Despite all that the press do to stir up flagging sales, the world is a pretty peaceful place; those parts of it that are not tend to blight mostly themselves. Readers may dispute this, citing some conflagration or other that is always filling headlines. Twenty years ago it was Iraq, then a disintegrating Yugoslavia, then Iraq again, then Sierra Leone, then Afghanistan, then Libya, now two years of Syria.
But, ’twas ever thus. It’s just that, fifty years ago, there were far fewer countries and you never heard of their tribulations—16th century Mughal or Siamese/Burmese Wars meant little to contemporary Europe. It was only when Abyssinia got the League of Nations dander up in 1936 that international news rated much coverage in the newly widespread media. Only rarely do these more modern brush-fires justify concern for the general peace of the world.
Once such wide concern was more common. Anguish over the Cuban missile crisis, Arab-Israeli wars, Dubcek’s ‘Prague Spring’ or Angolan civil strife was genuine because all were avatars and/or test beds for the main cold war proponents and their weaponry. Each time, the road could plausibly have led to Armageddon. But, ever since the Berlin Wall was breached, such brief inside tracks to oblivion have been rare—until now.
The varied tantrums recently thrown by North Korea hark back to those troubled days. Their rhetoric echoes that of China when the US was fighting in Vietnam or the Soviets when US-backed Israelis cleaned their Egyptian protégé’s clock in the Six-Day War. The situation has all the hallmarks of a tinderbox about to ignite: repressive, a militaristic régime; an unbridled but inexperienced young dictator; grinding poverty from sustaining a bloated military that requires external enemy distraction á la Orwell’s 1984; still-glowing embers of a sixty-year-old war with the South that has never been resolved.
Both South Korea and the US appear to take North Korean threats seriously because more active, action-ready troops are deployed there than anywhere else in the world. Whereas the US and UK each have around 7 per thousand populationunder arms and China barely 1 per thousand, the KPA, including the Worker-Peasant Red Guards number some 380 per thousand—everyone of military call-up age. ROK has around 20 per.
The closest comparison that has had a recent military outing was the 1.2m strong Iraqi Army of 79 divisions that in 1991 (and again a decade later) was surgically annihilated in five days by a force a fraction of that size that knew how to exercise its overwhelming superiority in air power, intelligence, command structure and equipment. And that was on the offensive. Although nothing should be ruled out, it is hugely unlikely that South Korea would invade the North unprovoked and so any likely scenario is a re-run of 1950 when the North invaded the South.
The much larger 9m-strong KPA deploys infantry, armour and even artillery divisions—some 153 in all. Such a force demands serious study how/if it is to be defeated, especially as Chinese intervention in the original Korean War demonstrated very effective mass infiltration and suicidal human wave attacks, able to throw the US Second division into disarray. Many generals spend their time studying how to fight the last war. Wave attacks were shattered only on the tight training, slick logistics/support and sheer jarhead determination of the First Marines around Chosun reservoir.
Given that the military is effectively the only career open to ambition in the North and that the Dear Leader is, at best, a puppet of a military junta (c.f. Burma) or, at worst, a tantrum-throwing 27-year-old who has known no constraints but those with which the West hamstrings ‘his’ country, calling the situation ‘volatile’ may be an understatement. The question is: will the KPA generals risk their livelihood to pursue their rhetoric into a shooting war? Even if they can’t build rockets to seriously threaten anyone, given their scale of isolation, commitment and paranoia, the answer has to at least be ‘possibly’
Should they have done their homework objectively and well, the answer ought to be ‘no’. Not only will they realise that Chosun and Iraq were no flukes but how fragile sheer numbers—even of armoured vehicles—are if they lack technology. The graveyard of the Republican Guard armour was in the swirling dust on the Basra road when the infra-red sights of VII Corps decimated phalanxes of blinded Iraqi T-72. But, if they do launch everything they have out of sheer delusion and bravado, what then? Pivotal in their consideration should be that their one friend China, rapidly modernising on trade with the West, have little interest in upsetting peace’s lucrative apple cart.
There is a case to be made that the US/ROK forces could be caught short, despite a justifiable belief in their own superiority. History provides rafts of examples where a palpably superior side believed it was all bluff and an entire generation of venerated generals found egg all over their faces as well as their hats. Some recent lulus include:
- Sedan 1940. A 100-division-strong French Army trusted in élan, the Maginot Line and more tanks than the Germans. As they swung into Belgium to block the German advance predicted there, Guderian and Rommel fell on their pivot at Sedan with seven panzer divisions they had sped through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes; they were at the Channel and Dunkirk before anyone could respond coherently.
- US East Coast 1942. Despite considerable RN advice & intelligence, a smug US Navy didn’t believe U-boats could operate in their waters and bet on aggressive hunting groups to find and sink any that dared try. The result was six months of the worst Allied shipping losses of the war (in sight of a brightly-lit coast) that came near to postponing the invasion of Europe through huge tanker losses in the Caribbean.
- Sinai 1973. Having dismantled three Arab armies in 1967, the IDF—probably the most fearsomely effective small army in the world—convinced itself that neither the Egyptians nor the Syrians would dare attack. Egyptians jumped the canal in force and hundreds of Israeli tanks and jets were lost against SAMs and SLMs that had been cleverly held back for just such a riposte.
- Korea 1950. Sixty years ago, a smaller, more primitive KPA swept across the 38th parallel to pen both ROK forces and their ill-prepared US allies into a perimeter around Pusan in short order. Only massive air reinforcements, combat trained troops and a gutsy amphibious landing at Inchon recovered a near-disaster.
It is devoutly to be wished that the Commander UNC/CFC/USFK, General Thurman and his staff are on the ball about the situation, as well as intimately familiar with such humbling incidents as given above—especially the last. But his photo fails to inspire confidence. ROK is faced with an irrational and increasingly isolated country of 20m fanatics who may see quick and glorious death preferable to gradual starvation: their military saviour’s haircut looks like a punk nihilist mohawk.