Jacob L. Shapiro: Hello everyone, welcome again to another Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m Jacob Shapiro, I’m the director of analysis. Xander Snyder, one of our analysts, is joining me again today to talk this week. Xander, how’s it going?
Xander Snyder: It’s going well Jacob, how are you?
JLS: I’m doing alright. We’ve been very busy at Geopolitical Futures. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world and the first thing we wanted to do was follow up – George joined us on the podcast last week to talk a little bit about certain indications that we’re seeing in terms of a potential U.S. strike on North Korea in the coming weeks.
The USS Nimitz, which was in port in Washington state, actually left yesterday and is headed for the Western Pacific. There were some reports that the USS Vincent, which is actually currently off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, might be leaving the area, but as of now it doesn’t seem like it has left. The USS Vincent and the USS Reagan actually had some joint drills yesterday where they actually lined up next to each other and were doing things. So tensions still remain pretty high on the Korean Peninsula.
So we thought we would talk about a study really that Xander led with us here at Geopolitical Futures which looked at what a potential military conflict looks like between North Korea and the United States. Xander, I know a lot people are thinking about missiles and nuclear weapons, but one of the points that your piece made that I found particularly informative was that there’s actually a lot of other variables here that if there is a conflict will become much more important.
And I think artillery was one of the ones that you focused on most closely. How about you lay out for listeners here why it’s so important to think about artillery when we’re talking about a potential military conflict between North Korea and the United States.
XS: Sure. Well, like you mentioned, a lot of the headlines in the news really focus on ballistic missile development, nuclear warheads, nuclear tests and missile tests, right? That’s what has been going on lately that’s been receiving the most attention.
However, North Korea has a really conventional military, and a lot of this is rounded out by something like 21,000 artillery guns that it has, a combination of tube shell artillery guns which is generally what you think of when you think of artillery guns like big World War II cannons, you know stuff that’s actually firing shell. And then they also have another type of artillery device called multiple rocket launchers or MRLs, which is exactly what it sounds like so instead of firing a shell, it fires rockets of different sorts.
And this is important because basically since the end of the Korean War, North Korea has been amassing this conventional arsenal and Seoul, one of South Korea’s major cities, sits within range of a lot of these weapons that are stationed on the Demilitarized Zone. So the reason this piece focused not entirely on artillery but largely is because North Korea is able to maintain a fairly substantial threat against a major U.S. ally, against South Korea, using normal weapons, not nuclear weapons, not ballistic missiles.
JLS: Yeah it’s an important point, and it also dictates what a potential U.S. strike is going to look like against North Korea, right? Because it can’t just be that the U.S. is going to go in and pinprick certain nuclear sites with whatever big bombs that it has in its arsenal. One of the points you made is that the U.S. is going to have to also devise a strategy for knocking out a lot of this artillery to try and protect Seoul from the inevitable backlash that would come from the North Koreans.
XS: Exactly. In the event of a U.S. strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities, essentially two battles begin. The first is the attempt by the United States to eliminate the North’s nuclear capabilities while at the same time minimizing the amount of damage that can be done to Seoul and other populous centers in the north of South Korea, mainly with the North’s conventional artillery force. So both of these battles will be waged at the same time.
Now the U.S. would engage in a first strike because of the nuclear program, because if North Korea were to develop a ruggedized nuclear warhead that could be affixed to a ballistic missile that would be a threat that would be intolerable because even right now some of the North’s ballistic missiles could reach U.S. allies, and in time, the threat is they could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, an ICBM, that could reach the U.S.
So, this would be the reason the U.S. would strike, however at the same time, the U.S. would have to find a way to either on its own or cooperating with South Korea essentially neutralize the threat of that artillery as quickly as possible. And the reason that the piece focused so much on artillery was because the North would not need to launch any sort of major ground infantry invasion at the outset of hostilities in order to pose a major threat. The artillery can actually reach quite a long way as it is.
JLS: Yeah and I think this actually brings up one of the things – some listeners who are familiar with war and who study war will be more familiar with this but other listeners who are not – the issue of artillery really brings up one of the most important parts of talking about military activities that is often overlooked, which is simple things like logistics. So you spend a lot of time in the piece discussing not just what kind of artillery they have and what the potential moves of the actors are going to be but also where the stockpiles of ammunition are and what that means about North Korea’s ability to communicate across its firing lines and to actually make its attacks effective and to protect itself against the types of strikes that the U.S. is going to use to try and take out those artilleries. So can you talk a little bit about also specifically the issue of ammunition and how some of the resources that you found indicated some of what’s going to happen if the strike does indeed happen?
XS: In the piece, what we tried to show is one potential way or several considerations that can be made that can constrain the conflict to look or to behave in a certain way if it were to actually break out. But as we mentioned in the piece and as anyone familiar with war knows, once it actually begins its very difficult to actually know what can come up so we do our best to understand the constraints in the situation based on the arsenal that North Korea has available to itself, that North Korea has available to it, while understanding that making an exact prediction of these things is actually very difficult when the violence begins.
That said, there are certain things that you can attempt to game out. And one of these is recognition that the other side is aware that you are aware of its own weaknesses, right? So one of the things, I know it’s kind of like a lot of back and forth and you know what I know that you know what I know, right? It’s one of those things. And one of the things that we looked into was the command structure of the North Korean military. And I came across some papers published by the U.S. Army War College talking about how it is essentially a very centralized, probably understandably so, a very centralized military structure – something that borrowed a lot from Soviet military structures during the Cold War. And one of the ways that the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un maintains control over the military is with a parallel reporting structure so there are military officers but there are also political officers, and he uses this dual reporting structure to assure that no military officer at any given time can acquire too much power to rebel against him or pose any sort of serious threat.
So the conclusion that some of these papers have drawn is that, well because it is such a centralized command and control structure that will actually provide for a lack of flexibility in the event of conflict. If the North Korean military actually has to wage a war, if the supreme leader must direct everything himself, well that’s a very inflexible structure.
So we recognize that conclusion. But we also try to expand on it a little bit because North Korea, they’re not dumb right? And I think this is another narrative that gets tossed around out there, it gets picked up on because it is difficult to rationalize a lot of their moves. But a country that’s capable of a nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles, they’re not stupid, right? They know that the United States has planned for the outbreak of war, and if they have, we’ve considered their command and control structure. So they’re thinking, “Ok well, the U.S. is going to think that we have a fairly flexible command and control structure, so we need to account for that to a degree because if our communications get cut off and we can’t actually direct artillery fire in the outbreak of hostilities, we face a serious problem. We can’t control the war, and that will decrease our ability to, you know, actually achieve some sort of strategic objective that we would want in this conflict.”
So it makes sense then to think that there’s actually some system even if it’s not publicly available that would allow for devolution or decentralization of command to a degree that would allow unit-level artillery commanders to continue fighting if they lose communication with the centralized command. So that’s one indicator that you can look for to get a sense of whether or not this is true. And it’s certainly not slam dunk evidence, it’s more like a mosaic you are putting together a lot of different pieces to try to corroborate this idea.
So one thing we looked at in the study was the prevalence and location of decentralized ammunition stores. And the reason this matters is because supply and logistics is everything in war. If artillery commanders can get ahold of things to shoot, well a gun is not very effective without a bullet, without a shell right?
Now it turns out that for decades the North Koreans have been developing hardened artillery sites or HARTs is the cute acronym for it, H-A-R-T. And these are stationed all along the Demilitarized Zone from coast to coast in North Korea, and it’s impossible to know the locations of all of these but some of them have been postulated and we put together sort of a representative of like a best guess that we came across for where some of these HART locations can be.
And that’s an indication that the North Koreans have prepared for a scenario in which if communications get cut with centralized command, there is no need to depend on like the centralized supply depot, so they can continue to fight, these artillery heads can continue to fire and pose a real threat to Seoul on a localized basis. They will still have access to ammo even if they are kind of shut off and by themselves.
JLS: One thing that you said in particular that struck me which is that the media picks up on this narrative that North Korea is stupid or that they’re crazy, and I think it’s a point to be emphasized because the worst mistake that either side can make in a military conflict is to underestimate one’s enemy. I think one of the reasons that the Korean War back in the ’50s dragged on as long as it did was because the United States actually miscalculated and underestimated a lot of the factors at the beginning of that war, and it probably prolonged a conflict that didn’t have to be as long as it was.
I think the other thing to point out, which is the flip side of some of what you are saying, is that North Korea suffered a great deal in the Korean War with the United States in the 1950s, and it is terrified of the United States. There is a very real fear on the part of North Korea about what the United States is capable of and what U.S. unpredictability is. That might be strange to hear for a U.S. audience or for an audience that is more Western-oriented, but I think that’s also true, and I think it animates a lot of North Korean’s actions.
But I want to take a step back for a moment and ask you, so Secretary of Defense Mattis gave his first public interview I guess last Sunday now on Face the Nation on CBS, and he got a question about North Korea, and he said two things about North Korea. He said, number one, that North Korea was already a national security threat to the United States, and the other thing he said and this got picked up quite a bit was that the fighting that would happen in North Korea if there was a military conflict there would probably be the worst that many Americans would have seen in most of their lifetimes.
So I wonder if you know having really dived deep into the details and thought about all this, how you rate Mattis’ statement? Do you think that this really would be some of the most destructive and catastrophic fighting the United States has done in the last 50, 60, 70 years, or do you think that’s a little bit of hyperbole?
XS: Yes, I think definitely it would represent a very violent conflict. There would be a lot of destruction, a lot of death, and that is in large part because of the capability of the North Korean military to wreak such damage based on the weapons they currently have. I mean, while it is true that a lot of their conventional weapons are outdated, a lot were acquired from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, some are natively built, and there are a few newer weapons systems that we talk about in the piece that have been developed more recently, but ultimately the vast majority of their guns are relatively old, but old guns still shoot. They might have, you know, a slightly higher rate of failure, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do a lot of damage.
Now, there are some reports saying if the North Koreans start firing on Seoul, they will completely flatten or level the town. And I read some reports that challenge that to a certain degree, but even some of the more conservative papers that said, “Well, maybe they wouldn’t flatten Seoul,” had really very high casualty estimates in the first couple of hours in the outbreak of a conflict.
One of the estimates was that if North Korea targeted population centers in Seoul with its artillery instead of, say, other military targets at the outbreak of a conflict, something like 30,000-60,000 people could die in a first three hours of a conflict. So, you know, we’re talking really high amounts of casualties. I mean something like 58,000 soldiers died in the entire Vietnam War, so that’s very violent.
So I think the question you want to ask yourself after hearing those numbers is, well, would North Korea actually use its artillery if it would be wreaking such destruction and the potential for a retaliation that it would cause? And I think that the answer has to do with the credibility of deterrent, right? Everyone talks about nuclear deterrent, and it’s an important subject to talk about, but right now North Korea also has a conventional deterrent and has had one before it began developing its ballistic missile technology and nuclear technology, which is its conventional artillery deterrent. Now, if it is struck and does not implement an artillery barrage against the South, then it’s effectively saying to the world that this deterrent, this conventional deterrent, this threat is not really there. So I think it’s quite likely that if attacked, North Korea would feel compelled to retaliate against the South and that it could be quite destructive.
JLS: Yeah your point is well taken though, which is that a deterrent is at its most powerful when it’s actually deterring. Once a deterrent has had to be triggered, it automatically takes the power out of the hands of the country or the state entity that is doing the deterring and forces it make an offensive move that it doesn’t want to make. The whole point of deterrence is to try and prevent it from making that move.
I think another thing maybe to also point out is that some of the stuff that you’ve pointed out here is one of the reasons that at GPF we really don’t pay a lot of attention to the political drama and back and forth about THAAD, which is that U.S. anti-missile system that finally is going to get stationed in South Korea. But there’s a lot of domestic opposition to it being stationed in South Korea. China really hates that these U.S. anti-missile systems are going to be in South Korea. But the point is that doesn’t actually help the South Koreans solve the problem that arises if there is a significant military conflict because as you say the issue here really is artillery, and if you have 21,000 pieces of artillery or whatever you said it was, the THAAD missile defense system is not going to be able to block those things, right? There’s really nothing that South Korea can do if it gets that far.
XS: No, I mean at that point all they can really do is hope that the U.S. can – well it would be the U.S. and South Korea. I mean, I don’t want to make this sound like the U.S. would be doing all the fighting, right? If the North opens on the South, the south also has artillery pieces and as soon as a large gun fire it exposes its position, right? I mean right now, they’re hidden to a certain extent. Some of these HARTs that I talked about are deep underground caves or tunnels, fortified positions where pieces of artillery, sometimes even planes, are hidden to protect against the barrage. But as soon as their position is exposed, the South has artillery too and can respond in kind.
But it will take a lot more time to eliminate all of the artillery pieces with a counter barrage than it would with say a strategic bombing campaign. And there, the U.S. would probably be taking charge with a lot of its strategic bombers located at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
JLS: No but that’s a good point, and it’s good that you brought up Andersen Air Force Base in Guam because I think that this is another part that is not well recognized, because the United States wants its aircraft carriers there because that sort of became a U.S. military doctrine when it comes to fighting war but actually a lot of the heavy lifting that’s going to happen on the U.S. side is going to happen out of Guam. That’s one of the places that we’re watching most closely, right?
XS: Yeah absolutely, it would come from either B-52s or B-2s or B-1s, all of which are heavy strategic bombers, one of which is stealth, B-2 is stealth. Some folks believe that the B-2 bomber would be able to take out a lot of these artillery positions while at the same time avoiding North Korea’s anti-air defenses. And in theory that’s true, it’s difficult to really play out again just because war is unpredictable.
JLS: Yeah. And just taking a step back for a second from the very tactical perspective that you’ve offered here about North Korea, it’s also very telling to think if we just look at everything that we’ve actually written this week at GPF and to see how it all fits into a larger picture.
Obviously, we had, you know, your deep study of this issue in North Korea. We had one or two other pieces that dealt with North Korea. We had a couple other pieces that dealt with the problem of ISIS. And some of the comments that Secretary Mattis made about how the U.S. is accelerating its strategy against ISIS.
Then we also wrote about NATO this week in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump going to Brussels and meeting with NATO leaders. And these are all actually very connected to each other. You know, the major military conflicts that the U.S. seems to be involved in right now are this fight against the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq and dealing with the potential threat of a nuclear North Korea.
I don’t mean to minimize those conflicts. But they are not sort of on the level of challenging the United States from an existential perspective, right? Like it is a national security interest that North Korea not develop a nuclear weapon, but the future existence of the United States is not in play there. The same is true of ISIS. The United States doesn’t want a radical Sunni Arab entity to rise in the Middle East and throw off the balance of power there, but at the same time, what happens in the Middle East or what happens with these horrible terrorist attacks doesn’t actually challenge the U.S. from an existential point of view.
And then you have the U.S. also going to NATO, and a lot of people have, you know, been talking about Trump’s manners at NATO and I don’t really feel like getting into that. I’ll just point out that Secretary Mattis has been for NATO from the beginning, and Donald Trump picked him as secretary anyway. And Mattis himself has been a NATO officer so you can see the U.S. trying to find the right balance of what conflicts is it going to engage in, what is it not going to engage in, what alliances is it going to use, what alliances is it not going to use.
And I think that one of the things that is striking to me in particular about North Korea is that, you know, unlike with ISIS where at least it has built some kind of nominal, even superficial coalition to deal with ISIS, the U.S. really is the one pushing this issue with North Korea and is going to be providing a lot of the impetus for it. They’ve been pushing China to do something on this issue, but China so far hasn’t really been able to get North Korea to calm down and seems to be just repeating itself over and over again.
The South Koreans have elected a government that is a little more peace oriented when it comes to North Korea. Obviously, if there is a fight, they are going to have to be involved. And Japan, which we sort of see as really the main player in East Asia, hasn’t really had much to say. So in some sense I think from the United States’ perspective, it’s got to be a little bit…, on the one hand it shows how powerful the U.S. is, but on the other hand it shows how limited that power is because the U.S. can’t really depend on anyone when it’s dealing with the situation in North Korea.
XS: I think you make a great point, and it is challenging when investigating one part of the world or any one aspect of the world to get caught up in the details, which to some degree matter, right? Because details reveal truth about a matter, which are difficult to see from a high level. We talk about geopolitics and ultimately that is events in the world and how they impact one another. It’s impossible to look at one part of the world without recognizing how events in other parts of the world are related to it, especially when talking about the United States, which as the sole global superpower right now has interest everywhere. So, therefore, what goes on in one part of the world, in the Middle East, impacts the amount and types of resources that it can devote towards approaching other challenges in other parts of the world.
So the amount of military resources that it commits to the Middle East impacts the amount of military resources that it can commit to conflict in the Western Pacific. So, you know, I’ve had people approach me with everything that’s going on now with the Korean Peninsula and the Middle East, and they’ve said, “So do you still think that the U.S. is going to be the major power in the rest of the century looking at what’s going on now?” And the only answer I can really give them is yeah. I mean, the U.S. is immensely powerful economically and militarily, and like you said, none of the challenges that it’s facing that we’ve talked about in this podcast, that we talk about at Geopolitical Futures really threaten it from an existential perspective.
I mean, even if you want to imagine this hypothetical scenario where tomorrow North Korea develops the capability to deliver all of its nuclear warheads, which I’ve heard estimates about 20 – well not nuclear warheads that it can attach to a missile but nuclear devices – if it could tomorrow find a way to deliver all of these somehow to the U.S., that still wouldn’t be an existential threat. I mean if they could wipe out portions of 20 different cities, it would be devastating, but the U.S. would still be around and still have the strongest military by far.
So there are threats, but it’s important to, when digging into the details of the challenges U.S. is attempting to deal with either with economic or military strength, keep them in the context of how much damage they can actually do to the U.S., right? And whether the scale of those challenges really confront – well if they really pose the existential risks in the way that a lot of people often talk about them doing.
JLS: Well Xander, I want to ask you one more question before we wrap up, and it’s a little bit of a curve ball, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about. And actually I haven’t asked you this before, and I haven’t actually come to it in my mind so we’ll see if it works or it similarly stumps you. There was something that George actually has said to me a couple times since the time that I’ve known him, and it’s – I forget the exact quote, but it’s something like the great wars are always fought twice. You know, like World War I, there was a World War II. Like the really important wars in the world are always fought twice.
And when we think about the current conflicts that the United States is involved with right now, I mean we’re basically on the third iteration of the Iraq War, right? Because we had Desert Storm and then we had the invasion in 2003, and then technically all U.S. troops were out of there under the Obama administration, and then Obama had to recommit them because of what was happening with ISIS and ISIS going into Mosul and dealing with Yazidis and stuff like that. And with Korea, obviously the United States fought the Korean War in the 1950s and that was part of the Cold War.
But it has really struck me that when we look at the places that the United States is committing most of its military resources right now, they are old conflicts. They’re vestigial conflicts. They were there before and maybe sort of weren’t carried out in a way that brought them to some kind of resolution. Maybe they can’t be carried out in a certain way that can bring them to some kind of resolution, and these will be constant little conflicts that the United States will have to be going through all the time. I guess I don’t necessarily have a question there, but I wonder if there’s anything in your analytical toolkit that can help explain why the U.S. seems to go back to fighting not just a lot but in the same places in the world over and over again.
XS: It’s an interesting question. I think if you look at conflicts isolated as individual events, it’s maybe harder to see that connection, but if you try to dig down to understand the causes of those conflicts, sometimes the underlying causes are more difficult to solve, right? What do I mean by that? If you look at World War I and World War II, they were both about the same fundamental issue, which was Germany’s role in Europe and that had always been a question. I mean, even the Thirty Years’ War to a degree was about German states’ role in Europe, and it only really became a pressing issue after the unification of Germany, and that’s what lead to the massive scale of these conflicts.
So while the circumstances might have changed with Korea – you know, the Cold War is no longer going on, they no longer have support from the Soviet Union – there are some aspects that remained unchanged. And those remain longer-term geopolitical causes, right? So, Korea has always been unified. Almost always throughout its history for thousands of years, and it became divided as a result of the Cold War, and we’re now dealing with the underlying causes – the relationship of Korea with itself and that’s not something that has changed on some level since the Korean War. So I think there are ways to dig down beneath isolated events and try to see what those causes are. That doesn’t mean that major wars will always be fought twice, but I think that sheds some light on why they sometimes are.
JLS: Yeah and it just strikes me that one of the ironic things is that, so if we take what you said and play it a step forward, the issue in Korea is that there is a division there that is somewhat unnatural when you think about history and the Korean Peninsula overall. In the Middle East, it’s sort of the opposite, right? The unnatural thing is trying to join together states that never actually existed. So on the one hand, in Korea, you have this really arbitrary separation that has now taken root over half a century and creates its own host of dynamics. In the Middle East, because of colonialism, because of the way that the Ottoman Empire fell apart, you had these groups that were smushed together in way that perhaps didn’t make geopolitical sense, and now all of that stuff is playing out. So that’s just an interesting little aside. But Xander thank you for taking the time to join us on the podcast today. Again, I’m Jacob Shapiro, I’m our director of analysis. If you have any comments, feedback, critiques, we also love topic suggestions, you could actually write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we will see you all out here next week.