By Miller J. Wilson
With North Korea admitting to weaponizing nuclear materials, continuing to perform missile tests, and threatening nuclear war if their ships are searched, the US is in a difficult position. Both Japan and South Korea are obvious targets for an attack and with US forces spread thin it would be nearly impossible to use US forces to defend either nation without pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq to fight in Korea.
To compound the problem even more we don’t even know what North Korea will do or if it will do anything. Figuring this out becomes even more difficult when we take into account the differences in the psychology of the North Korean and US cultures and their leaders. Despite these problems it is essential that we try to anticipate what actions North Korea might take even if we can only base it off of what we might do in the same situation. It is to this end that I present what I would do in this situation.
If I were the leader of North Korea and decided to take military action I would do a simultaneous two prong attack using a nuclear strike on Japan targeting Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima. At the same time I would engage in strikes against South Korea using conventional missiles on Seoul while invading with ground forces. Each of these strikes has their purpose with the targets chosen for their symbolic and military value. I shall explain my choice of targets as well as why a dual assault would be used even if it meant having a war on two fronts.
Despite the tensions between North Korea and Japan a nuclear assault on Japan has other strategic values. The main value is that the US would use Japan as a staging area for air assaults on North Korea as it did during the Korean conflict. By using a nuclear attack on Japan this would show that US air bases would not be safe and so a new location would have to be chosen.
Second, an attack on Japan would garner support from both China and Russia who already limit the sanctions against North Korea in the UN. So why would China and Russia support an attack on Japan? Currently Russia and Japan are in a territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands with both claiming ownership. If Japan was attacked it would be in no position to continue the dispute and Russia could finally take full claim of the Kuril Islands.
China on the other hand suffered many atrocities by Japan during WWII and the Chinese people would see it as just punishment done in proxy by North Korea. So why would I choose to use a nuclear strike on Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima? For the symbolic and psychological impact as well as preventing US arguments. Tokyo is an obvious target because it is the capital of Japan and a strike there would disrupt government and delay any military action. Kyoto on the other hand is chosen for its symbolism as it was once the Imperial Capital of Japan. A nuclear strike here is a direct attack on the cultural heritage of the Japanese people and its destruction would cause severe damage to the Japanese psyche.
Finally, Nagasaki and Hiroshima are chosen because the US dropped nuclear bombs and so the US would be in a very compromising situation arguing in the UN for actions against North Korea for doing the same thing it did. Also the citizens of both these cities were either victims of the US nuclear attack or are the children and grandchildren of victims and so a second attack would be psychologically devastating. If North Korea then followed these attacks immediately by stating they were because of US presence in Japan there would be a tremendous amount of pressure to expel US forces and a rise in anti-US sentiment preventing Japan being used as a second front.
So why use a nuclear attack on Japan and not South Korea? There are a couple of reasons for not using a nuclear attack on South Korea. First is the surprise factor on Japan. By launching missiles at Seoul and Japan at the same time the first thought is going to be that they a nuclear and preparations will be made for that which would minimize the damage dealt. However the missiles aimed at Seoul would reach first and if it they only contained conventional warheads it would give the impression that North Korea still did not have nuclear capabilities and that the missiles headed for Japan would be conventional instead of nuclear and so their guard would be let down and the nuclear attack would be more effective.
Once nuclear strikes on Japan were reported North Korea could then start the propaganda that they spared their Southern Brethren from a nuclear strike because they only wish to reunite Korea and not harm their brothers but if US forces were not expelled they would have no choice other than to use a nuclear strike. This would help increase anti-US sentiment as well as increase support for the South to join the North especially if it seemed that the US was unable or unwilling to help defend the South. So why would South Korean leaders surrender to the North? The simple fact is that the South is a military regime that wants to retain their power. Currently they are able to do so because they are backed by the US but they also recognize that there is a growing desire by the people in both the North and the South to reunite. If it appears that the US would be unable to help defend South Korea, either because forces are spread too thin or the US people are opposed to it, then North Korea could start making deals with the leaders to ensure their power in exchange for joining the North. The fear that the North might be victorious and punish those that opposed them would cause the military generals to change sides in droves.
So why attack Japan and South Korea at the same time? Other than the reasons stated already a dual assault has the advantages of causing confusion and forces the US to either spread their forces thin and making them weak or strengthening one area while abandoning another completely.
No matter what they choose it is a major blow to their prestige and will damage confidence in their ability to protect allies. This would have devastating effects world wide as forces in the Middle East would wonder if they can count on US forces or not while at the same time insurgents would get a morale boost and increase their attacks. In addition by attacking two allies of the US but not directly attacking the US directly the US population would be hard pressed to support direct military involvement of the US, especially if insurgent attacks against US troops in the Middle East increased.
So when would be the best time for North Korea to do this?
If it was me I would set my time table for September or October as this would give me some time to get missiles in place, make deals with military and government officials in the South, and stockpile nuclear material. But that is not the only reason for choosing this time frame. The second reason is that this is the start of the flu season in the Northern hemisphere and particularly the US and with the A/H1N1 pandemic level at stage 6. That combined with the fact that the A/H1N1 is following an almost identical pattern to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic either the US and European population will be facing serious illness and death or their governments will be focusing their attention on the potential for that situation and not on North Korea.
So how do I see this situation happening? If I was leading North Korea I would be moving missiles into place, building my nuclear stockpile, and making deals with military and government leaders in the South as mentioned above. In addition if I was confident in my missile technology I would hold off on missile tests and use the guise of more tests for the actual attack. If, however, I was worried about the ability of my missiles to strike I would step up my missile tests until they were ready. Once ready I would conduct 2-3 more tests and intentionally have them horribly fail then stop altogether until September or October. Once September or October arrived I would announce another missile “test” but in fact actually launch the full scale assault on South Korea and the nuclear launch of Japan. The only thing that would alter this would be if the A/H1N1 virus became severe in the US early, then I would take advantage of the situation and do the assault early.
Miller J. Wilson is currently an AMU student working on his BA in Intelligence Operations. In addition he is a volunteer for his local Medical Reserve Corps and Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT).