The North Korean crisis has been the subject of many scholarly debates, strategic assessments, international incentives and the global polity’s concerns. So far, each step forward towards resolution has been followed by two steps back deeper into the crisis. After many years of unfruitful efforts, the entire international community is again at the starting point, deeply concerned with the country’s recent nuclear and missile tests, Kim Jong-Un’s unpredictability, and US President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric.
Nothing but the bitter feeling of failed attempts at peaceful resolution is what we have at the moment. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then so too is fear. Our understanding of the crisis is a part of the crisis itself. Have we all read the book, or have we just seen the movie? Can we be honest, or at least be aware of the fact that there might be a few things omitted by all of us, scholars, strategists and politicians, such as: the lessons of history — the similarity between French-German and North-South Korean borders, and the Schlieffen Plan, i.e., the German war plan for the war against France; the appropriate strategic application of offensive and defensive military technologies; understanding the crisis viewed through Clausewitzian perspective; and the real winners and losers in the North Korean crisis.
My effort is to present a few of these, which can shine a new light on the way we understand the crisis. This is simply a scholarly reminder of a need for us to deconstruct and draw new escape lines from the North Korean conceptual maze.
Do Not Forget the Schlieffen Plan
For a country, geography is its destiny. Prussia — later, Germany — had the most difficult geostrategic position in Europe which did not allow it to have the privilege of having a defensive war. Most countries in the world have only a couple of weak geostrategic points. The length of the North-South Korean border is almost the same as the length of French-German border. The two world wars were the most devastating events in the history of humankind, waged by Germany, at that time, the military superpower.
Nevertheless, in both wars the German strategic plan had never included a direct attack through the French-German border. In terms of terrain, it was easier for Germany to attack France than for North Korea to attack South Korea. Thus, the “envelope attack” in the case of North-South Korea is impossible. South Korea has only one land border, mostly mountainous in the east. Even more, it seems that the entire country in the east is completely unsuitable either for a blitzkrieg war or for a deceptive maneuver of enveloping the opponent.
Security Dilemma Buzzing: More than One Plan for Blitzkrieg
South Korean offensive capabilities are mostly neglected by scholars. South Korea is ranked at 13th place with 2,429 tanks, just a few rungs below North Korea, which is ranked 9th with 3,500 tanks. After the US and the United Kingdom, South Korea has the most advanced tank in the word, the K2 Black Panther.
History is the best teacher, geography is destiny, and being realistic and frank will bring us closer to a solution.
Neglecting or misperceiving military technology can lead to a “tactical crisis,” as it did during WWI. One thing is certain, having highly advanced offensive military equipment can create a security dilemma. This fact is absent from strategic and geopolitical analyses, and it resembles the story of WWI and the misperceptions of the tactical application of the machine gun. South Korean territory is not big enough for a new Battle of Kursk. Why K2, why 2,429? Is there a South Korean blitzkrieg war plan? If this is true, then for the first time in military history, there could be a situation of Simultaneous Mutual Invasion (SMI).
Clausewitz and the North Korea Crisis
In the case of SMI, what would be the center of gravity on both sides? Pyongyang, Seoul? Again, the Schlieffen Plan is buzzing. The faster invader can envelope or encircle the slower one. In that sense, the plan on both sides does not include the invasion of the entire country and the alienation of most of the troops and civilians. It could be as simple as that — take control the center of gravity and encircle the striking needle of the opponent’s offense.
“Back to the Future:” Who is Going to Miss the North Korea Crisis?
Having said that the outbreak of the crisis, or its resolution, do not necessarily have to include the application of nuclear weapons, still the question remains: who has the benefit of maintaining it?
Could it be China? If the crisis is resolved before China obtains complete control over the South China Sea, remember the Dean Acheson Line, i.e., the first and the second island chains. Additionally, do not forget the German piecemeal strategy prior to WWII. Therefore, at which point will China cut its support to the “useful” North Korea, or become more involved in resolution of the crisis?
Could it be the US? Indeed, otherwise the US should rely only on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “capabilities” for giving it a reason to keep its troops in the region.
Could it be Russia? After all, when two are fighting the third is winning. Stalin’s effort to create the east zone of conflict, in order to have free hands in Europe, is now effortlessly bestowed to Putin.
Could it be North Korea? Perhaps here, any comment is unnecessary. The North Korean regime is in a life-or-death situation. Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, Gaddafi … who is next?
Could it be South Korea? According to some South Korean scholars, the reunification of Korea was already once prevented by the US. Is this the last chance? Yet there are plenty of offensive weapons on the peninsula for such a thing. Will South Korea miss the division of the South and North in a future East Asian union?
Could it be Japan? Indeed, would it ever again become a “normal state” (in terms of armed forces) without North Korea?
When it comes to the North Korean crisis, we need to talk and think realistically with regard to both — the strategic implications of possible North Korean invasion, and the realistic overview of all actors involved in terms of costs and benefits of having a rogue state in this region. A revision of long-lasting efforts for peace and the resolution of the crisis is necessary. We do not have to apply something that we do not know, just simple well-known facts that seem to be forgotten or invisible to most of us. History is the best teacher, geography is destiny, and being realistic and frank will bring us closer to a solution.