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Saturday | March 08, 2003

Scenes from the Next War

And I don't mean Iraq. That war, in effect, has already begun. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been thinking out loud about the next country on the administration's Axis of Evil checklist: North Korea.

Speaking at the Pentagon yesterday (down at the bottom of the page), the Donald took note of our "human trip wire": the 13,000 or so U.S. troops (about a third of our strength in South Korea) stationed within easy shooting distance of the DMZ. They're there for one reason only: to be killed in the early stages of a North Korean invasion.

Gen. Patton -- or rather, George C. Scott playing Gen. Patton -- once said the objective in war isn't to die for your country, but to make the other guy die for his. So why have we put 13,000 U.S. soldiers out as doormats for an invading North Korean army?

As a deterrent. In the loopy logic of the Cold War, this actually made sense. Knowing an attack on South Korea would annihilate US front line forces, the North Koreans (and more importantly, their Soviet patrons) would understand that our response would be a nuclear -- maybe tactical, maybe strategic, maybe both. Wishing to avoid World War III, the Soviets would make damned certain the North Koreans stayed in their box.

Of course, this deterrent rested on two assumptions: We don't want to invade the North, and the North Koreans don't have their own nukes. And the last assumption isn't the only one that may no longer be correct.

What Rumsfeld said was roughly: Gee, maybe we ought to move our troops back away from the DMZ. We could redeploy them closer to our port and air bases further south, and then expand those bases so we can build up our forces on the peninsula quickly in a crisis.

At first glance, this might seem like a step back from the cliff. If thousands of US soldiers are no longer automatic casualties in the event of a North Korean invasion, it might give the United States room to look at other options, like establishing a defense line further south and trying to hold the North there until our conventional forces could be built up enough to launch a counter offensive.

This, roughly, is what we did in Korean War I, when the intiial North Korean attack pushed us all the way back to the port of Pusan in the far south. McArthur held them there, then landed at Inchon and recaptured Seoul. Most of the invading forces were cut off and destroyed.

Of course, as in the first war, a retreat-hold-attack scenario would leave Seoul in smoking ruins. This point isn't lost on the South Koreans, who quickly responded to Rumsfeld's remarks by pointing out how happy they are to play host to U.S. troops, and how much they love having so many of them in the Greater Seoul area, where they can entertain them properly.

But Rumsfeld's remarks also raise the ugly possibliity the US is no longer just thinking about defense, but about how to win a conventional offensive war. Presumably, the hawks understand a military build up for an invasion of the North would take at least 3-to-6 months, giving the North Koreans ample time to launch a preemptive invasion of their own.

Whether the North, in its weakened condition, would actually be capable of invading is another story. Presumably, the possibility the US could absorb the blow, build up its forces and then switch to the offensive might force the North Koreans to think twice about launching a preemptive attack in response to a future US build up.

If the North Korean military are thinking in these terms (and given they're some of the most paranoid people on the planet, there's no reason to think they aren't) they may see themselves as having two choices: continue their crash nuclear program, in hopes of having a usable deterrent before the US can invade, or attack now, right now, before the US can redeploy its existing forces on the peninsula to more defensible positions, and while Shrub and company are preoccupied with Iraq.

I never thought the day would come when I would root for the North Koreans to take the nuclear option. And of course, in the end a nuclear North still could be a total disaster -- if only because of the proliferation threat.

But at the moment, and given Rumsfeld's seeming inability to avoid running off at the mouth, it's actually the less scary scenario.


Posted March 08, 2003 10:22 AM | Comments (34)


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