The Harsh Reality of North Korea

Last Tuesday, the Fourth of July, the People’s Republic of North Korea launched what international analysts have confirmed as the country’s first true ICBM. The missile that was launched has the theoretical capability of reaching Alaska, but not Hawaii or the Lower 48 states in the U.S. This represents a major advance in North Korea’s capabilities. In the wake of this test, the United States has threatened war to stop North Korea’s nuclear ambitions while the international community scrambles to find a peaceful solution. In this article, I will give an overview of some of the myths and realities the world faces when dealing with North Korea.

The first myth is that this stand-off on the Korean peninsula can end peacefully. Both Koreas are fully committed to unifying the peninsula; ergo they cannot accept peaceful coexistence side-by-side. It is folly to believe that the North Korean regime would accept anything but unification on its own terms, or conversely that the South would accept unification under the North’s harsh system of rule. Because the two Koreas are unwilling to live in peaceful coexistence or accept the opposing side’s system of government, what we have now is a perpetual state of “near-war.” But make no mistake, at some point war will break out. Someone will make either a tough decision or a tragic miscalculation and thus set loose the dogs of war. Short of war, there is very little reason to hope for regime change in the North. But without regime change in the North, there is very little reason to hope that peace will hold indefinitely.

The second myth is the current capabilities of the North Korean regime to retaliate in the event of war. The North Korean military is vastly outclassed in every respect by the US and South Korean militaries. In the event of war, North Korea would lose very quickly. North Korea still has no ability to weaponize the few nuclear warheads it has, and in a conventional conflict the North Korean military would be completely overwhelmed in a matter of weeks. North Korea’s missile forces are also over-stated, with most of their missiles being old and unreliable. Many of their most recent missile tests have ended in abject failure. The North Korean military is estimated to have roughly 1.1 million men and a budget of around 10 billion dollars. This means North Korea spends roughly 10000 dollars per year per soldier. This money is spread out over investments in the nuclear program, supply acquisition, housing, equipment maintenance, logistical infrastructure, food, fuel, etc. and leaves little money for adequate training. As such the North Korean military is also not particularly well-trained to use the outdated equipment that they do have. This is why the North Korean regime is so ardently seeking a nuclear deterrent: it simply cannot survive without one.

The Kim regime has no ability to cause ‘millions of causalities’ as is often reported. A recent study by Robert Cavasos for the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability gives a clear estimate of the number of civilian causalities expected from North Korean artillery along the DMZ, before it is silenced by US and South Korean firepower. The Nautilus study estimates that it would be about a week before all North Korean artillery along the DMZ would be destroyed. In that time, a probable 80000 civilians in the South would lose their lives. The Nautilus study however assumes unlimited ammunition for Northern artillery and does not cover damage done to logistical and military infrastructure north of the DMZ, such as bombing airbases, supply depots, major highways, power gird infrastructure, etc. Thus there is good reason to hope that causalities would be still lower.

But there are some other things to keep in mind here. This is the reality of the situation: the estimated causalities of any conflict on the Korean peninsula will only grow as time passes. North Korea is making steady progress towards a fully operational nuclear deterrent. While it must be stressed that it will be many years before the North develops an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear warhead with some degree of accuracy and with anything more than a glimmer of hope at breaching American air defenses, it will happen at some point. Do we wait until it does happen? A recent quote from the New York Times illustrates well the logic behind North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons:

South Korea’s stronger economy and freer society leave the Pyongyang government with little reason to exist. Ending hostilities would risk a German-style reunification that would subsume the North under South Korean rule. Only a perpetual state of near-war can stave off reunification while justifying the North Korean state. And only nuclear-armed missiles can make that standoff survivable. No amount of American power or will could impose a threat that North Korea will see as costlier than destruction nor offer an incentive more valuable than survival.

Max Fisher, The New York Times

But whenever we talk of lives lost in a potential Korean conflict we must also remember the millions of North Korean civilians toiling in bondage, held hostage by a murderous regime. Not only those killed by the Regime but all the lives destroyed, all the people who can only afford to think in the most base of terms in their struggle for survival. From what we can tell, most people in the North only live in the biological sense, without the luxury of dreams or hope. The malevolence of the regime is only matched by the indifference of hunger. The black abyss of despair is what characterizes life in North Korea, with each new day bringing new terrors, new horrors, and new tragedies. What value to us are these millions, and the millions more to follow them in the generations to come? Do we abandon them to their fate?

I do not want you to believe that I am advocating war here. Indeed, any war between the two Koreas will be terrible and costly and if at all possible it should be avoided. But the reality of the situation is that war is likely to occur at some point, and we need to have a serious discussion about it before the conflict truly goes nuclear. A day of reckoning is fast approaching, and we must be prepared. War should be avoided, but also accepted as a possible course of action. The more we accept this, and prepare for it, the less people will die. This is a decision we must make soon, before the North acquires ‘nuclear immunity’. Perhaps there is another way. Perhaps we can redouble our efforts to spark an internal uprising (though that too would likely result in hundreds of thousands dead). Perhaps a coup will depose the Kim dynasty and lead to the end of the regime a la the Soviet Union. Perhaps a future Kim will see reason and dismantle the system himself a la Juan Carlos of Spain. But, sadly, the most likely outcome remains war between North and South Korea. We can either accept that fact, and prepare for it, or ignore it until the North Korean ‘Bureaucracy of Death’ is nuclear armed.