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Scenarios for Conflict Between the Koreas

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While tension has increased on the Korean peninsula since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Dec. 17, in the week that has passed the North Korean government has quickly thrown its weight behind anointed successor Kim Jong-un. As a result, at least some of the uncertainty has been eliminated, but analysts naturally continue to wonder whether Mr. Kim will be successful in consolidating his power, how long it will take, and whether a semi-permanent power sharing arrangement will ultimately emerge between Mr. Kim and senior members of the military and elite.

We believe that a power sharing arrangement will prevail for the short and possibly medium-term, but not in the long-term. If a succession struggle were to emerge, it is unlikely to turn violent or result in any kind of protracted internal conflict. Our expectation is that Mr. Kim will indeed be the next leader of North Korea, he will successfully consolidate his power over a period of several years, and, regrettably, the hard line dictatorship that has prevailed over North Korea since the end of the Korean War is likely to continue for a long time to come.

North Korea will in all likelihood continue to act as if it were a bellicose teenager, throwing temper tantrums (particularly when it craves attention) and taking provocative actions in the coming months, but having previously prompted South Korea to draw a line in the sand (the result of the Cheonan submarine incident and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year), we do not expect North Korea to deliberately test South Korean intentions -- particularly as the South will be on a heightened state of alert for many months to come. Over the next year we can expect a lot of sabre rattling and posturing from the North as the new regime attempts to bolster its domestic credibility. We may witness an artillery fusillade, the test firing of yet another long-range ballistic missile, or even another nuclear test. However, a Korean war in 2012 seems rather unlikely.

Even so, it is useful to consider how such a conflict could unfold. This essay will address four possible scenarios of a future conflict on the Korean peninsula. For each scenario we contemplate North Korea's probable strategy, the reaction of the international community, and the likely outcome of the conflict.

Scenario 1: A Spiral Towards Victory

North Korea takes one or more actions to provoke the South in order to reinforce support at home or gain a diplomatic concession. The South then predictably retaliates and events quickly spiral out of control into war. The world quickly rallies behind the South and severely sanctions Pyongyang. The U.S. and its Western allies quickly send additional troops to reinforce the South, devastating the North's military from the air and sea. Once ground forces are in place, the Coalition starts to reverse the North's gains, bringing the war into the North and to Pyongyang itself. China, largely acquiesces to this, silently pleased with the outcome. South Korea quickly consolidates political control over the North. The war is bloody, but major fighting ends after several months and the South begins rebuilding the North.

Although the North has an impressive number of men under arms (nearly 1 million in total), its technology and equipment is outdated and deteriorating. North Korea has few friends in the world while the South has few enemies. China trades more with the South than the North, and when pushed, will likely favor Seoul over Pyongyang -- particularly when it becomes clear the South will prevail. While China would not like the idea of having a U.S. ally on its southern border, it would undoubtedly prefer this to its bellicose, unpredictable and dangerous current neighbor.

This scenario appears to be the most plausible, but also has the best outcome. The following three scenarios, though less plausible, portray a more troubling depiction of events.

Scenario 2: A North Korean Blitz

Pyongyang attempts to replay its first invasion of South Korea by conducting a lighting quick surprise assault. In 1950, North Korea's surprise invasion of the South quickly pushed U.S. and South Korean forces into the Pusan perimeter at the southeastern corner of the country. In the space of a couple of months, North Korea had seized control over the vast majority of the peninsula.

If North Korea were reckless enough to attempt something this drastic, it would probably try to accomplish much the same thing today. The North would conduct a lightning quick strike in an attempt to crush U.S. and South Korean forces before reinforcements could arrive from Japan, the U.S., and other regions. In the opening act, the North would launch a massive artillery barrage, incapacitating units stationed near the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This barrage would inflict horrendous damage on Seoul, which is precariously perched near the border of the two countries. The shelling would create a humanitarian crisis that would strain the South's resources. Tens of thousands of North Korea special operations forces would be dispatched to infiltrate behind enemy lines, targeting supporting units and creating havoc in the rear area. Swarms of North Korean foot soldiers would emerge from tunnels burrowed under the DMZ, bypassing South Korea's border defenses. Older but hard to detect submarines and fast attack boats would strike ships in the waters around the peninsula, which would disrupt Coalition naval operations and cut off supply lines to forces on the ground.

Pyongyang would also use its missile forces to hit U.S. installations and air bases in Japan. With the DMZ broken open, Seoul ablaze, chaos prevailing and air support neutralized, the peninsula would be cut off from naval reinforcement.The North's tanks and infantry divisions would roll down the peninsula quickly, capturing most major ports, bases, and cities before reinforcements could arrive from abroad. The war would leave the South devastated, forcing the Coalition to conduct a counterstrike with the vast majority of the peninsula in the North's hands.

The North may also use chemical or biological weapons to compensate for the inferior quality of its military equipment. It may threaten the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against Japan in order to deter it from supporting the war effort. Targeting Japan is important, as any defense of the South would rely heavily on Japan as a staging point, logistical hub, and air support platform. However, the North would probably not conduct a nuclear attack, nor would its use of chemical and biological weapons be extensive, as such actions have the potential to prompt nuclear retaliation by the U.S. By the end of the war, South Korea lies in tatters, the Coalition's military is stretched and depleted, while Japan has been pummeled by North Korean missiles and possibly a limited amount of WMD.

Frightening as the prospect of a North Korean blitz may be, it is unlikely to occur because whatever progress the North makes, it will inevitably be reversed. Moreover, China is unlikely to back, and more likely would actively oppose, such an action. China would view such an attack on the South as reckless and unnecessary. North Korea's military probably does not even have the capacity to overrun the peninsula before the arrival of Coalition equipment and forces. The U.S. has the most sophisticated military hardware in the world and is able to project air support from aircraft carriers and bases in Japan, neither of which are easily assailable.

If the North felt that the U.S. or the South were closing in for a final blow, it could launch a preemptive assault. Civil unrest, or a struggle for succession, could also lead the North's leadership to make a last ditch effort to save the regime. It is also possible that the North could vastly overestimate the strength and determination of its own troops while underestimating those of its adversaries. It is similarly conceivable that the west has vastly underestimated the capability of the North Korean military, meaning a blitz has a far better chance of short-term success than we have contemplated here.

Scenario 3: Attack and Parley

Under this scenario, North Korea conducts significant but limited military action against the South, but then quickly pursues peace, not unlike the short and bloody Arab-Israeli wars. This scenario could be brought about by several circumstances. The U.S. and/or South Korea could conduct an attack against Pyongyang's nuclear facilities, triggering retaliation. Alternatively, North Korea's new leadership could desire to shore up support at home, or position itself for future diplomatic negotiations.

Here the North chooses to moderate its retaliation because it knows that a drawn out conventional conflict would lead to its demise. While North Korea may conduct large assaults over the DMZ, it does not seek to assume control over any new territory. Instead, it would conduct artillery barrages, use special operations forces to carry out sabotage missions, launch missile strikes against U.S. bases in the region, conduct cross border raids, and disrupt sea-lanes. After the North believes that its strike inflicted an adequate amount of damage, it would seek peace before Coalition reinforcements arrive from abroad. China would likely help broker such a deal, putting serious pressure on the belligerents to end the conflict quickly. Seoul and a war-weary U.S. may choose to agree to such terms, as they would not want to antagonize China and know that continued fighting would become quite costly.

Neither Washington nor Seoul seems intent on striking North Korea's nuclear facilities. Moreover, a limited war could easily turn into a full-scale conflict. Even for the erratic leadership of Pyongyang, this action seems excessively risky. However, if the North's provocations passed beyond some threshold, such as by selling nuclear material to terrorists, this scenario could be triggered. North Korea could also launch an Attack and Parley if its leadership desperately needed to consolidate power and felt that the South did not have the stomach for a long-term fight.

Scenario 4: A Quagmire

What starts as a limited provocation or incident gradually spirals out of control into a long drawn out war. There are a myriad of ways this scenario could occur: a rogue military commander could instigate a fight with other the side, the North could retaliate for a seizure of one of its vessels, or a young Kim Jong-un's attempt to garner domestic credibility leads to a harsh response by the South. Perhaps the North hoped for an Attack and Parley, but cannot convince the U.S. and South Korea to come to the negotiating table. In any case, what starts as a limited military action gradually gets out of hand and leads to a broader war. However, unlike a spiral towards victory, there is no clear victim in the eyes of the international community. The course of events is foggy, making it difficult for the world to determine the real aggressor.

In this scenario, the U.S. is almost certain to back South Korea, but it might have trouble getting other allies on board. Traditional western allies may even scold the South for acting too rashly, and for not exercising more discretion. NATO, already overstretched in Afghanistan, only provides tepid support. Japan feels its allies sucked them into an unnecessary war that has resulted in North Korean missiles falling on Japanese cities. The war starts only gradually, meaning that there is never a rush of reinforcements to Korea -- only a steady buildup. As a result, the North is able to adapt to its technologically superior enemies better than expected. A war-weary American public urges restraint from their leaders, as they are convinced that a push into the North could bring China into the war. Some even worry that a siege of Pyongyang could instigate a nuclear strike. The U.S. therefore limits its role to defending the South and refrains from conducting ground operations north of the DMZ. Instead of lasting for months, the war drags on for years.

The North has its problems as well. Its best chance of victory was to launch a surprise blitz attack that could quickly take hold of the entire peninsula; now it is stuck fighting a drawn out war it cannot win. The war effort gradually wears down the already critically ill North Korean economy, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe as famines break out throughout the country. Eventually, North Korea implodes, but not before taking the lives of millions of people.

During the conflict, both countries wage herculean diplomatic efforts with China, whose support could tip the balance for either side. In order to placate China, the U.S. may have to make difficult concessions, such as a promise to withdraw U.S. forces from East Asia after a cessation of hostilities. However, this agreement may not prevent China from seizing an opportunity to impact the U.S.'s prospects by quietly supplying sophisticated military hardware to North Korean fighters. While the West eventually prevails, security remains a problem as former North Korean elites establish small insurgent cells across the country. Moreover, a devastated South Korea must try to rebuild the even more devastated North with little aid from the international community.

What is the likelihood of this scenario? It is hard to believe that the western world would not come to the South's aid. Yet many citizens of the west are fed up with nearly a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and may feel disinclined to support yet another war. Although the decision to limit ground operations to the South seems foolish, this is exactly what the U.S. did in the Vietnam War. Furthermore, it is not inconceivable that China would exploit the opportunity provided by a prolonged war in Korea to extend its influence in the region.

Conclusion

There are of course numerous potential scenarios that could be explored here. Any variation or combination of the above is possible, or perhaps something entirely different lies on the horizon. For example, in none of the scenarios does Pyongyang unleash nuclear weapons, nor did it conduct a ballistic missile attack against the continental U.S. or other powers in the region, nor did China commit military forces to either side, nor was the US/South Korea Coalition ever defeated. All these outcomes are possible, and some are even plausible.

How any such conflict unfolds of course depends on the initial conditions present at the outset, how the major players react to these conditions, and on the performance of generals and soldiers in the heat of battle. None of these things can be predicted with precision, which is why the story of another Korean War has yet to be written. We would like to believe that the new regime in Pyongyang will suddenly come to its senses, renew the Six Party talks, arrive at a meaningful conclusion to those talks, and start a process of genuine long-term reform. However, based on many decades of history under the Kim dynasty, the opposite is more likely to be true.

It is our hope, and our expectation, that young Mr. Kim recognizes both his limitations and the stakes involved in continuing the dangerous game of chicken his grandfather and father played with the South. In the end, the North will not prevail in a conflict with the South -- the question is whether Mr. Kim and his colleagues are willing to risk their own country's destruction in order to achieve their objectives. That will ultimately determine whether any of these scenarios ever occur.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions (CRS), a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), and author of the forthcoming book Managing Country Risk (March 2012). Michael Doyle is a research analyst with CRS.