No one really knows all that much about North Korea’s nuclear or conventional military capability or its strategic agenda. Are its nuclear missiles reliably lethal, are they as long-ranged and accurate as hyped, and are they under secure command and control?
Conventional wisdom states that Seoul would be destroyed in minutes by at least 10,000 North Korean artillery and rocket batteries that are now aimed from right across the Demilitarized Zone. Such guns are said to be capable of firing 500,000 rounds within a few minutes.
As a result, South Korea and its allies are supposed to be veritable hostages, with no strategic choices in countering North Korea’s newly enhanced nuclear threat.
But is Seoul really being held hostage, and would it be doomed if war broke out?
In fact, no one can be sure of the actual size, nature, and readiness of the North Korea arsenal — or the degree to which it is coordinated and effectively aimed. Much less does anyone know how well North Korea’s guns have been pre-targeted by American and South Korean planes, counter-batteries, and missiles.
Seoul itself is a huge city of 10 million urban residents. Indeed, greater Seoul and its population of some 24 million are sprawled out over a vast area of more than 250 square miles. The idea that the North Korean military could destroy the world’s third-most-populated metropolitan area in minutes with conventional weapons is unproven.
Take the example of Israel and its existential enemies. The Iranians now claim that their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon have targeted 80,000 rockets at Tel Aviv. Israel’s enemies brag that together they could bombard the tiny country with 200,000 rockets and missiles in a matter of minutes should Israel ever again go to war.
In the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah and terrorist forces on the West Bank boasted that they had launched more than 8,000 rockets into Israeli cities. Israel claimed the number was closer to 4,000. The entire population of Israel in 2006 was then less than half of greater Seoul. Yet in total, some 40 to 50 Israelis lost their lives to rocket attacks in 2006. The rocket strategy of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas did not deter Israeli military operations, nor did it much affect Israel’s strategic options.
Seoul may well be vulnerable to conventional artillery or rocket strikes. But the usual assessments that the city would be destroyed in minutes by North Korea and therefore the South Korean government is now held hostage in its strategic choices are probably not true.
We are told that China has few choices in restraining North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. But without Chinese money, trade, and technology, North Korea would today have no nuclear-tipped missiles.
Beijing enjoys playing dumb from time to time as it unleashes North Korea to threaten the West and consume American time, money, and military resources in Asia and the Pacific. In truth, China has as much leverage over North Korea as the United States would have over South Korea should it ever choose to set off missiles all over the South China Sea and brag about targeting nearby Chinese cities with nuclear weapons.
The American options for pressuring the Chinese and the North Koreans, short of war, are said to be few. Most likely, they are almost endless.
The United States could expel rich elites of the Chinese Communist Party and their children from U.S soil and universities. It could ban Chinese citizens from buying U.S. property.
America could ratchet up trade sanctions against China, and embargo (or blockade) all commerce with North Korea.
The U.S. could declare solidarity with India in its border disputes with China, organize South Pacific and Asian countries to resist China’s illegal building of bases in the Spratly Islands, and triangulate with Russia over mutual worries about Chinese expansionism.
Massive new regional missile-defense efforts might result in neither China nor North Korea maintaining a first-strike capability over its neighbors.
The last-ditch lever is allowing Japan, South Korea, or perhaps even Taiwan to go nuclear. America’s problems with North Korea would pale in comparison to China’s dilemma of dealing with three democratic nuclear states nearby.
It is not set in stone that either South Korea or the United States must spend the rest of eternity targeted with nuclear missiles by an unhinged dynasty in North Korea. There are economic, military, and diplomatic options other than all-out war that can dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons — our strategic goal.
We are in the middle, not at the end, of a long North Korean crisis. But we need to ensure that worries over how the crisis escalates will be all Chinese and North Korean — and not our own.