Only Pre-emptive Attack Can Halt N. Korea
For those who believe new negotiations can alleviate the growing crisis with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, history provides little encouragement.
On Jan. 23, 1968, Lyndon Johnson was a lame-duck president micromanaging a disastrous war in Vietnam. About 3,000 miles away from the object of his attention, Cmdr. Lloyd “Pete” Bucher radioed that the reconnaissance ship USS Pueblo was in position 15.2 miles off the coast of North Korea in the Sea of Japan. She was there appearing like an unarmed survey vessel, collecting electronic intelligence information. Shortly thereafter, the Pueblo was surrounded by four North Korean gunboats with two MiG fighters supplying air cover. When Bucher ignored the North Korean demand to follow the escort, one of the gunboats fired at Pueblo, killing a crew member.
Bucher quickly determined that he would receive no help from the United States, that he was essentially on his own. He related that he distinctly recalled the parting words of his commander: “You’re not there to start a war, Pete.” And so, reluctantly, Bucher surrendered his crew to the boarding North Koreans, and they began an 11-month ordeal that nearly cost them their lives, and cost the United States its honor.
President Johnson and his staff dispatched three carrier groups into Korean waters and mobilized 15,000 reservists, but Bucher and his shipmates continued to suffer humiliation and torture at the hands of their North Korean captors.
In the midst of this tension, as if to thumb its nose at the Americans, North Korean infiltrators attacked and killed two Americans and two South Koreans at Dae Sung-dong in S. Korea, just south of Panmunjom.
America continued to do nothing.
On Dec. 23, 1968, 11 months to the day after the capture, Gen. Gilbert H. Woodward signed what the North Koreans subsequently announced was a surrender document on behalf of the United States, and accepted the 83 captured crewman and one casket, all considered by the North Koreans to be POWs.
Following the release of the captives, in an “in-your-face action,” the North Koreans moved the Pueblo to its present location in Dae-dong-gang, near the spot where the USS Gen. Sherman was sunk by Korea in September 1866.
On Apr. 15, 1969, an American EC-121 carrying 31 officers and crew flew along the east coast of North Korea in international airspace collecting intelligence. Near Chung-jin, the North Koreans downed the plane with a missile, killing all on board. The North Koreans claimed they fired a ground-to-air missile, but U.S. authorities have indicated that it probably was an air-to-air missile fired by a North Korean MiG.
In response, President Nixon dispatched two carrier battle groups to Korean waters and stationed additional F-4 fighter-bombers in South Korea.
The North Koreans responded on Aug. 17, 1969, by shooting down an American OH-23 helicopter near Hangang. Three of the crewmen were wounded and captured alive. On Dec. 3, 1969, the United States signed a letter of apology for the release of the crew.
In all, from 1967 to 1969, the North Koreans killed 11 Americans while America stood by and did nothing.
On Aug. 18, 1976, two American officers were brutally killed with an axe and eight enlisted soldiers were injured by several North Koreans near the Bridge-of-No-Return at Panmunjom. Although the incident was videotaped by observing Americans, the only American response was to send a larger number of troops to the spot three days later, protected by helicopter cover. The North Koreans managed to hit and partially disable the helicopter carrying the American commander.
President Ford did nothing.
With the arrival of the Reagan administration, things began to change. The United States increased its troop strength to nearly 74,000, supplementing 118,000 South Koreans. In 1983, in response, the North Koreans moved their strike forces stationed north of Pyongyang and Wonsan to the front areas.
The North Koreans also attempted to conduct several joint naval exercises with the Soviets, but the imminent break-up of the Soviet Union rendered these ineffective.
Under the continuing threat posed by the newly proactive United States, for the first time North Korea actually initiated feelers to open joint talks between North and South Korea and the United States. The terms they offered were unacceptable to the Reagan administration, so the talks did not go forward, but the fact that North Korea actually initiated the feelers is significant.
During all these years, one thing stands out clearly: The North Koreans never backed down, never yielded to pressure, never blinked. While the North Koreans had a very large standing army, the U.S. and S. Korean forces had overwhelmingly superior technology backed by tactical nuclear weapons that had the undeniable ability to even out North Korea’s numerical battlefield superiority. Despite this, North Korea remained belligerent and bellicose.
We now know what was going on behind the scenes. While the United States was wringing its hands, wondering what to do every time the North Koreans pushed or prodded, North Korea was building up its stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons, and working hard on its nuclear weapons program.
Shortly after President Clinton took office, North Korea threatened to pull out of the non-proliferation treaty, interrupting international inspections of nuclear facilities. This came as a big surprise to the Clinton administration, which had been operating on the presumption that the North Koreans were abiding by this treaty, and were not pursuing nuclear weapons.
In March 1994, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that North Korea had prevented its inspection team from examining the radiochemical laboratory at Yongbyon. In May, North Korea removed spent fuel rods from a 5-megawatt reactor before the arrival of an IAEA inspection team.
Then on Oct. 21, 1994, the Clinton administration and North Korea signed an agreement for the so-called “Agreed Framework” that offered North Korea a package of benefits in return for a freeze of its nuclear program. In exchange for shutting down its nuclear weapons program, North Korea was to receive light-water nuclear reactors totaling 2,000 electric megawatts, and shipments of “heavy” oil – 50,000 tons in 1995 and 500,000 tons annually beginning in 1996, until the first light water reactor was built.
Special surveillance equipment was installed in North Korean locations where nuclear fuel could be extracted, processed, or otherwise turned into the stuff of atom bombs. As it turned out, this suited the North Koreans just fine. The surveillance equipment kept the United States happy and satisfied that North Korea was not violating the agreement, while all the time the regime was developing and building everything it needed to house and activate the nuclear material it knew would soon be available.
Simultaneously, North Korea also developed a medium-range missile capable of carrying a significant payload anywhere in South Korea, and even to Japan. Following that, it refined its design, adding another stage, and behold: it could deliver a meaningful payload to Europe, Alaska, Canada and American South Pacific possessions.
North Korea received active and enthusiastic help and support from Pakistan in exchange for several of its potent missiles. Pakistan, of course, had already invented the wheel, and so could point the North Koreans in the right direction with their own bomb development. Add sufficient smuggled Soviet-era plutonium for two or three bombs, and you have a nuclear-armed North Korea with the ability to strike at least two or three targets almost anywhere.
On Oct. 16, 2002, that’s exactly what the Bush administration revealed. The North Koreans have had an ongoing nuclear development program all along, and have – for certain – at least two to four bombs in their arsenal, with the capability of creating another dozen or so in the next few weeks, and up to 30 per year thereafter.
Now you know why President Bush is so eager to install an anti-missile missile system in Alaska as soon as possible – even yesterday – if we could do it.
The U.S. reaction to this revelation has been quiet, but firm. True to its history, North Korea has pushed right back. On Christmas Eve, North Korea warned of an “uncontrollable catastrophe” unless the United States agrees to negotiate new terms in a revised agreement on its nuclear energy and weapons programs.
On its face, such a threat is frightening, since North Korea now has the teeth to back up its boasts. Nevertheless, I am reluctant to believe that North Korea really can successfully launch and hit any U.S. targets with its nuclear-armed missiles. In fact, even launching them against South Korea or Japan carries a big risk, because North Korea has no depth to its nuclear arsenal. American retaliation would be swift and sure, with only one reasonable outcome.
So what is the actual threat?
I undertook an investigation over Christmas to discover what North Korea had available in its chemical and biological weapons arsenal.
According to information I gleaned from many sources across the Internet, North Korea currently has approximately 5,000 tons of chemical agents specifically manufactured for weapons use. The chemicals fall into two categories: blistering agents (mostly a mix of Lewisite and Mustard gas) and the nerve agents Sarin and VX. Because of their persistence, the blistering agents and VX can be used to deny further use of an area to the opposition, and they all can be used to incapacitate a troop concentration or destroy the population of a city.
North Korea has limited its biological weapons stockpile primarily to Anthrax and Smallpox, although it is known to have investigated Botulinum Toxin, Cholera, Hemorrhagic Fever, Plague, Typhoid, Typhus and Yellow Fever, and has accused the U.S. of employing each of these against North Korea at one or more times during the Korean Conflict.
North Korean Anthrax is the same weaponized strain developed by the Soviets during the Cold War.
Until recently, the world believed that the only stocks of Smallpox virus were safely held at secure locations in the U.S. and the old Soviet Union. On Nov. 4, 2002, however, the Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation, and Arms Control division of the CIA announced that four countries – France, Iraq, North Korea, and Russia – probably possess undeclared samples of smallpox.
Not only does North Korea have a significant stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, but South Korean authorities identified six chemical weapons storage areas, three chemical production facilities, and eight chemical research centers scattered across the northern half of the peninsula.
In light of this developing information, it seems much more likely that North Korea could launch an all-out biological and chemical offensive against the United States, Japan and South Korea, while holding its nukes in reserve for a follow-on strike, while we scramble to protect ourselves and recover from the initial attack.
I can see only one way to prevent this scenario from taking place. Unless we pre-emptively destroy North Korea’s ability to strike first with biologics and chemicals, and unless we simultaneously take out its nuclear capability and its overwhelming troop strength, we will likely be in for a long, drawn-out conflict with heavy casualties on our side.
The only way we can accomplish these simultaneous goals is to strike all known North Korean biological, chemical and nuclear centers with air-burst nukes of sufficient capacity to wipe them out, and simultaneously to hit all their known troop concentrations with tactical neutron devices, which are specifically designed to kill living things without destroying the surrounding infrastructure or leaving any residual radiological contamination.
If we do this, North Korea will no longer be a military threat. What remains of its fighting force could easily be mopped up by South Korean troops while we concentrate on removing Saddam Hussein from power.
If we don’t do this soon, North Korea will likely launch its own attack, killing millions of Americans, South Koreans and Japanese, and our ability to retaliate will have been effectively reduced because they will already have expended their biologics and chemicals, and will have dispersed their troops into South Korea in such a manner that employing tactical neutron devices will no longer be feasible.
And despite our technological superiority, we’re not equipped to fight a million-man North Korean Army.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor