hand.
Conceivably, the North might find itself under some form of military occupation, potentially shared by the U.S. and China, or maybe NATO or the UN. Whatever the outcome, the days of an independent North Korea will be over, and whatever is left will either become a puppet state of China or something like Cyprus on a massive scale. It will not be another U.S. protectorate, like Iraq (except maybe for portions in the south, along the DMZ).
Do you believe that the United States would be a lot less likely to call a halt to the war? I'm relying on the notion that the US does not want to become engaged in a military conflict with China. I believe that if the Chinese sent their military into North Korea to stabilize the situation on the ground, and for humanitarian purposes, that would signal an end to the war. It is possible, however, that something unforeseen could happen which puts the U.S. and China on war footing with one another, which would be very bad news indeed (especially if nuclear weapons had already been used). I continue to believe, however, that the U.S. would avoid armed conflict with China at all costs, and that the Chinese would not let the U.S. and South Koreans occupy the North in its entirety. There would be intervention, and it will end the war.
A Limited Role for NATO and Canada
Yes, NATO could be drawn into the fray, if the U.S. is attacked by the North. However, NATO’s own role will be limited if the conflict is as short as I believe it would be, given the lack of NATO assets in the East Asian theatre. However, NATO troops, including Canadians, could be used once the military exchange ends in an armistice. These troops would occupy key North Korean military bases and facilities (the ones which didn’t get nuked anyway).
The appalling humanitarian crisis which would erupt as a result of this sort of war is one which would have to be handled quickly. Expect China to step up to the plate to assist North Koreans facing a nuclear aftermath. Keeping North Koreans in North Korea (rather than having them cross the border into China) would be another reason why China might be forced to intervene with its military and move into North Korea.
While Japan probably has the resources to tend to itself, if there are more than 3 or 4 nuclear strikes on Japanese soil, it's possible that the humanitarian crisis might require some sort of international intervention. Certainly the United States would support its ally.
The brunt of the humanitarian crisis would be felt in Korea itself, and a large-scale international effort would no doubt be mobilized to assist South Koreans (and maybe those Koreans who find themselves within U.S. occupied territory at the conclusion of hostilities).
With Korea (both North and especially the South) shattered, and with a few Japanese cities nuked, along with one or two cities in North America, we can all expect a devastating economic collapse to occur during the war itself. This might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, as we have been told that war often contributes economically, especially in their early stages, as nations gear up for a prolonged conflict.
But this war is going to be different. First, it will be over sooner rather than later, as nuclear weapons will almost certainly be used. Second, no new weapons will need to be manufactured in order to bring this conflict to an end. If things go nuclear, the war could conceivably be over in a matter of days. Only U.S. restraint in the use of nuclear weapons will prolong it. And the U.S., with ally Japan downwind from Korea, will be restrained in its use of nuclear weapons.
War in Korea will bring global economic collapse on the scale of the 2008 recession, and it will be as sharp as the conflict itself, triggered by an immediate increase in fuel prices. This will lead to inflation which will be felt over the quarter. Eventually, confidence will begin to be restored as the conflict winds down and peace ensues. However, we can expect another jolt to the global economy as it begins to become clear that an occupation force might be staying on in parts of North Korea for some time, along with an appropriate force to address the humanitarian crisis on the peninsula and in Japan.
Faced with a nuclear war which he did not win, and with a crumbling economy (and maybe with the loss of an American city, such as Seattle, to nuclear attack), Obama’s days as President will be at an end, likely in 2012 (although it is conceivable that he might choose to resign, but I don’t think that would be likely). It’s also possible that his own Party might look to replacing him, and begin the process of nominating someone new for the 2012 presidential contest. In this scenario, it’s possible that Hilary Clinton might emerge as the Democratic Party's spear-carrier. But whoever the Democrats go with in 2012, they will have assuredly handed the Presidency to the Republicans.
Can you imagine the field day Fox News and other mainstream North American media will have with Obama if American lives are lost in a nuclear exchange, and the war ends with anything less than the unconditional surrender of North Korea and its outright occupation by U.S. troops? If the war were to end that way, it would take longer than the 3 months I’ve predicted. Almost certainly, though, it won’t end that way, given China’s own strategic interests. Such a victory for the U.S. in Korea will be a clear and present danger to China, which is why it won’t happen that way. And that’s why Obama and the Democrats will be toast domestically.
The only good news here is that the Republicans might feel that the time is right to go with another nominee for President besides Sarah Palin, for whoever the GOP puts forward will be assured of a win in 2012. Palin would be a disaster as President, presiding over an America seething with anger. I hesitate to imagine how President Palin, in this future scenario, would find a way to approach U.S.-Chinese relations.
The above war scenario could conceivably get underway anytime between tomorrow and the end of the year. Speculation is that the North will continue to provoke the South, either through limited small-scale engagements, or perhaps through nuclear testing. The reasons for the North to behave this way have to do with its own internal political situation, as an ailing Kim Jong-Il is passing the torch to his son, Kim Jung-Un, who has to show North Koreans that he is a great political and military leader, unafraid to take on the fascist Americans.
The risk for a wider conflict comes from the South’s potential for reaction, rather than from the provoking incident itself. South Koreans remain distraught over the deaths of civilians on Yeonpyeong Island after a North Korean artillery attack back in November. Further attacks could foment additional rage in South Koreans, who will demand from their government a more commensurate response. Such a response, which could take the form of air strikes or naval shelling, would almost certainly escalate the situation beyond anyone’s control, and end up triggering the North to hedgehog in response.
For all of the reasons above, I do not believe that there will be a war in Korea in 2011. Obama stands to lose too much should the U.S. become engaged in hostilities. Both North and South Korea realize that their nations would be devastated in a war. The destruction of the South Korean economy, along with the massive loss of civilian life, should be enough of a deterrent for cooler heads to prevail in the South Korean government. The North must also realize that it can not win a war, and that the best it can do is to cease to be a nation and fall under Chinese protection (and that’s the best case scenario for the North).
While Russia and China would likely gain directly from the conflict, they stand to be losers in a global economic collapse (particularly China) which would almost certainly accompany a war (although not the biggest losers). Further, nuclear fallout risks poisoning parts of China, and certainly Japan.
No, the stakes are too high for all of the players to go to war in Korea. Nothing will ultimately be gained, except for a change in the status quo which will see Korea and Japan fall under Chinese hegemony. For this reason alone, I do not believe that there will be war in Korea in 2011 or 2012.
If war is to come to Korea, it will be in 2013 or more likely 2014, and it will have everything to do with domestic U.S. politics, with a Republican President flexing his or (more likely) her muscles to show Americans that U.S. imperialism is not on the wane, and to influence the 2014 mid-term election. I can see President Palin not taking North Korean bull in the same way that Obama and President George W. Bush did when Pyongyang dished it out to them. Palin won’t compromise with the North; she’d rather fight the Patriotic Holy War against the communists (and damn whatever China might think about that!).
If the North doesn’t collapse during the transition between father and son, I believe that there will be war in Korea by mid-century. But it will only happen in 2011 if South Korea’s response to the North’s aggression gets a little too heavy-handed. Let's all pray for restraint in 2011.