National Security & Defense

Is America Really Ready for a Second Korean War?

North Korean troops on parade in Pyongyang (Reuters photo: Damir Sagolj)
The costs of a 21st-century conflict on the Korean peninsula would be devastatingly high.

The first and only time I’ve been jolted awake by air-raid sirens came in Seoul, South Korea, in 2010. I had of course heard tornado-warning sirens before; I grew up in the South, after all. But I’d never heard anything like this. I was sleeping in a tent in the middle of the Yongsan Garrison, taking a break from my night shift during a military exercise called Operation Key Resolve, which was designed to simulate the resumption of hostilities on the Korean peninsula. For the last several nights, I’d been thinking about nothing but the next Korean War as I watched the simulated advance of North Korean infantry divisions toward Seoul.

So when the air-raid sirens went off in mid-afternoon, for a half-second before I got my bearings and realized it was a routine drill, I thought the nightmare scenario I had seen on the computer screen had become real, and I had seconds to find cover before North Korean artillery flattened part of Seoul.

I’ve thought often of my short deployment to Korea, of the hours in the bunker, of the staggering projected casualty counts accumulating on the monitors, and the feeling of total vulnerability when the sirens blared across Seoul. I had returned from Iraq 18 months before, but already I was beginning to understand the fundamental difference between the dormant Korean conflict and our years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the difference between counterinsurgency and total war, between a slow bleed and wholesale slaughter.

And it’s a difference Americans no longer understand.

SLIDESHOW: North Korea’s Military on Parade

The generation that fought in World War II and Korea is dying off. We no longer have lawmakers, generals, or diplomats who know what it’s like to endure a sustained artillery barrage. We haven’t seen allied cities burn, or casualties mount into the tens and then hundreds of thousands in mere days. Not for 30 years has the world witnessed a large-scale battlefield gas attack, and not for generations have we seen the kind of immediate, city-busting attack that not even Syria’s Assad could carry out.

All of those things would be in play if the armistice that has held for nearly 65 years was broken and hostilities resumed on the Korean peninsula. The news media repeat stats about the number of North Korean artillery pieces or rocket launchers that could hit Seoul, or the number of North Korean missiles that could hit any target on the peninsula, and it sounds more like a game of Risk than real life. After all, we know that we have overwhelming military superiority. We know that if war comes, we’ll win. We might even think that our nation is somehow combat-hardened after 15 years in Afghanistan and 13 years in Iraq.

For many years, the Korean peninsula has been a place of terrible stability.

While the causes of war and the incentives for peace are often complex, there is one factor that’s almost always underestimated: memory. Memory is one reason why Europe enjoyed a time of relative peace after the horror of the Napoleonic wars, why the Western powers were desperate to avoid a second world war, and why deterrence worked in the Cold War. When you’ve experienced horror, you tend not to want to experience it again.

Indeed, we see the power of recent memory in our own national debate. The sharp and painful memory of failed nation-building shapes our foreign policy today, constraining our choices even in the face of persistent threats. But I fear that the absence of memory is shaping our response to the challenge of North Korea. We have forgotten total war, and now we risk total war.

For many years, the Korean peninsula has been a place of terrible stability.

The terrible aspect is easy to see: North Korea is a place of tyrannical horror, ruled by a backward regime that oppresses its own people on a scale seen nowhere else in the world. That regime sustains itself in part by maintaining a permanent war footing, putting its immense but antiquated forces on hair-trigger alert and promising ultimate devastation in the event of conflict. While we can bomb, say, an al-Qaeda gathering in Yemen without risking immediate catastrophe, any assault on North Korea would represent a gigantic roll of the dice, with the fate of entire cities hanging in the balance.

SLIDESHOW: On the China-North Korea Border

And that brings us to the stability. As awful as the Kim dynasty has been, aside from the initial South Korean invasion, it has not sought to become a regional hegemon like Iran. The Kims have not launched war after war, threatened a good chunk of the world’s oil reserves, shot down American aircraft, or tried to kill American presidents as Saddam Hussein did. They haven’t sought intercontinental domination like Hitler’s Germany or Tojo’s Japan. For three generations, it has served their interests to keep North Korea on the edge of war but never truly at war. And for three generations, it has served American and South Korean interests to respond in kind.

There may come a time when the terrible aspects of the North Korean regime become so pronounced that we choose to risk that fragile stability. It may even be possible to mitigate those aspects — perhaps by shooting down North Korean missiles or employing other targeted strikes — without actually inviting the cataclysm. But it’s vital that we conduct our public debate with eyes wide open, fully aware of the immense risks present on the peninsula. For more than 60 years, America has been strong, and South Korea exists and thrives today in large part because of that strength. Maintaining the status quo isn’t weak, and it very well may be prudent.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the horror of war should dictate that we maintain peace at all costs. The understandable shock of World War I, after all, led the allies to appease Hitler until he was strong enough to trigger the worst war in human history. But there is a substantial difference between appeasing an expansionist power and maintaining deterrence and containment. North Korea is in a box of our own making. We should take great care before we break that box. Total war is a terrible thing to risk.

— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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