La Riposte

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The True Cost of War in Korea

The true cost of war goes beyond
military expenditures.
There’s been a lot of talk about how to deal with North Korea lately, and much of it seems to envision armed conflict. Some think that South Korea could triumph militarily on its own, or with a modicum of US air support. Others envision China weighing in on the ground to effect regime change. The White House has dispatched carrier groups to the area as a show of force – but really, what are the prospects that a military solution would succeed, or be adopted?

First, it’s useful to consider a couple of items regarding the current US response to the crisis.
  1. The naval show of force by South Korea and the US is likely to only inflame the situation, which started when an earlier exercise by the South culminated in some of their artillery pieces firing into waters which the North claims as its own.
  2. Putting fleets into this area raises the distinct possibility of another Cheonan-style submarine attack; ask anti-submarine warfare officers, and you’ll discover that the strong currents and heavy silt in the Yellow Sea makes detecting and prosecuting submarine threats very difficult.
  3. Given that “face” is an important concept in Asian politics, this type of brinksmanship is highly unlikely to do anything except aggravate the North, and shift Chinese perceptions against us.
Now, let’s talk about why South Korea hasn’t (and won’t) go to war over this incident, why China won’t intervene against the North, and why we shouldn’t consider it either.

Lots of folks have done a bit of strategic and tactical calculus and concluded that North Korea could be beaten in a conventional war. Perhaps, but such a war would not be nearly as simple as Iraq, given the terrain, the weather, and the North Korean IADS (integrated air defense system). Ignoring, for a moment, the probability that a significant guerilla conflict might follow “victory”, the real cost to the winner would be absorbing the responsibility for 24 million destitute North Koreans.

Consider for a moment the disparity in wealth between the North and South. South Korea’s approximately 49 million people enjoy a per capita income of about $30,000 USD, compared to $1900 for their Northern kin. Studies have indicated a $3 trillion dollar price tag and a 10-year timeline to bring incomes in the North to even 60% of those in the South, and the example of Germany suggests that high unemployment and mass migrations will be just a few of the economic challenges that will drive the cost even higher.

That is the reason the South has not pushed especially hard for a peaceful reunification, and it’s why they literally can’t afford to start a war with the North – because it would cost their citizens about 1/3 of their annual income to establish a degree of equality in distribution of wealth; and that’s before considering the economic impacts of bringing a third of the newly-unified population from a Human Development Index rating of 75 up to South Korea’s number 12 ranking.

This is not to say that if faced with total war, the South would not fight, and fight well – but it should clarify the reason why provocation short of an all-out assault across the DMZ are unlikely to be answered with force.

And what about China, the US, and Coalition actions. Could the Red Army swarm across the Yalu again, this time to unseat their former allies? Physically possible, but it won’t happen, and not because, as some have stated, China wants a “buffer zone” between her borders and those of the democratic South Korea. Simply put, North Korea is one of the 5 remaining Communist regimes, and China is another. Solidarity and “face” must be maintained, so China will not take its own military action, and might again intervene in a major conflict to obtain a resolution favorable to the North, or one that at least maintains the status quo.

The idea that China would act as part of a coalition against North Korea in a major conflict is fraught with technical difficulties – NATO weapon systems identify Chinese aircraft as “threats.” Communications would be a barrier as well – the best that could be hope for would be a World War II style “rush to Berlin”, but coordinated operations would be difficult to implement.

So, what’s a superpower to do? Stay out of the Yellow Sea and avoid provoking the North further, or giving their sub commanders a greater selection of targets. Stop treating North Korea like a willful child, and start bilateral negotiations in good faith. Remove the trade barriers and sanctions that contribute to their national poverty, and wake up from the pipe dream that if we just wait long enough, the North will collapse. With its economy growing at a steady 3 percent annually over the last decade, that’s just not going to happen. 


  1. The US military-industrial-financial oligarchy will not give up its dream of full spectrum dominance until it finally destroys the US economy.

  2. If the US-axis powers agree to let China rebuild NK as a communist country and agree to foot the reconstruction cost with the caveat that the new state must be non-nuclear, China might act. That's a lot of conditions, but it's still possible.