Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Don't panic! North Korea is not Syria
Posted : 2017-04-10 17:36
Updated : 2017-04-10 17:36
By Andrew Salmon
Two weeks ago, I dined with a rather interesting visitor to Seoul. An ex-military officer, he assesses geopolitical risk for a global bank, and had been put in touch with your columnist by a mutual acquaintance. We compared notes on various peninsula-related matters. 

He told me that several multinational banks and companies were quietly dusting off and reviewing plans to evacuate expatriates from South Korea in the event of a crisis. This raised my eyebrows. I live at ground zero ― central Seoul ― but had sensed no unusual tension.

These concerns, the gentleman explained, stem not from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ― a largely predictable quantity ― but from neophyte US President Donald Trump. Some fear that the mercurial POTUS is mulling military action against the North ― fears buttressed by his secretary of state's comments that "all options" are on the table.

Our dinner took place prior to Trump's warning that the U.S. would deal with North Korea independently of China, and before the U.S. Navy devastated a Syrian air base with a cruise missile barrage.

Since then, doom merchants have gone ballistic and media pundits are suffering from a near-terminal attack of the vapors.

"Trump wants war to divert attention from domestic failings!" quaver some. "The Syrian strike is a work-up for a North Korea operation!" simper others. "If Trump hits North Korea, Kim will invade South Korea, and/or retaliate with nukes!" gasp yet others. Even my mother (!) called from the UK to warn me.

Let's calm down, man up and take account.

The US targeted a Syrian air base. Although the base boasted a number of reinforced hangers with overhead cover, its aircraft were neither dug in nor protected by missile defense systems. Nor were its planes dispersed; they were concentrated. Essentially, this was a soft target for stand-off weapons.

The targets for a U.S. strike on North Korea are likely to be nuclear facilities, fissile materials and strategic missiles. Any tourist who has taken Pyongyang's subway cannot fail to notice that North Korea is very deeply dug in. Its conventional assets, from artillery to aircraft, enjoy far greater protection than concrete roofs: They lurk in hillside casements and hangers tunneled into mountainsides.

Kim's weaponized atomic materials are almost certainly afforded maximum protection. It seems unlikely that all are concentrated at one site. His missiles are widely dispersed and those on mobile launchers can hide from eye-in-the-sky reconnaissance under bridges and in tunnels. North Korea also boasts one of the most comprehensive air-defense nets on earth, and human intelligence on the nation's upper echelons is severely lacking.

Trump may be ignorant of this, but his officials ― notably his impressive defense secretary and national security advisor ― are not. These pros know what an extraordinarily tough nut North Korea is. 

The current focus of U.S. political-military attention on Syria further militates against a strike on Kim's Kingdom. While U.S. forces are capable of fighting simultaneously in different theaters, it seems unlikely that Washington would unload on a tier-one threat like Pyongyang while also confronting Damascus, Moscow and Tehran.

Prior to a U.S. strike, there would be signals: Flurries of regional diplomatic activity and mass deployment of visible assets ― carriers, surface ships and aircraft.

Even in a worst case scenario ― i.e. if the U.S. did go kinetic ― would that spell Armageddon? Perhaps. Perhaps not. 

Kim's army is hardly fit to mount an invasion of the South. If Pyongyang went nuclear ― or, perhaps, even struck major civilian targets with conventional weapons ― chances are, Seoul and Washington would counter-invade. That spells "endgame" for Kim. So, Pyongyang's retaliation might be more moderate than the world fears.

Nevertheless, a military strike is colossally risky. It could also escalate to a Beijing-Washington clash. These factors make it unlikely. 

The U.S. Treasury Department, rather than the U.S. military, is a handier weapon in this situation. However, if Trump is frightening Kim as well as the pundits ― that is no bad thing.

A final qualifier. Every Korean crisis since 1953 has been contained short of war. Experience suggests this will continue. But one day, another risk analyst notes, prior assumptions will prove wrong. Then, all hell may, indeed, break loose. 

Sweet dreams, Seoulites.

Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. Reach him at

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