Xander Snyder: Hi and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast, I’m Xander Snyder and today I’m joined by Phillip Orchard, an analyst here at Geopolitical Futures and we’re going to be talking to you a little bit more about North Korea. But specifically, the degree of maneuverability that South Korea has both on the peninsula generally and within the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

So let’s start with the latter. Phillip, today we saw some signs that South Korea and the U.S. are going to basically work to transfer command of joint war time operational control from the U.S. to South Korea. What exactly does that mean and what implications does that have?

Phillip Orchard: Right so this is this kind of weird legacy of the Korean War. Basically ever since then, the United States has maintained war time control over the South Korean military. Now the reason for that is because there’s thousands and thousands of U.S. troops on the peninsula, the two militaries are very integrated and during the conflict especially with North Korea, you would want there to be one person clearly calling the shots.

Now today, South Korea is you know this robust, democratic country with a very robust economy and the ability to fund and develop a modern military. And as a result, over the past two decades especially, you know it’s become kind of a political issue in South Korea especially in left leaning circles. It’s sort of seen as a form of neo-colonialism with South Korea seen as sort of a de facto Yankee colony as Pyongyang often likes to tease them.

And also there’s sort of a line of thought particularly among the left that say that the permanent U.S. presence in South Korea and the control over the South Korean military is worsening the crisis with North Korea. Making Pyongyang much more determined to build up their missile and nuclear capabilities and that if the South Korea-U.S. alliance was weakened a little bit or confined to contingencies such as a North Korean invasion or something, than Pyongyang would be much more likely to sort of chill out.

And so as a result, repeatedly over the past couple decades there’s been pushes to return wartime control from the U.S. back to the South Korean government so that they could decide when to deploy, when to act and so forth. Now that sounds good or it makes sense on the surface but it falls apart in a couple ways.

And as a result, every time that there’s an agreement with the U.S. to sort of go through this process what’s known as to return what’s called OPCON, operational control, back to the South Koreans. They always sort of set like a five-year deadline and then four years in they kind of “Well ok let’s do it five years later.” That’s happened repeatedly. Most recently being in 2014, this OPCON was supposed to be transferred back to South Korea in 2015 and in 2014 the conservative government in Seoul kicked the can down the road again into the 2020s.

And there’s a couple reasons for that. But the main one is that there’s a sort of fear that if you do this, it’s sort of a slippery slope than maybe when the U.S. attention starts to stray or the U.S. needs to move resources elsewhere, the South Korean government would not be ready to stand on its own or the South Korean military would not be ready to stand on its own. And to mitigate that threat or that possibility, South Korea would have to spend tens and tens and tens of billions of dollars on upgrading its own capabilities.

And the sort of second concern is that if the U.S. has less stake in the game, if the U.S. is less invested into the security situation on the peninsula, then it may in fact be more likely to move on altogether or to shrink its presence to a degree that leaves South Korea vulnerable. And in fact, throughout since the mid-1970s, the U.S. has openly talked about trying to make South Korea shoulder a greater share of the defense burden and maybe even pulling out altogether.

XS: Now we were chatting a little earlier and you mentioned this parallel command structure that exists in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Now it’s not clear to me that with South Korea, the new OPCON would take some sort of similar parallel command structure like the U.S.-Japan alliance or just be a transfer from a U.S. General currently who would be in control in a wartime scenario to a South Korean one. Do you have any sense what form this transfer would look like?

PO: Right and that’s a good point is that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is very unique. In most places where the U.S. has troops stationed like Japan, it’s a close cooperation, it’s a close working relationship but it’s parallel command structures. And as I said in South Korea, it’s much more integrated and it all comes down to a single person calling the shots.

Now in a conflict, particularly something as complex as a conflict with North Korea, that makes a lot of sense to have one person calling the shots. A conflict with North Korea would involve vast amounts of forces from both South Korea and the U.S., many of them working hand in hand. And it’s hard to see how this would play out in a battlefield situation. So that’s yet to be something that has been worked out.

There’s various plans floating around about how this would look in practice, but it’s not clear yet what    the structure would look like. It can’t work the way it does in Japan because the U.S and Japan are much less likely to be involved a massive joint ground operation like what may happen if war breaks out on the Korean peninsula with the North. So that’s an issue that has yet to be worked out.

And we learned today according to reports in Yonhap, that the United States and South Korea have agreed to set up a working group to hammer out these kind of issues. And one notable aspect of the report was that going forward rather than setting a deadline like they have in the past for OPCON transfer, they are going to do it, the transfer will be done only when conditions are met meaning only when South Korea feels ready. And so that basically means it could extend far, far into the future.

XS: Yeah it seems like problems can arise certainly in a wartime circumstance where you have I mean two people who are in control. I mean your point about Japan and the U.S. collaborating on a ground war, that being less probable, certainly makes sense. I can’t help but imagine, this will seem a little off topic so listeners forgive me for this.

But the situation kind of reminds a little bit of the command structure in the ancient Roman Republic and the way it worked back then was you had two consuls that were elected at any given time for a period of a year. And the consul back in ancient Rome, the ancient Roman Republic at least, was essentially the executive office so kind of like the president in the U.S. but you know obviously there were differences. Except you had two of them and in a wartime situation unlike today, the consul would, the consuls rather both, would sit at the head of the Army and actually lead them out in battle and the consul would also be the head general.

So you wonder ok but you have two consuls, they’re equal in power, was one greater than the other? And the answer was no. That was part of the way balance of power was set up in the republic. And the way that they traded power was essentially one consul would get to make all the shots decisively without challenge one day and then power would just flip to the other consul the next day.

And you know it worked to a degree right because Rome conquered the Mediterranean and the Republic brought them to a point where they had sufficient hegemony to expand further north. But it also created or lead to circumstances that you could say were really Rome’s biggest military defeats ever.

Like I know the Battle of Cannae which is iconic and I think one of the most interesting battles maybe in history. You had one consul advocating for one strategy not just tactics but one strategy of continuing to avoid Hannibal in the field because Hannibal had just been crushing the Romans. And then authority flipped over to the other consul who is you know a little younger, trying to make his name for himself and he said you know what, we’re gonna do what Romans do and we’re just gonna pile through the Carthaginian forces, I say we’re going to lead an attack.

And the other guys was kinda a little older, a little bit more seasoned says it’s not a great idea. But they did it and Hannibal encircled the entire Roman Army with a numerically inferior sized Army and basically destroyed everyone. So obviously, there are challenges to shared authority like that.

PO: Right so be like the Romans but not in that sense is what you’re saying.

XS: Be like the Romans but don’t be like the Romans.

PO: But don’t be like the Romans right. I think that brings up, I mean in any conflict even within you know there’s always going to be major disagreements about strategy. You saw that in World War I with the Germans. You know war plans get thrown out the window routinely and you know you have to be able to adjust. And the more dissonance you have in the senior levels, the harder it is to execute.

And so it’s hard to imagine how that would work with two different countries having very at times divergent imperatives or interests in how the war plays out or you know what to prioritize, what tradeoffs to make, you know whose troops to put in most immediate danger and so forth. So I think the bottom line is that to do this, they have a lot of things to think through and a lot of things to work out.

And in the current crisis that means, it’s not gonna happen quickly. So if for some reason that South Korea decided that they just could not bear to have the U.S. start a war with North Korea which we’ve seen signs of, the transfer of operational control probably can’t happen quickly enough and won’t happen quickly enough to make an issue now. It’s more of a long-term thing that they’re thinking about.

XS: Sure so that’s sort of one aspect of South Korea’s flexibility that we’re going to talk about in this circumstance. And the next that we’re going to bring up was this conventional military threat that North Korea can pose to South Korea and we wrote a little bit about this week in a “Reality Check”. If you’re interested in a little bit more detail than we’ll be able to get into on this podcast, make sure you go check that out.

But you know in the United States and to a certain degree in the Pacific Rim but off of the Korean peninsula, the focus of the Korean crisis has really been on North Korea’s missile programs and their nuclear development. Because the outstanding question is, well one can North Korea currently deliver a nuclear weapon and if not, when will they develop this capability? And that obviously makes sense because that’s how a U.S. city probably at first on the West Coast is in greatest risk from North Korea for any sort of crisis getting out of hand. However South Korea is much closer. I know, deep insight there right?

And since the end of the Korean War, they have faced a conventional threat that North Korea cannot bring to bear against other nations and this is strictly from their artillery force. And North Korea has a lot of both self-propelled and towed guns and howitzers. The best estimates that we’ve been able to come across are something like 21,000 guns including mortars in their arsenal in total.

Now these aren’t all state of the art new guns. A lot are very old, they acquired from the Soviet Union when the Soviet Union was its primary benefactor throughout the Cold War. There are indications that there’s a fairly high dud rate, so maybe 20% of the time when some of these guns try to fire especially the older ones, either they won’t work or the shells won’t work. But the point is, there’s still a very large arsenal and it’s something that has been receiving an increasing degree of attention because…

PO: What kind of damage could it do to Seoul then?

XS: Yeah that’s ultimately the question, right? North Korea has threatened to destroy Seoul in a sea of fire and kill millions of people and it’s a pretty scary scenario. Now Seoul lays far enough away from the Demilitarized zone that there are only certain types of guns and rocket launchers in North Korea’s arsenal that can actually reach it. And the best guess we have right now are they basically have one type of artillery which is a 170mm Koksan. I am almost certainly mispronouncing that. And they have two different caliber MRLs is what they are called, multiple-rocket launchers, 240 millimeters and 300 millimeters.

Now the Koksan gun has a conventional range of about 25 miles and that can be extended some if you use rocket propelled ammunition. And the 240 and 300mm MRLs have ranges of about 50 to 90 miles respectively. So when you look at that, it actually decreased by a substantial portion the amount of guns in North Korea’s arsenal that can actually hit Seoul. And it’s the best estimates that we’ve been able to put together, something in the range of like 700 to 1000 guns that could hypothetically if they are placed on the point on the Demilitarized zone that is closest to Seoul, be able to hit the city.

Now of course, North Korea needs to spread some of these guns out across the entire 160-mile width of the peninsula in the event that there is a war so they can cover their own bases.

PO: They probably also can’t just go nuts and fire everything it has at one shot, right?

XS: Yeah exactly. If it were to do that, it runs the risk of retaliation because South Korea and the U.S. have artillery radar. So as soon as something’s fired, you know it only takes a couple of seconds actually for this radar to roughly pinpoint the location and transmit that information to an artillery team in command of much more advanced artillery by the way and much newer and probably much better maintained, to hit the North Korea artillery positions.

PO: So in other words, every time you fire, you’re opening yourself up to return fire that can leave you vulnerable for whatever conflict follows the initial salvo.

XS: Yeah that’s exactly right and that is how you get this strategy called shoot and scoot where basically a self-propelled artillery piece will fire a round or two if they can and try to relocate very quickly. Now these bigger guns like the 170mm can only fire about two rounds every five minutes. So the stationary tactics that everyone thinks of when everyone thinks of artillery barrages from World War I don’t really work anymore. You need to constantly be relocating your pieces or risk exposing them to counter artillery fire.

PO: So North Korea probably can’t turn Seoul into a sea of fire and you know claims of 1 million people dead in just a matter of days or sooner are probably exaggerated but what kind of casualty estimates are we talking about here?

XS: Yeah we got some feedback from the RC, the “Reality Check”, that we published on this where people said is this the point you’re making that there is no or the risk is very limited to Seoul. And that’s not exactly the case. When we analyze a state’s interests, it’s important to have a good idea of what’s at stake because that just focuses you a little bit more into the reality of the risk. And there are a couple of different strategies that North Korea could pursue if it decided to hit Seoul with artillery.

One would be just a barrage against the civilian population and basically trying to kill as many people as possible. And there are a range of estimates but sort of the most methodical that I’ve come across was from a report by the Nautilus Institute and they estimate that if this were the case and if North Korea did not target any military targets and only hit the civilian population, you might see 64,000 casualties or so in the first day and maybe going up to 80,000. Those are serious numbers, right? That’s more people dead in a day than U.S. soldiers were killed throughout the Vietnam War.

So just because we’re trying to get a better sense of what the risk is, does not mean that this risk does not exist. North Korea can still hit Seoul with a lot of guns. Just not with 20,000 guns.

PO: Yeah so the issue then becomes you know in terms of if we’re asking how much is this risk a deterrent to South Korea willing to go to war or to support a U.S. operation? It’s hard to say because it could be lower if they decide to hold back their forces to defend Pyongyang or to defend against an invasion or could it even be higher if there’s technologies that we’re not aware of or let’s say they figure out a way to attach a chemical or biological weapon to some of their artillery. Then it jumps up quite a bit, right?

XS: Yeah of course, North Korea has a pretty large inventory of chemical weapons. There’s reasons to believe they have biological weapons as well but those are somewhat more difficult to deliver. They face some of the same reentry issues with well anyways, they’re somewhat more volatile to deliver compared to chemical weapons.

But then you have to ask the question you know is that sort of a barrage even really in North Korea’s interest? It certainly makes sense from a deterrent standpoint. Like oh if you do this, this is a lever we can pull and it’s a really dangerous lever, right? It can cause a lot of damage. But if a war were to actually break out, would it be in North Korea’s interests to senselessly kill a bunch of civilians or try to take out as quickly as they could before their own artillery was eliminated, some of South Korea’s military installations?

So that’s a point that this paper from the Nautilus Institute investigates in a little greater depth and says well if they were to do this and if they were to not target civilian populations and instead focused on military bases or different military infrastructure you know what could the extent of the damage be then? And it’s a much lower number. It’s a little below 3,000 deaths, most of them would be military. Still a serious risk that South Korea must consider.

Now there is a third strategy that George Friedman, our founder at Geopolitical Futures, pointed out when we were running through this analysis earlier this week which is North Korea targets its artillery force not at civilian populations necessarily but at infrastructure that supports those civilian populations. So you know artillery is fairly accurate nowadays. At least close enough to be able to hit a city block or something like that. And if North Korea wanted to, they could make certain areas of Seoul essentially uninhabitable and the risk there would be the casualties from one the attack but also the mass evacuations that would have to occur afterwards.

PO: Right? It’s easy to inflict a lot of pain regardless or maybe not easy but the potential is there and North Korea does have some options to create the sense that if there is war, it’s gonna be painful.

XS: Yeah exactly. This still absolutely acts as a deterrent to South Korea. I mean look at how they’re acting, look at how their imperatives have shaped the relationship with the United States. I mean you know South Korea has said before you can’t launch an attack without us. Now whether or not the U.S. actually has the capability to, that’s another question. But obviously this is an scenario that South Korea wishes to avoid.

And if you’re interested in a little bit more detail on this, we published the RC this week on Wednesday. It was called “South Korea and the Wisdom of War”. You can check it out and we try to lay out some of the detail of this analysis a little bit more and build it into the basically gaming out of the outbreak of a conflict that we’ve done in prior reports.

PO: Yeah they’re interesting questions and the more in the weeds you get and the more variables that you identify figuring out how this crisis plays out, it gets really tough because we’re trying to figure out what North Korea can do, what South Korea can do to stop them, what the U.S. can do hand in hand with South Korea to stop them and then also how much the three governments are weighing each factor against each other.

XS: There’s a lot of complexities to this crisis, the risk of a conflict should be taken seriously. And what we’re trying to do is just understand exactly what that risk looks like. So with that Phillip, I’d like to say you know thanks for the engaging conversation. To our listeners, thanks for listening. Be sure to check out some of our written work online and we’ll see you next time.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.