Games of nuclear chicken
ERIC S. MARGOLISThe United States and the two feuding Koreas could blunder into a real war unless both Pyongyang and Washington cease provoking one another. Last week, two nuclear-capable U.S. B-2 stealth bombers flew non-stop from America to South Korea, and then home.
These ‘invisible’ aircraft can carry the GBU-43/B MOAB 13,600kg bomb that is said to be able to blast through 70 meters of reinforced concrete, putting North Korea’s underground nuclear facilities and its leadership’s command bunkers under dire threat.
Earlier this month, U.S. B-52’s heavy bombers staged mock attack runs over South Korea — within minutes flying time of the North — rekindling memories of the massive U.S. carpet bombing raids that devastated North Korea during the 1950’s Korean War. U.S.-South Korean-Australian war games in March were designed to train for war with the North. The U.S. media ignored these provocative exercises, but, as usual, North Korea went ballistic, foolishly threatening to attack the US with long-range missiles it does not yet possess.
We have grown jaded over the years by North Korea’s threats and chest-beating. But its recent successful nuclear test and work on a long-range missile have begun to add muscle to Pyongyang’s threats. No sooner was the new young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in power than the US, South Korea and Japan began testing him. More important, the U.S.-South Korea defense treaty calls on Washington to militarily intervene if war erupts between North and South Korea. Given present tensions, a border fight on the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), commando raids by North Korea’s 110,000-man Special Forces, air or naval clashes could quickly lead to full war.
North Korea has repeatedly threatened to flatten parts of South Korea’s capital, Seoul, using 11,000 heavy guns and rocket batteries hidden in caves along the DMZ. North Korean commandos and missile batteries are tasked with attacking all U.S. airbases and command headquarters in South Korea. The 28,500 U.S. troops based in South Korea will also be a primary target. North Korea’s medium-range missiles are aimed at U.S. bases on mainland Japan, Okinawa and Guam. North Korea’s tough 1.1-million man army is poised to attack south. Massive U.S. airpower would eventually blunt such an advance, but that would mean moving U.S. warplanes from the Gulf and Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force’s stocks of bombs and missiles are perilously low and its equipment showing heavy wear and tear.
The US has become accustomed to waging war against small nations whose ‘threat’ has been wildly overblown: Grenada, Somalia, Iraq and Libya. The last real war fought by the US, against Vietnam, was an epic defeat for American arms. North Korea is not an Iraq or Libya.
North Korea’s air force and navy would be quickly destroyed by U.S. and South Korean air power within days of war. But taking on North Korea’s hard as nails army will be a serious challenge if it fights on the defensive. Pentagon studies show that invading North Korea could cost the U.S. up to 250,000 casualties. So the U.S. would be clearly tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons. But North Korea vows to nuke Japan if the U.S. goes nuclear. And there is the threat of Chinese intervention.
The U.S. would be wise to back off from this confrontation and lower tensions with North Korea. America’s empty treasury can’t afford yet another war, having already blown $2 trillion on the lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. America’s armed forces, bogged down in the Mideast and Afghanistan, are in no shape to fight a real war in Korea. Just moving heavy armor and guns there would take months.
Now might be a good time for Washington to ease rather than keep tightening sanctions on North Korea. Pyongyang’s real objectives are to gain a non-aggression treaty with the U.S. and direct, normal relations. Washington won’t hear of this, though it deals with other repellant regimes. American neo-cons are determined to overthrow North Korea’s regime, fearing it will send advanced arms to Israel’s Mideast foes
Military forces on the Korean Peninsula are on hair-trigger alert. Flying B-2’s near the North is almost daring it to attack. Diplomats, not air force generals, should be running this largely manufactured crisis.
Eric S. Margolis is a veteran US journalist