“One principal lesson of the Gulf War is that, if a state intends to fight the United States, it should avoid doing so until and unless it possesses nuclear weapons.”
— Krishnaswamy Sundarji, former chief of staff, Indian army
To this day no one has been able to fully explain why Seoul’s raid-warning sirens didn’t go off until after the first artillery shells impacted on its northern fringe. Windows shattered across the city, and the sound of rolling thunder descended from the North. The 25 million people of the Seoul Capital Area understood that their ultimate nightmare had become a reality.
The date was September 25, 2020. The time was 1:30 a.m.
A small group of American officers experienced their own nightmare, minutes earlier, when North Korean special-forces officers wearing South Korean (ROK) army uniforms gunned them down in the middle of a late-night planning meeting. North Korea was in the midst of one of its “routine” army exercises, but sharp-eyed intelligence officers had seen some troubling signs. The last thing they heard was the sound of automatic-weapons fire ringing out all around them. They’d been betrayed.
The ROK forces near the DMZ experienced something no modern soldier had experienced in generations, a concentrated, surprise artillery barrage. The sound, the shock waves, the sheer terror was beyond comprehension. Back in America the attack in Seoul came in the middle of Manhattan’s lunch hour. The first sign came on social media, as the few, terrified American troops on the front lines inexplicably decided to livestream their indescribable hell. A few turned the cameras around and sobbed out good-byes to their families before there was a crash, then blackness.
Across the DMZ streaked short-range missiles and hundreds of antiquated North Korean jets. The DPRK knew that its air force potentially had a shelf life measured in days, if not hours, and it threw everything across the line in a desperate, massive “use it or lose it” strike against Allied airfields and reserve-troop concentrations. A few Allied planes were able to immediately get into the air, and they shot down enemy planes until their missiles ran dry, but for the time being it was like putting fingers in the holes of a collapsing dike.
Within an hour of the start of the initial barrage, DPRK troops surged across the border in vast numbers. Following carefully planned routes, they avoided most of the millions of mines laid to slow any ground advance toward Seoul. And when the Republic of Korea troops on the line, already rattled and bleeding by the surprise artillery barrage, saw enemy forces advancing in strength, they broke.
Not all of them, of course. The ones who stayed fought bravely, and their superior weaponry inflicted enormous losses on the enemy, but that enemy was advancing with the same ferocity that it did on June 25, 1950. As men fell and tanks burned, more men and tanks took their place. Their equipment was old, dozens of armored vehicles broke down, but it could still kill.
Through the U.N. came a clear message from Pyongyang: ‘If no cease-fire is forthcoming, the DPRK will turn Tokyo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles into lakes of fire.’
Within hours, the terrified city of Seoul was roiling with rumors and ripped apart by firefights. Men in ROK uniforms were fighting other men in ROK uniforms. Incheon and Gimpo airports were aflame. The rail lines were cut. Streets were blocked. The army wasn’t holding. The people, millions strong, began surging south, desperate to escape a DPRK army that, rumor had it, was about to roll into the city at any moment. Men and women died by the thousands.
There were so many plans — plans upon plans — for dealing with this moment, but no one really reckoned with the human factor. No one could quite foresee how a modern, prosperous nation would react to an instant apocalypse. After generations of the long peace, the world had forgotten total war. We weren’t prepared, and the shock of the moment meant that the plans failed. For crucial hours, for crucial days, until the allies adjusted to the new reality, North Korea had the advantage.
Seoul fell. The unthinkable had happened. The ROK had rallied, and it inflicted horrific casualties on northern forces, but the damage from the initial assault was too great. They simply didn’t have the numbers to resist the onslaught. There were too few American troops to plug the holes, and even the steadily increasing deployment of punishing American air power — with planes streaming to Japanese and Korean bases from across the world — couldn’t completely check the DPRK advance. Once North Korean forces entered the city, bombing raids risked exacting a terrible toll among the millions of civilians who were unable to flee.
Allied commanders were shocked, but all was not lost. Far from it. Within two weeks, the North Korean air force was gone. The main force of North Korean armor was also gone. DPRK troops had died by the tens of thousands, and their elite units were all below 50 percent strength. The DPRK had gambled. It had gained more than American commanders thought possible, but it was going to lose. It was only a question of time. ROK reserve units were coming on line. The full might of American air power was already in the field. The world’s most potent ground forces were moving as fast as possible across the Pacific to form the fist that would smash the fragile North Korean line, drive it back to Pyongyang, and end the North Korean menace forever.
But then the North Koreans halted. Five miles south of Seoul, they stopped attacking. Under fire, they dug in. They transitioned to the defense, and through the United Nations came a clear and unmistakeable message: “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has sufficiently punished the criminal regime in the South and seeks a cease-fire and resumption of the armistice. If no such cease-fire is forthcoming, then the DPRK will treat any attempt to take the DPRK city of Seoul as a direct threat to its national existence and will turn Tokyo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles into lakes of fire.”
And there it was — a direct question to the American people. Do we risk San Francisco for Seoul? The troops streaming across the ocean to fight the DPRK were willing to die, but what about the millions of moms, sons, and daughters of our great cities? Must we sacrifice their lives? Must we endure the unspeakable horror of a nuclear attack? Or should we simply defend what’s left in the South, mourn our dead, learn our lessons, and perhaps one day fight again?
The citizens of the targeted American cities knew what they wanted. They wanted to live.
Since August 29, 1949 — the day the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb and ended the American nuclear monopoly — the world has confronted the threat of a nuclear exchange. That threat has hovered over great-power relationships ever since, it’s been in the forefront of strategic, diplomatic, and moral thinking, and it’s influenced American strategic calculations in countless ways.
There was a time when American military planners thought that the U.S. arsenal provided deterrence on the cheap. A small number of conventional forces would act as the “tripwire.” If the Soviets crossed the borders between NATO and the Warsaw Pact in force, we wouldn’t fight a grinding, brutal ground war against a numerically superior force but rather escalate to nuclear blitzkrieg. We’d threaten the Soviet Union with total destruction. Therefore, they would never attack. No rational nation would.
But there were seeds of doubt. Would we really initiate global thermonuclear war if the Red Army was driving on Paris? Would we really and truly initiate an attack that would destroy or grievously wound our own civilization? Wouldn’t it be better to be able to stop the Soviets without resort to the nuclear option?
Thus began America’s Cold War conventional military expansion. We wanted the nuclear and the conventional strength to deter the Soviets. By the height of the Reagan era it was no longer safe to assume that the Red Army would win a conventional conflict in Western Europe. It had numbers, but we had the technological advantage on the ground and in the air, and our numbers were substantial enough to bring that technological edge to bear.
But what if at particular times and in particular places our enemies perceived that our conventional forces were inadequate? Would they call our bluff? Thus the emergence of a countering strategy. Take ground, hold it, and immediately place it under your own nuclear umbrella. For example, what if Russia invades Estonia, seizes it in a matter of days, and then uses its own nuclear forces to guarantee its gains? (As a number of Western strategists have discussed.) Would we be willing to risk everything for Estonia?
So far we haven’t faced such a nightmare in part because just as we have doubts about our own resolve, our enemies have doubts of their own. Just as many millions of Americans would decide that Estonia isn’t worth an existential risk, many Russian leaders and planners make the same judgment.
North Korea, however, just might be different. An assault on the South would likely come in response to a perceived existential threat. In other words, it would attack because it believed its existence was at stake. Perhaps it could be due to internal pressures unrelated to South Korean or American actions. Perhaps it could be in response to miscommunication or perceived threats from the United States. American planners have considered and war-gamed any number of reasons for a North Korean attack.
In fact, in a strange way, our awesome military strength — in this unique context — could itself be destabilizing. As my colleague Jim Geraghty notes today, among the lessons that the North Koreans took from the Gulf War was simple: “Don’t let the United States mass its forces.” I’d go even farther — given our military advances since 1991, the lesson is more simple: “Don’t let the United States strike first.”
As I indicated in the scenario above, North Korea’s military equipment is aging, its jets are sitting ducks, and its tanks are antiquated. They can be deadly, yes, but mainly if they achieve a degree of surprise and even then only for a short time. If North Korea — accurately or inaccurately — perceives that it will lose the core of its military strength if it waits, then it may well strike.
The president can’t issue threats without consulting with military leaders. He cannot be impulsive. He has to listen.
There’s one other factor. No one knows better than the DPRK that the U.S. can be deterred. One of the more wearisome aspects of the present national conversation is the finger-pointing at various American administrations. Who “let” North Korea get this dangerous? The basic reality is this: At no point since the Korean War armistice have the American people truly been prepared to bear the horrific cost of a second Korean War.
Did we want to risk 1 million lives to stop North Korea’s nuclear program during the Clinton administration? While Bill Clinton’s triumphalism over his “nuclear deal” now looks ridiculous, and other options might have worked, any fair-minded observer would say that he was presented with a host of bad options. Any escalation in Korea has always carried incredible risk. The North knows this truth. Arguably it still exists because of this truth.
I admit, the scenario I outline at the start of this piece is worst-case. There’s a chance that a nuclear-armed DPRK would simply sit on its missiles, using them as a national-security guarantee even as much of its military equipment aged into complete obsolescence. There’s a chance that it wouldn’t share either its missile or bomb-making technology with other rogue regimes or with terrorists — even if other regimes brought it much-needed cash or other foreign aid. There’s always a chance.
But there’s also a chance that the Kim regime would take a different lesson from history — one that says that you can guarantee your gains on the ground through the threat of ultimate destruction from the air. If it faces internal collapse, it may view that it has nothing to lose from initiating one of the highest-stakes gambles in the history of humanity. After all, it’s already demonstrated that it cares nothing for the lives of its citizens.
In the Korean War, the North Korean people endured fearful losses, and North Korean troops died by the tens of thousands in sometimes-fruitless frontal assaults. Since the war, North Korean citizens have been thrown in gulags and have starved in staggering numbers. Nothing matters to the regime except the survival of the regime.
Let’s be very clear: Every single move from this point forward represents a roll of the dice. Doing nothing could mean catastrophe. Doing something could mean catastrophe. No one who is on the outside, looking in, is privy to the intelligence necessary to know which gamble has the best odds. We don’t have the best information about the disposition of North Korean forces — for example, how many of their jets can fly, or how many of their tanks can move. We have no reliable information about the true state of mind or intentions in North Korean high command. We’re all guessing. Some guesses are more informed than others, some opinions are more intelligent than others, but our thoughts and ideas await the judgment of history.
A word of caution: In times of immense risk, it can be tempting to default to a simple proposition: “Peace in our time.” Or, to quote Churchill, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” That was the impulse behind the 1938 Munich Agreement and, given the fresh horror of World War I, it might have been one of the most understandable diplomatic efforts in history. Understandable, but not ultimately justifiable. It may turn out that our best gamble is a military strike that risks the very war that we’ve desperately avoided for more than 60 years.
The Trump administration has to grow up, fast. The president can’t issue threats without consulting with military leaders. He shouldn’t confront one of the most serious American foreign-policy challenges since the end of the Cold War with a skeleton diplomatic crew. He cannot be impulsive. He has to listen. He has to be sober-minded. And his trio of generals must rise to the occasion. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but soon enough, fateful decisions will be made. May those decisions be wise. Millions of lives hang in the balance.