by KYLE MIZOKAMI
Since the end of the Korean War, the North Korean People’s Army has been organized and trained for a Blitzkrieg-like assault on the South. The objective, to reunify Korea under northern rule, would be achieved by a mixture of combined arms tactics, human wave attacks, and special forces spreading havoc behind the lines. American and South Korean forces have stood guard against such an invasion for more than five decades.
Indications are that after half century a change may be in the air. According to U.S. and South Korean military officials, North Korea is rapidly expanding its special forces. An expansion of North Korean special forces theoretically broadens the threat against South Korean and American forces south of the DMZ. But while experts from both countries believe that the expanded forces would be used to conduct ambush attacks and raids on South Korean soil, could it be possible the North has an entirely different purpose in mind?
North Korea is frequently derided as being governed by a crazy, irrational dictatorship, mostly because it does things that make sense to dictatorships but run counter to the interests of liberal democracies. This change in tactics underlines how rational the North Korean government actually is.
The strategic goal of the North Korean regime is regime safety. The North Korean leadership, particularly Kim Jong Il, want to die in their beds, and not underground in a concrete bunker. There is a threshold in the security situation on the Korean peninsula beyond which the North Korean government simply goes away. The North Koreans are very aware of where that point is, and steer clear of it. Starting a guerilla war is not a good survival strategy for a dictatorship that, in the event of escalation, will cease to exist.
An outside coalition that wanted to intervene in North Korea would first have to deal with the North’s nuclear capability. Yet as powerful as the nuclear threat is, it can and is in the process of being neutralized. Next up are North Korea’s conventional forces, but Iraq’s mechanized forces were simply swept away by the American-led anti-Iraq coalition, and North Korea’s are hardly any better — and probably worse. After the nukes, tanks and the airplanes are destroyed, what’s left to prevent the North’s enemies from occupying the country and unifying it under southern rule?
Kim Jong Il knows he’s a “Axis of Evil” plank holder and is quite aware that he could suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein. But he also understands what happened to the United States in Iraq, and how it was flummoxed for four years by a rag-tag insurgency it was unprepared to fight. Hussein’s irregular Fedayeen force presaged the broader insurgency.
It is possible the North Korean special forces are organized for defensive purposes and part of a larger, layered defense strategy to prevent regime change. Such forces could provide cadre for a domestic insurgency. In North Korea, they would have the home-team advantage, with plentiful supplies of arms and ammunition and a sympathetic population. The evidence of training in the construction and use of IEDs implies fighting in familiar terrain, not in unfamiliar terrain like South Korea. The objective would be to fight U.S. and South Korean forces with irregular warfare, and bleed them dry until public opinion in both countries forces a withdraw. (South Korea, with its low birthrate and intrinsic problem of fighting fellow Koreans, would be particularly vulnerable to adverse public opinion.) This new survival strategy makes even more sense considering the North can no longer economically support its over-sized conventional forces.
The ability to threaten enemies with a Iraq-style insurgency would give any potential occupier pause. Kim Jong Il observed that Saddam Hussein was able to hide out for months after the U.S. invasion. Hussein wasn’t able to ride the occupation out, and nobody wanted him to return to power anyway, which severely limited his ability to go to ground. Due to the cult of personality he enjoys, conditions for Kim Jong Il are much more favorable. He would have an entire — largely mysterious — country to hide in. If Kim Jong Il and his entourage could run for the hills and camp out until his insurgency forced a favorable political settlement, he survives. And then he wins.
(Photo: Bryan William Jones)