War Stories

Backing Off the DMZ

Bush’s (sort of) smart move in Korea.

The Pentagon’s plan to redeploy U.S. troops in South Korea farther south—away from the North Korean border, even south of Seoul—has set off a bit of alarm, as radical shifts in half-century-old status quos tend to do. Pentagon officials insist that the move will improve South Korea’s security. South Korean officials worry that it will degrade security. Meanwhile, the North Korean government denounces the new policy as the prelude to an American pre-emptive attack.

All three views have a certain validity, though on balance the move is an almost unequivocally smart one.

Ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953, American troops—currently, 37,000 of them—have been positioned, in a permanent garrison, along the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea. Their presence has been viewed as a “tripwire”—not so much an effective fighting force as a tangible guarantee of U.S. protection in the event of an invasion from the North. For decades, the scenario assumed that the North Korean People’s Army—1 million soldiers strong—would plow over the American troops but that, as a result, the United States would respond with a nuclear counterattack, an expectation that deters the North from invading in the first place.

The removal of this automatic American involvement is what concerns South Korean officials. Seoul, a city of 17 million people, lies a mere 50 miles south of the border. If the bulk of U.S. armed forces are no longer positioned between Seoul and the border—if they aren’t right there on the front lines, certain to be killed from the opening assault, and thus equally certain to trigger retaliation with The Big One—then North Korea’s leader for life, Kim Jong-il, might feel less deterred from mounting the invasion, the Korean unification-by-force, of which the dictator has dreamed for so long.

The Pentagon’s response to this fear is that, if the North invaded today, U.S. troops would have to pull back to the south anyway, then regroup and wait for reinforcements to mount a counterattack. Under the new policy, the troops will already be pulled back; enough will survive an artillery barrage to begin a counterattack without having to wait for reinforcements.

There’s something to this argument, but the case is actually much stronger than the Pentagon is letting on. First, no matter how nutty Kim Jong-il might be, the odds are slim to zero that he will decide, one day, out of the blue, to invade South Korea. He may have a million-man army, half of it near the border. But most of the country’s tanks date back to the Korean War (yes, they’re 50 years old), its troops haven’t fought since then either, and they have no ability to sustain an offensive.

More to the point, one key lesson of America’s last couple of wars is that air power (particularly in the form of smart bombs and 30mm anti-armor shells) can perform the job of artillery and, in some cases, more powerfully and rapidly. We don’t need 37,000 troops roped to the DMZ like sacrificial lambs when a couple wings of aircraft can bust up and pin down a Northern assault force.

Another lesson from recent wars is that the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marines have become pretty good at “combined-arms” operations—the simultaneous and coordinated orchestration of armor, artillery, and air forces fighting together on the same timetable, to the same end. The Army and especially the Marines have also mastered several elements of “maneuver warfare” strategy, able to adapt tactics to changing circumstances and focusing more on enveloping enemy troops rather than meeting them in head-on battles of attrition.

The point is, between North Korea’s growing weakness and America’s growing strength, Kim Jong-il doesn’t need to see tens of thousands of GIs just across the DMZ in order to fear the consequences of invasion.

It is for this reason, one could plausibly argue, that Kim is threatening to build nuclear weapons. The official North Korean news agency released a statement Monday, saying Pyongyang needs a “nuclear deterrent” if the United States refuses to alter its “hostile” stance toward the country’s regime. Bush did, famously, tag North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, as a member of the “axis of evil.” As recently as Feb. 7, he noted, while discussing ways to deal with North Korea’s nuclear brandishments, that “all options are on the table.”

From this perspective—and while Kim is clearly paranoid, a mentally healthy leader could reach the same conclusion—the redeployment of U.S. troops could be seen as a further sign of an offensive strategy.

If Bush is contemplating a pre-emptive airstrike—on North Korea’s nuclear facilities or a wider strike against a range of military targets—he would have to worry about the possibility of retaliation from thousands of North Korean artillery tubes, including 500 long-range tubes within range of Seoul. Therefore, he might want to get U.S. troops outside of that range.

The official U.S. war plan for Korea—called OPLAN 5027—envisions this possibility and explicitly discusses pre-emptive options. Earlier incarnations of this plan called for holding a defensive line as close to the DMZ as possible and, once U.S. reinforcements arrived, pushing the invaders back across the border. However, in 1998, with a revision called OPLAN 5027-98, the plan started to emphasize offensive operations into North Korean territory. It explicitly notes that if intelligence detected any signs of war preparations by Pyongyang, the United States would launch pre-emptive airstrikes against North Korean military bases and long-range artillery. U.S. commanders were directed to identify relevant targets and to assign weapons for destroying them.

This revision was prompted by the 1994 crisis (quite similar to the crisis brewing now), in which North Korea threatened to reprocess its nuclear fuel rods and build nuclear weapons. (The crisis was resolved diplomatically, but tensions were far from alleviated.) Another motivator was intelligence data that Pyongyang was fitting some of its long-range artillery with chemical weapons and nerve agents. The notion that a pre-emptive strike, in some cases, might be necessary to avoid catastrophe—in this case, the killing of hundreds of thousands of South Koreans—did not originate with the Bush administration.

A revision last year, OPLAN 5027-02, contained plans for striking North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. The latest version, OPLAN 5027-04, which was discussed at a conference just last month, adopts lessons from Gulf War II, especially the use of unmanned drones to find and attack key targets.

None of this indicates that Bush is actively planning such a strike, even if Kim might believe otherwise. The troop redeployment will not go into full effect for at least a couple of years. As far as immediate plans go, the fleet of additional combat planes that Bush sent to Guam and South Korea as a warning gesture last March—12 B-52s, 12 B-1s, 20 F-15s, and six F-117s—had all flown back to the United States by the end of May.

Still, two main points emerge from this review. First, the United States no longer needs to keep tens of thousands of troops poised on the DMZ, either to deter a North Korean invasion or to beat one back in its unlikely event. Second, a more likely cause of war, in the next few years, is the crumbling of Pyongyang’s increasingly impoverished and isolated regime, which could intensify Kim’s long-standing paranoia, to the point where he unleashes a tear-it-all-down spasm of destructiveness.

It is a sound idea to get U.S. troops out of the way. An even sounder idea, while we’re at it, is to keep the whole mad-dog scenario at bay, to defuse the tensions, even to buy off North Korea’s emerging nuclear arsenal—pre-emptive disarmament of a different sort—with the economic assistance and security guarantees that its leader, possibly quite sincerely, says he needs.