Better know an apocalypse: Korean peninsula edition

Political map of the Korean peninsula.

Political map of the Korean peninsula. Map prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency; part of UT-Austin’s Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection.

North Korea’s successful test this week of a long-range ballistic missile has put the long-simmering, on-again-off-again conflict on the Korean peninsula firmly back into the “on again” column, at least for the moment. So it seemed like this might be an opportune time for another episode of everyone’s favorite series on all the ways the world could come to a fiery end, Better Know An Apocalypse!

Where it is

Jutting out of the Asian mainland, the Korean peninsula is west of Japan and east/southeast of China. To its east is the Sea of Japan; to its west, the Yellow Sea. The Korea Strait separates it from the Japanese home islands.

Who’s quarreling over it

Since the end of World War II, the peninsula has been home to two states. The democratic, capitalist Republic of Korea (ROK, colloquially South Korea) occupies the south, while the north is the territory of the insular, communist “hermit kingdom” called the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK, colloquially North Korea).

Since its founding the DPRK has been allied with China, its neighbor to the north, while the ROK has been allied with the United States. These great powers each guarantee the independence of their respective Korean partners. These guarantees brought them into direct conflict when the DPRK attempted in 1950 to unify the peninsula by force, leading to the Korean War of 1950-53.

What’s in dispute

The fundamental dispute is over whether either of those states should exist at all.

Historically speaking, it is unnatural for there to be two Koreas. While the peninsula suffered periodic foreign invasions, since the establishment of the Koryŏ dynasty in 918 AD the Korean people themselves have generally been unified politically.

What changed that was World War II, when the peninsula was first occupied by the Japanese and then liberated in 1945 by the Allies. Liberation came in two prongs, with American forces liberating the south and Soviet forces the north. The intention was for those forces to govern the territory they’d liberated temporarily while a new Korean government was sorted out, but the emergence of the Cold War turned that temporary division into a permanent one. By 1948 the two separate states had emerged, though the sponsors of each insisted that its Korean partner was the one legitimate government of all Korea.

The original boundary between the two states was the 38th parallel, but this was adjusted after the Korean War to reflect the territory held by both sides as of the time of the armistice that ended the fighting. The armistice also established a four-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone (“DMZ”) between the two states, to provide neutral ground on which the two sides could meet and to reduce the risk of future clashes by preventing the two sides’ forces from facing each other directly.

Since the end of the Korean War, the fates of the two Koreas have diverged sharply. The ROK emerged from a long period of autocratic and military rule to become a remarkably prosperous liberal democracy. The DPRK turned inward instead, fostering a cult of personality around its leaders to hold the country together in the face of ever-increasing poverty and famine.

What’s causing conflict

At a deep level, the cause of conflict is that the Korean War never really ended. The armistice established a cease-fire which stopped the violence, but it did not resolve the underlying issues — the DPRK did not abandon its claim to be the one legitimate government of the entire peninsula, and while the ROK has never pursued a policy of reunification by force, it has long held reunification under a democratic government as a key policy goal. So the same disputes that brought the two Koreas to blows in 1950 are alive and simmering today.

The immediate crisis, however, has come from the DPRK’s project over the last two decades of developing an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Faced with the reality that it lacked the military strength to take on the South and its allies directly, and with the ROK’s ever-increasing prosperity providing an attractive contrast to the grinding poverty the North has suffered for most of its existence, the DPRK’s ruling Kim dynasty needed a way to ensure their hold on power would not be threatened. That way, it was decided, was to build an arsenal of WMDs with the range to strike directly at the larger powers whose support underpins the ROK’s security: Japan and the United States.

It’s clear that the Kims perceive this project as a key to their continued hold on power, because they have pursued it doggedly and consistently even when it posed serious risks. Their attempts to build the capability to make nuclear bombs almost caused a war in 1994, and their long, slow program to build a rocket with intercontinental range to carry such bombs has frequently provoked threats of sanctions or direct military intervention from Washington. And while no such direct intervention has yet taken place, the U.S. has found ways to intervene short of dropping bombs; the New York Times last year revealed, for instance, that the Obama Administration had launched a program of cyber-sabotage against the DPRK’s missile program to slow its progress.

Why it matters

This week’s launch indicates that, while the DPRK’s missile program may have been slowed down by sanctions and cyber-war, it has not been stopped. And it brings the DPRK one step closer to their ultimate goal, which is a missile that can deliver a nuclear weapon to a target in the continental United States.

Such a weapon would allow the Kims to drive a strategic wedge between the ROK and the United States. Part of the reason why the DPRK cannot conquer the South militarily is because the South is able to call on the formidable military might of the U.S. in its defense. But if the DPRK possessed the capability to nuke American cities, it could pose the U.S. with a terrible dilemma. Come to the aid of the ROK, the Kims could plausibly threaten, and you will suffer an attack on your homeland that would make 9/11 look like a footnote to history. It would force the American president to decide if he or she cares enough about the independence of South Korea to be willing to trade Los Angeles or Seattle or Portland for it.

Such an attack would be suicidal, of course; America has plenty of nuclear weapons of its own, and if it suffered a nuclear attack its leaders would be under tremendous pressure to use them in retaliation. North Korea would end up a radioactive wasteland. But the Kims are betting that we don’t have the stomach to fight such an apocalyptic war, so if they can threaten us with the prospect of one we would rather back down and leave the ROK to fend for itself than call their bluff.

All of which in turn creates strategic pressure on the U.S. If having these missiles will let the DPRK put it into such a difficult diplomatic position, it becomes imperative for American policy to prevent the DPRK from having them. For a long time now Washington has been able to avoid confronting that pressure directly, because the missiles the DPRK was testing were too short-range to reach American targets and therefore the problem was mostly theoretical. The missile tested this week has the range to reach targets in Alaska and Hawaii, however, which for the first time puts U.S. states inside the potential danger zone. As the DPRK’s missile ranges inch closer and closer to the “lower 48,” American policymakers will feel more and more pressure to do something to remove or blunt the risk.

What happens next

The problem is that, no matter how much U.S. policymakers may want to shut down the DPRK’s missile program, they don’t have a lot of options for actually doing that.

One option would be to fall back on missile defenses — weapons that can shoot down an incoming missile before it reaches its target. The U.S. does have some weapons that could potentially fulfill that mission, but they are still in the testing stages and even there their track record has been inconsistent at best. Deployed missile defense systems like THAAD and Patriot, meanwhile, have a decent record of reliability against smaller, slower-moving missiles, but their capability against intercontinental-range missiles (which can reach speeds of 20,000 miles per hour) is questionable.

Another would be to strike at the missile program militarily. Such a strike could be limited in scope — blowing up a missile on its launch pad, for instance, to demonstrate willingness to use force to resolve the conflict — or larger and intended to degrade the DPRK’s actual capability to build,  transport and launch such missiles. The problem here is that even in the smallest-scale version it would be a clear escalation; the party that resorts to violence first usually ends up ceding the moral high ground when they do so. And if the intent is to completely destroy the DPRK’s missile program, that would be a really hard thing to do with air strikes alone. You can blow up missile factories and launch pads, but at the end of the day all that stuff can be rebuilt if the people with the knowledge of how to do so remain alive, and a “decapitation strike” that takes out key individuals is a very difficult thing to pull off successfully. People are small targets that can hide in lots of places, including places packed with civilians, which makes them harder to kill with a 2,000-pound bomb than you might assume.

Escalating the conflict also carries another risk, which is that the DPRK might decide to answer in kind. Even if they restricted their response to conventional weapons only, the DPRK has a huge military; its weapons are old and its soldiers undertrained and hungry, but they could still do a lot of damage before higher-quality ROK and US forces could bring them to heel. Even worse, the Southern capitol of Seoul is just 30 miles away from the DMZ; that’s close enough for DPRK artillery to be able to shell the city with impunity, without even having to cross over into ROK territory. 24 million people live in Seoul and its greater metro area, which is half of the entire population of the ROK overall. A concerted attack on the capital could thus cause a human tragedy on a nearly unimaginable scale; even if the DPRK lacks the capacity to capture and hold the city, they could raze it to the ground without much trouble.

The wild card: China

And beyond the DPRK itself lurks the great wildcard in all of these scenarios: its patron and guarantor, China.

China’s interests in this matter have been remarkably consistent, going all the way back to the 1950s. They see the DPRK as a valuable buffer zone separating their territory from a potentially hostile U.S. ally, and they want to avoid having to deal with the tidal wave of Northern refugees that would flow towards them if the Kim regime collapsed. So they prop up the DPRK, giving it enough of a lifeline to keep it from collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions. None of which is to say that the Chinese are particularly enthusiastic about the DPRK’s behavior, of course; just that from their perspective, the ideal state of affairs on the peninsula is the status quo we live with today.

If a shooting war broke out with the DPRK on one side and the U.S. and ROK on the other, the Chinese would be placed in a difficult spot. They’d want to ensure their client state wasn’t completely eliminated, since that would mean the end of the buffer zone. But they’d also want to limit their own exposure to the fighting, or at least make sure that they engage with it on terms and in places they consider acceptable.

All of this was just as true in 1950 as it is today, and when the last Korean War broke out, the Chinese made an attempt to reconcile these various pressures. They didn’t oppose the Northern invasion of the South, but they didn’t overtly support it, either; and when United Nations forces began driving the DPRK out of Southern territory, they didn’t step in to stop that either. It was only when General Douglas MacArthur, in one of the most truly boneheaded decisions in American military history, chose to drive all the way to the Chinese border and attempt to unify the peninsula that Chinese forces finally intervened, inflicting a staggering reverse on MacArthur and turning what seemed like an imminent victory into a stalemate that would drag out for two more long years.

What policy would the Chinese take in response to a modern-day MacArthur? Nobody really knows. But modern China is a growing world power, looking for excuses to show off its new strength; and if Chinese forces should meet American ones directly in battle, the world would finally find out what happens when two nuclear-armed world powers go toe to toe. Which isn’t a lesson I think anyone is enthusiastic about learning first person.