commentary

(United Press International)

March 7, 2003

N. Korea's Threat to S. Korea

by Bruce W. Bennett

WASHINGTON, March 7 (UPI) -- In 1915, 50 years after the last shots were fired in the American Civil War, few people could imagine the resumption of hostilities between the North and South. Today, almost 50 years after the end of the civil war between North and South Korea, growing numbers of young people in the South similarly can't imagine a new war with their "brothers and sisters" in the North.

But while America's Civil War ended with the preservation of the United States, Korea's led only to an angry armistice between two hostile states facing each other at gunpoint. Despite this, for growing numbers of South Koreans, the 400,000 deaths their nation suffered at the hands of their northern brethren in the 1950s are merely words in history books. This is why many young South Koreans today seem convinced that an attack from North Korea is extraordinarily unlikely.

This belief is at odds with reality: Even though it has the 13th largest economy in the world and a strong military, South Korea has much to fear from its dangerous northern neighbor, which is armed with weapons of mass destruction -- probably including nuclear weapons -- and which, even more frighteningly, has developed a specific strategy for using them.

Some military experts say the North Korean military is far inferior to South Korean and American forces, and therefore is not a serious threat. They rightly note that while North Korea has a military force of more than 1 million, most of its conventional weapons and equipment were designed in the 1950s and 1960s -- making them old, hard to maintain and prone to breakdowns.

But far from being a reason to relax, this situation may in fact be the foundation for the current grave threat against South Korea. It was the basis, say some of these same experts, for a decision made about 20 years ago by North Korea that it could not compete with the modernizing South Korean and U.S. military forces, and that it would instead emphasize weapons of mass destruction.

According to these experts, North Korea seems to have opted for a three-tiered strategy that involves using weapons of mass destruction to catastrophically damage South Korean and U.S. forces to the point where the outdated North Korean equipment and weapons might still be effective.

The strategy's components are as follows:

-- Against South Korean and American battlefield forces, North Korea has emphasized artillery with chemical weapons, and built a huge arsenal of each.

-- Against the nearby South Korean capital Seoul and ground force reserves behind the battlefield, North Korea has emphasized long-range artillery with chemical weapons, and special forces with biological weapons.

-- Against rear area and off-peninsula targets, North Korea has emphasized ballistic missiles with chemical weapons and special forces with biological weapons, and the development of nuclear weapons.

The North Koreans could cause tremendous damage whether or not this strategy works. For example, one battery of North Korean 240-mm multiple rocket launchers fired into Seoul can deliver roughly a ton of chemical weapons, which, according to various accounts, could kill or injure thousands or tens of thousands. North Korea has many such batteries.

In addition, North Korean special forces teams might each spray several kilograms of anthrax in Seoul, leaving tens to hundreds of thousands of people infected, many of whom would die unless properly treated.

A North Korean nuclear weapon fired into Seoul might cause damage similar to that of the nuclear weapon detonated on Hiroshima in World War II, which left some 70,000 dead and 75,000 injured.

It is generally believed that if North Korea has only one or two nuclear weapons, the regime will likely withhold them unless it faces certain defeat and destruction. But if it builds five or 10 nuclear weapons, as it may soon do, it may be inclined to use some against South Korea early in the conflict to demonstrate its power and rapidly achieve some military objectives. It might also sell some of these weapons to terrorists who could try to use them against the United States or its allies.

The end of the American Civil War reunified the United States and ended a terrible crisis for our country. In contrast, the armed, fragile, jittery 50-year hiatus in the civil war between the two Koreas has yielded the opposite. It has created a modern, prosperous, ever-evolving state in the south -- a valuable member of the world economic community -- and a totalitarian, aggressive, and dangerous nation in the north, whose only source of power on the world stage has been to create as many threats as it can to the peace and security of the region, and then push them as far as possible in order to attract attention and exact concessions.

North Korea is a police state led by a dictator who has a specific strategy -- and an often-stated intent -- to conquer South Korea. Believing anything else is an illusion, and the latest generation of South Koreans does that at their peril -- and at the peril of the other nations in Northeast Asia, which would all suffer from such a war.

While this grave risk might be healed by the eventual peaceful reunification of the two Koreas, it is unlikely that will happen as long as Kim Jong Il's preferred method of "diplomacy" involves threatening South Korea and some of his other neighbors with weapons of mass destruction.


Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at RAND.

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on March 7, 2003. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.