A spiral of destruction

An expert in North Korea's military power says even a small spark could quickly lead to a rain of artillery shells, a chemical attack -- even nuclear war.

Published March 8, 2003 1:34AM (EST)

Bruce Bennett is a student of the North Korean armed forces and military strategy. When he talks about a possible conflict between the United States and Kim Jong Il's government, the talk turns quickly to scenes of devastation and death.

Perhaps it would begin with a subtle move by North Korea -- an apparent accident, even -- that would draw a military response from the U.S. Perhaps it would start with a U.S. preemptive strike on the Yongbyon nuclear complex where North Korea could process plutonium for nuclear weapons. There are scores of possibilities, says Bennett, a senior analyst for RAND, a military think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif. And in an interview Thursday with Salon, he said any of them could spark an "escalation spiral" -- a sequence of attacks and counterattacks that were more and more deadly.

The North Koreans could lob missiles laden with deadly chemical agents at big U.S. bases in South Korea. They could send special forces to target the U.S. bases for surreptitious biological weapons attacks. The U.S. could level North Korean nuclear facilities, spreading radioactive debris through the area. The North Koreans could rain 500,000 shells an hour on the South.

"It could get ugly and escalate to nuclear weapon use," Bennett warns. Even without that disastrous turn, he says, over a million people might be left dead.

Pentagon officials know that North Korea is a military power of a far higher order than Afghanistan or Iraq. That's why the Bush administration has kept the military option off the table since last year, when North Korean officials disclosed that the isolated communist outpost was operating a banned weapons program to enrich uranium. Officials believed the best way to deal with the rogue government of Kim Jong Il was to talk tough and hope that diplomatic pressure from the U.S. and North Korea's neighbors could force it to back down.

Thus far, the policy hasn't worked. North Korea last week fired a missile toward Japan, though it fell harmlessly into the sea; then it sent MiG fighters to intercept and shadow an American surveillance jet. The U.S. responded by deploying 24 long-range bombers to a base in Guam, within striking range of North Korea. As the U.S. has refused to engage in the direct negotiations sought by Kim Jong Il's regime, North Korea's actions have become even more provocative.

Typically, war strategists like Bennett have evaluated a possible North Korean invasion of the South. If the U.S. launches a preemptive strike, he says, North Korea will certainly respond -- but nobody is quite sure how, or where.

I assume military planners like yourself spend a lot of time trying to plot out the likely course of military engagement -- if X happens, Y will be the reaction, and so forth. If a military strike began on the Korean Peninsula, how do you think it would unfold?

We have to be a little careful here because the kind of war gaming that normally does go on is focused on a North Korean invasion of the South. If the current crisis is started by surgical U.S. strikes, that really is a very different context. Because it's not clear what would happen. North Korea has said it would retaliate, but it's less clear how it would retaliate and particularly if it would escalate into an actual invasion of South Korea or whether it would be a series of strikes, one side against the other.

If we look at the idea of a preemptive strike by the U.S., what would the United States target and how would U.S. military officials determine whether the strikes were successful?

The clear objective is to accomplish what we say we wanted to diplomatically but may not be able to do, and that is to get rid of the nuclear weapons program in North Korea, including any nuclear weapons they may have.

The question is, Would we know where everything is to do that? We know where the current reactor they've started up is, and the reprocessing plant. What we likely know less about are other facilities and where the nuclear weapons may be.

The nuclear complexes themselves are wide-open and wouldn't be a problem to destroy -- right?

Yes, there's a huge amount of photography on it, both military and you can see them on a lot of commercial Web sites. There we've got a pretty good idea. And they're viable targets.

What about the North Korean air force or defense -- would they be able to stop a U.S. attack on its nuclear plant?

The aircraft that came up and met the U.S. reconnaissance planes en route last week, the MiG-29, are the most modern aircraft in North Korea. If they're in good condition and if they've been maintained and if their pilots are any good in them, all of which are interesting questions given the low amount of training and use the aircraft get, then they could give us some degree of competition. But they've only got 20 or so of those aircraft. Also, if this is done by stealth aircraft, like a B-2, it's not at all clear the North Koreans would even see us coming.

If we struck the nuclear complex, would there be problems with radiation contamination afterwards?

Yes, but within limited scope. The thing we don't talk about very much is that the reactor that's currently operating in Yongbyon is really a test reactor, it's not really a larger power reactor. Essentially, if we were to bomb it, yes, we would spread radioactive material around, kind of like a dirty bomb. But it's a modest quantity because it's a relative small-size reactor. My understanding is it would largely affect the complex there, but it would not go on to cities that would be anywhere near. Twenty, 30 miles away, you'd probably be safe.

The assumption is now they have one or two nuclear bombs, but we don't necessarily know where they are, correct?


So the danger is you strike preemptively at North Korea's nuclear facilities but you haven't eliminated their current nuclear capabilities and they could retaliate?

That's correct.

Because there's no way the U.S. could completely take out all of North Korea's firepower?

You might get really, really lucky and take out all their nuclear weapons and know where their alternate sites are. But that's probably a stretch. They literally have thousands and thousands of underground facilities which they put in place because they knew about our bombing capabilities and they probably have underground tunnels, like subways, between the caves. So trying to locate those kinds of weapons would be difficult.

What would a likely scenario look like if North Korea decided it had to retaliate against a preemptive U.S. strike?

From their perspective, the ideal would be to strike U.S. targets in the region. So that could be scud strikes with either a high-explosive or a chemical warhead against the two big U.S. air bases in South Korea. The thing that would tend to militate against that is we do have Patriot missiles there [to shoot down the scuds]. Instead, they could potentially have special forces bring biological weapons in to attack one of those bases and then simply deny they were responsible for whatever disease got spread.

What kind of damage could something like that do?

The typical description is 10 kilograms of anthrax to cover somewhere between five and 30 square kilometers. It would cover an entire base and into the civilian community outside the fence. So you'd infect a fair number of Koreans as well.

What would be the U.S. response to a chemical attack on one of its military bases?

Well, I think what the U.S. response would be at that point in time has got to be a big question mark. Clearly, we started the thing with a preemptive strike. And we think we're justified. If we feel that the North Korea response was quid pro quo, maybe we say all right we want to shut this down and want to avoid escalation.

But I kind of doubt that would be our response. I think our reaction would more likely be, especially if North Korea used a biological or chemical weapon, "Hey, you've crossed the line into weapons of mass destruction and now we've really got to retaliate." And we'd likely go after the source of what was shot at us; the missiles, and storage of WMD that we know about beyond the nuclear, into the chemical and biological.

And how would we go after it?

It could be with our own artillery. We have our own rocket launchers in the South that would be very good at responding to that. But the North Koreans might roll out their artillery, launch one set of strikes and roll them back into caves where they'd be relatively well-protected and our options of response at that point would be more limited.

How might North Korea respond?

The North Koreans could instead decide to launch an attack into Seoul.

What would that look like?

North Korea has a lot of long-range artillery. Typical long-range artillery systems have batteries with six launchers, which could carry in the neighborhood of a ton or so of chemical weapons into Seoul. That ton would cover a square kilometer. If they put it in some of the more highly populated areas, you could be talking about casualties in the tens of thousands per six-launcher battery. And potentially if they chose to use them, they've got hundreds of launchers.

Does South Korea have anything to shoot them down?

No, these rockets are artillery rockets and the current state of affairs is that nobody has the defense to shoot down artillery rockets. The kinds of rockets we can shoot down with a Patriot missile, they go up into the tens of -- not the hundreds of -- kilometers in altitude, and we're planning on intercepting at a relatively high altitude, or something coming down from that altitude and intercepting. These rockets are going to be coming in at much lower altitude, and we just don't have procedures for intercepting them.

I often read references to flooding dams during a potential strike on the Korean Peninsula.

The North has a number of dams and the South Koreans got worried a while ago, 20 years ago, that one of the North Korean dams in particular, if suddenly open, could cause massive damage in the South. So on that river the South put a dam right below the DMZ, which they refer to as the Peace Dam. It essentially has no water behind it. The damn is there to catch the water if the North floods the river.

If the North attacked Seoul, what would the U.S. response be?

Now we're talking about a very serious thing. And it would not just be the U.S., but the South Korean would be anxious as well to respond. I think at that point we'd be trying to take out the artillery of the North Korean side but also there may be some element of retaliation, even trying to find the leadership in North Korea and eliminating them. Kind of the counterpart of the Iraq situation; getting rid of Saddam to get this thing under control.

Is there any point where the U.S., in terms of retaliation, just really unleashed extraordinary force in an effort to stop the conflict, and in the process produces enormous casualties?

The only case where that kind of thing could happen is if we start shooting into cities. And that's pretty unlikely in this kind of scenario. North Korea firing into Seoul, that might cause some interest in [urban] retaliation. But I don't anticipate us going after civilians.

I often read references to 1 million casualties if there ever was a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula. Is that the scenario you were talking about earlier, with a North Korean invasion into the South and a protracted conflict on the peninsula?

Yes, the people who have talked about that kind of number have talked about it usually in the context of conventional weaponry. When you cross the boundary into weapons of mass destruction, the numbers could certainly be higher. But this is an invasion kind of scenario. You've got all the North Korean artillery firing. The former U.S. commander in Korea talked about North Korea being able to fire 500,000 artillery rounds per hour into the South, which they could sustain for hours. We're talking about a huge amount of devastation caused by that kind of military force.

Is there anything South Korea could do to escalate? Meaning, if North Korea launched a conventional attack, would South Korea respond with conventional attack or with something else?

The likelihood is they would respond to a conventional attack with a conventional attack. They have a lot of artillery themselves and a lot of capabilities and I think they'd start out conventionally.

As the battle unfolded, the fear would be knowing that North Korea still has the option of using nuclear weapons?


At what point would it become conceivable that they would use them?

Historically, we've talked about North Korea and its nuclear weapons in the context of what we refer to as regime survival. That is, when Kim Jong Il personally feels that he's being jeopardized, that may be the point at which he uses the weapons. In the historical context of an invasion-like scenario, we usually anticipated that was relatively far into the conflict before he would feel that. But in this kind of tit-for-tat, where we might escalate relatively quickly to destroy the government, especially if they'd hit Seoul, it could happen much sooner.

What would they do with the nuclear bombs they did use?

It depends on the number they really do have. If it's one or two weapons, they probably want to make their point against a big city like Seoul or Tokyo.

And what kind of damage would that do?

The North Korean nuclear weapons are likely small, similar to the category of weapons that we used in World War II against Japan, so something like a Hiroshima level of casualties, which were about 70,000 dead and roughly a similar number of serious casualties.

It seems like once it began, this whole scenario could unfold rather quickly, in a matter of months or weeks.

Or even days. Depending on how promptly each side chose to retaliate. There's something that's classically called the escalation spiral. The question is: What does each side have for breaking the spiral? The North Korean concept for breaking the spiral would be [threatened] use of a nuclear weapon, and that causes everyone to think twice. But that's very classical North Korean thinking; they like to be empowered. But what they don't realize is that it could also cause the spiral to go totally out of control.

Does the U.S. have a classic way to stop the spiral, or game plan?

Historically the U.S. effort was to threaten to go up to another rung on the escalation ladder, to jump up to the next stop and that would cause people to say, "Well, maybe we don't want to take this any further."

At that point would the U.S. target major North Korean cities?

That would happen only to the extent that we're trying to catch the regime. During the Cold War we talked about mutually assured destruction, with the Russians and beating up their cities and them beating up ours. I don't think that's a big deterrent against North Korea. Look at Kim Jong Il, he's allowed 3 million of his people to starve in recent years. To threaten him by killing his civilians, that's not going to be significant.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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