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Saturday | March 08, 2003

Back to Korea

Judging from the comments, a lot of people didn't find my earlier post on Korea, "Scenes from the Next War," very persuasive. But I think that may be because I didn't do a very good job of explaining my argument. So I'm going to take another crack at it.

The argument is that by speaking publicly about moving US troops in Korea back from the DMZ, the Bush administration may -- intentionally or unintentionally -- be destabilizing the peninsula. The North Koreans might get the idea we are preparing to fight, and win, a conventional war on the peninsula.

Several commentators argued that this is illogical, since US and South Korean forces are already strong enough to stop a North Korean invasion, even in their current forward positions. So we don't need to pull back in order to prepare for conventional war. So the North Koreans would have no reason to think that is what the administation is planning to do.

Now we and the South Koreans probably could stop a North Korean invasion -- assuming we have lots of air power in the region to throw at it. But we couldn't stop it short of Seoul. Or at least, that's the Pentagon judgment. So the "trip wire" (the 13,000 or so US troops stationed along the DMZ) is there to make the NKs understand that an invasion would draw an immediate US nuclear response -- just as the massive concentration of NK artillery just outside the DMZ is to make sure we understand that any offensive action against the North would result in the immediate destruction of downtown Seoul.

But I'm suggesting that balance of terror could be upset if the NKs think we are preparing to pull back to postions further south. They might see this as a signal that we're prepared to sacrifice Seoul in order to establish a defensible line that could be held in an invasion while we pummeled them with air power and built up our land forces for a counterattack.

In other words, the NKs might get the idea we are doing what we have to do to fight a conventional war.

Now this certainly doesn't mean we actually intend to invade the North. We might pull back because we realize that if NK has nukes, even a few of them, then our threat to go nuclear just as soon as they cross the DMZ is no longer credible. We might conclude that if we're going to defend the South at all, it's going to have to be somewhere south of Seoul. And that may be what Donald Rumsfeld has in mind.

But the NKs can't be sure.Because if we wanted to build up our forces for an invasion of the North, or if we wanted to be prepared to strike at their nuclear facilities, we'd do the same thing -- pull back to more defensible positions.

Why? Because we would know that any build up of our forces for an invasion would be detected by the North. We would also know that their logical response would be to attack first, before our forces were in place. So we would want to be able to meet that attack.

Likewise, if we were going to hit the North's nuclear facilities, we would also pull back, and for the same reason: to be able to defend against an conventional attack in response. So if the NKs see us pulling back, they might assume we're preparing to hit their nuke plants. And they might conclude they have to invade first, before we are ready for them.

I know this is a whole lot of mights and coulds, but that's what deterrence is all about. You try to understand how the other side is going to interpret and respond to your actions.

The bottom line, I think, is that anything that makes the NKs think we are preparing to fight and win a conventional war on the Korean peninsula is potentially destabilizing. It could lead them to react in kind -- especially now that we've made preventative war a part of our doctrine. Kim Jong Il has no way to be sure that what applies to Saddam doesn't apply to him. He has to assume the worst. And because he has to assume the worst, do we, too.

So unless or until the administration decides to stop ignoring the North Koreans and bargain with them on their own terms, the less Donald Rumsfeld says about redeploying our forces the better.


Posted March 08, 2003 10:23 PM | Comments (26)


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