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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

Korean Crisis, 1994:
Military Geography, Military Balance, Military Options

Congressional Research Service:
CRS Report for Congress, No.94-311S

April 11, 1994 John M. Collins,
Senior Specialist in National Defense


The United States and Republic of Korea (ROK) currently seek ways to convince the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) that it should forego the manufacture of nuclear weapons, initially by allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct full inspections of suspected facilities. North Korea thus far has refused, although it did agree to an incomplete examination of declared sites early in March 1994. This report reviews military options open to each side as the United Nations, United States, and South Korea explore ways to resolve the resultant crisis peacefully despite threats of war from Pyongyang.

Topography and climate on the Korean peninsula are unchanged since 1950, when DPRK armed forces invaded South Korea, but population patterns and road networks are quite different. Migrations from country to city have created five ROK centers that exceed 1,000,000 inhabitants apiece (Seoul, at 11,000,000, is the largest). High speed highways now link every urban complex in South Korea, but not in the DPRK.

North Korean armed forces, with few exceptions, greatly exceed the size of ROK counterparts: twice as many active uniformed personnel and main battle tanks, five times as many self-propelled artillery pieces, air defense suites that dwarf South Korean analogues, plus many more submarines, torpedo boats, and antiship missile craft. Neither Korea possesses a large air force. The U.S. 2d Infantry Division, deployed on a main invasion route, primarily symbolizes U.S. resolve, but U.S. air and naval power (a small part of which is now in place) provides capabilities that the DPRK cannot match. There is little qualitative difference between North and South Korean military personnel. Both sides are well organized, thoroughly professional, dedicated, tough, and highly motivated, although one may question how large a share of North Korea's rank and file would welcome orders to initiate large-scale offensive operations. Both deploy the bulk of their best ground forces near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in well-prepared positions, but technological superiority and synergistic U.S. relations with ROK allies confer unique advantages on our side.

Military options for both sides range from status quo to mass destruction, with increasingly provocative courses of action in between. No form of armed combat in Korea seems salutary from U.S. standpoints. Limited objective operations by either side could trigger uncontrollable escalation. Neither side seems likely to benefit from a full scale conventional or nuclear war during this decade no matter who declares victory. Nevertheless, doing nothing while North Korea develops a nuclear arsenal and perhaps supplies nuclear weapons to other rogue states clearly would worsen any future military confrontation. New U.S. deterrent concepts and force postures then would be in demand not only on the Korean peninsula but elsewhere around the world.

Background, Purpose, and Scope..................................1
Military Geography..............................................2
  Topography and Climate .......................................2
  Population and Man-Made Structures ...........................4
  Military Implications ........................................5
Military Balance................................................6
  Comparative Force Levels .....................................6
  Qualitative Factors ..........................................8
North Korean Options...........................................10
  Option A: Minimize Military Risks ...........................10
  Option B: Destabilize South Korea ...........................11
  Option C: Conduct Incursions ................................11
  Option D: Intensify Transnational Terrorism .................12
  Option E: Launch Conventional and Unconventional Invasions ..12
  Option F: Employ Nuclear Weapons ............................14
U.S./South Korea Options.......................................14
  Option A: Withdraw ..........................................15
  Option B: Maintain Military Status Quo.......................15
  Option C: Improve Deterrent/Defense Posture .................16
  Option D: Conduct Forward Defense ...........................16
  Option E: Blockade North Korea ..............................18
  Option F: Destroy Enemy Nuclear Facilities ..................19
  Option G: Launch Preemptive Attack ..........................20
  Option H: Employ Nuclear Weapons ............................20
Map: The Korean Peninsula.......................................3
Selected Force Levels in Korea and Japan........................7


The next greatest misfortune to losing a battle is to gain a victory such as this.

The Duke of Wellington
After Waterloo

Adjectives like totalitarian, isolated, xenophobic, belligerent, backward, and tactically unpredictable fairly describe the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), which is better known as North Korea. President Kim Il Sung, who also serves as Grand Marshal, has openly threatened South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK) since the Korean War terminated with an armistice on July 27, 1953. His basic objective, shared by all senior DPRK political-military advisers before and after that conflict, has been and remains one Korea under Pyongyang's control. He currently hopes to achieve that aim by 1995, an even 50 years after Korea's liberation from Japanese rule and 50 years after post-World War II U.S. and Soviet occupation zones "temporarily" partitioned the Korean peninsula along the 38th Parallel.1

DPRK policies, pronouncements, force postures, and operations for the past 41 years have caused countless armed clashes in and near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Prominent DPRK terrorist attacks include three attempts to assassinate South Korean presidents and one bombing that obliterated a South Korean airliner with 115 passengers and crew aboard. Great dangers to the United States and its associates could arise if, as some analysts anticipate, the DPRK eventually provides weapons of mass destruction to transnational terrorist groups and militant anti-U.S. countries (such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya) with which it has close connections. Acrimony reached a rhetorical peak in March 1994, when disputes about suspected North Korean nuclear weapon programs 2 brought the threat of United Nations trade sanctions that "pushed the situation...to a very dangerous brink of war," according to broadcasts from Pyongyang. Pak Yong-su, the chief DPRK representative at a related conference with South Korea, asserted that, "if a war breaks out, Seoul will turn into a sea of fire."3

U.N., U.S., and South Korean decisionmakers currently are considering what mix of political, economic, and military responses might be most likely to resolve the resultant crisis peacefully. This brief report in that regard serves three purposes. First, it describes the geographic context within which any future Korean armed conflict would occur. Next, it assesses the military balance between DPRK and U.S./ROK forces. Finally, it reviews military options that each adversary might consider singly or in some combination. Sequences selected constitute a rough escalation ladder with unevenly spaced rungs. Appraisals summarize prominent strengths and shortcomings of each course, but do not predict outcomes. Neither do they address unexpected military intervention by China or Russia, which would radically alter every evaluation.


The Korean peninsula, 600 miles long and 105 miles wide at the waist, embraces about the same area as Utah, but is shaped more like Florida. It shares an 850-mile border with China, along the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, and bounds Russia for 11 miles in the extreme northeast. The Sea of Japan (Eastern Sea) abuts its eastern shore; the Yellow Sea and Korea Bay wash the west (see Orientation Map).

A nearly uninhabited Demilitarized Zone, 2.5 miles wide and tilted slightly from southwest to northeast across the 38th Parallel, presently separates North from South Korea. Fifty-five percent of the peninsula lies in DPRK territory; the Republic of Korea occupies the rest.4


Mountains and rugged hills cover 80 percent of Korea. Major ranges crisscross the DPRK and begin a "backbone" that extends southward along the east coast, decreasing gradually in elevation until it terminates 50 miles north of Pusan. Offshoots form a spectacular array of "ribs." Rivers that flow east from the watershed follow short, precipitous courses to the sea. Those that flow west are relatively long, slope less sharply, and eventually meander across wide flood plains until they reach an irregular coast that is studded with hundreds of islands. The Han and Imjin Rivers, which empty near Seoul, are among the largest.

The Sea of Japan is very deep and maritime approaches to Korea from the east contain few obstacles. The Yellow Sea, by contrast, is shallow. The world's second greatest tidal range, which averages 30 feet or more, alternately covers and exposes mud flats, shoals, and low-lying islands along the west coast.

Korean winters are long and cold (more so in the DPRK than in the ROK), while summers are hot and humid. Spring and fall are short seasons. Frigid air masses from Siberia often freeze rivers solid enough to support motor vehicle traffic. Warm monsoon winds that sweep westward across Korea from the Pacific Ocean bring most precipitation in July and August. Torrential rains accompany occasional typhoons.


The physical setting just described was precisely the same in 1950, when North Korea invaded the ROK. Population patterns and man-made structures, however, differ in several important respects.

Populations have more than doubled since 1950, when the DPRK contained approximately 9 million people and South Korea 21 million. Current estimates credit those two countries with 22.7 and 44.6 million respectively. Perhaps 70 percent of all inhabitants on both sides of the 38th Parallel formerly engaged in agriculture. Half that many presently claim farming or forestry as their primary occupation in North Korea; the ROK counts 21 percent. The remainder now reside in towns and cities (Seoul, for example, has expanded from 1.1 to more than 11 million). Kyonggi Province, which surrounds that capital and Inchon, is the most densely populated region in either nation, but five other urban centers exceed one million: Pusan, Taejon, Taegu, Kwangju (all in South Korea) and the DPRK capital at Pyongyang.

Few paved roads serve North Korea. The best ones connect Pyongyang with the DMZ and Nampo with Wonsan. Some have been widened enough in spots to accommodate fighter-bombers based at adjacent airfields. Two standard gauge railways, one on each coast, carry most traffic. East-west connections are interspersed. South Korea also relies extensively on railroads, but less so than in the recent past. Four-lane superhighways now link Seoul with all provincial cities, reducing motor vehicle travel times to a day or less.

There are few good natural harbors in either country, despite long, indented coasts. Five much improved ports handle most maritime cargo for South Korea, of which Pusan and Inchon are the best. Nampo services Pyongyang. Wonsan is the most important naval port on North Korea's eastern shore. Chongjin handles commercial traffic for the DPRK.

The Demilitarized Zone has been the de facto boundary between North and South Korea since 1953, in accord with the Armistice Agreement. That decision placed Seoul somewhat closer to the provisional frontier than it was in 1950, because the DMZ in its vicinity dips below the 38th Parallel, which previously separated the two countries. The shortest straightline distance now is 25 miles. That geographic circumstances has dictated U.S./ROK forward deployment patterns for the last 41 years.


Strategically and tactically significant terrain constitute physical features, natural or artificial, the seizure, retention, destruction, or indirect control of which would confer distinctive (sometimes decisive) advantages. The Korean peninsula possesses key terrain in three categories:

  • Seoul and Pyongyang are political, economic, and military nerve centers. Each is a focal point for communications, transportation, commerce, finance, diversified industries, education, research, and culture. Each concentrates the largest population in the country. The loss in each case would be cataclysmic.
  • Other underpinnings of national power, especially first-class ports, airfields, telecommunication nodes, and industrial facilities.
  • Major military installations, including nuclear weapon plants (see section entitled Military Balance).
Both Koreas are easily accessible by sea and air. Attractive sites for large-scale amphibious landings are well removed from most key terrain inland, but serrated coastlines invite small raiding parties and facilitate clandestine infiltration.

High speed avenues of approach to key terrain are available for ground forces into and within the Republic of Korea but, except for the Pyongyang-DMZ expressway, not within the DPRK. Cross-country movement is difficult or impossible for wheeled and tracked vehicles in the mountains. Rugged topography, however, affords many opportunities for unorthodox forces to mount attacks, rest, recuperate, resupply, then resume operations.

Surface irregularities generally furnish land forces with excellent concealment from enemies on the ground. So do forests, mainly in South Korea. Aerial observers have clearer views, but dispersed foes can be elusive even in bare terrain. Multilayered clouds, low ceilings, winter icing, fog, and high winds make air-to-ground combat perilous among mountain peaks.

Technologically superior weapons and equipment not available in 1950 would vastly improve abilities to overcome geographic obstacles if war should erupt in Korea. Satellite sensors, for example, would simplify overhead reconnaissance and surveillance. Heliborne forces can move far and fast over otherwise forbidding terrain. Precision guided munitions and missile delivery systems make hard targets more vulnerable than they were in 1950-53.


Quantitative and qualitative assessments herein compare the combat power of North Korea with that of the U.S./ROK coalition. They do not speculate about possible United Nations participation or the unanticipated emergence of DPRK allies.5


Military balance assessments begin with statistical summaries (see table on facing page).6 North Korea's armed services contain almost twice as many active military personnel as South Korean and forward deployed U.S. forces combined. Reserve figures reflected on the table seem grossly inflated for most practical purposes. Ready reserves, reasonably well equipped, trained, and expeditiously mobilizable, perhaps total no more than 500,000 apiece.

The DPRK and ROK both emphasize ground forces. North Korea is quantitatively superior in most respects: twice as many active uniformed personnel; a comparable number of divisions, but 58 more independent brigades; more than twice as many main battle tanks (3,700 vs. 1,800), plus 500 light tanks designed for river crossings; almost one-third more artillery, with a much larger share of self-propelled tubes (4,600 vs. 900); sixteen times as many multiple rocket launchers; five times as many surface-to-surface missiles; and air defense suites that dwarf South Korean analogues. The South Korean Army is quantitatively superior only in armored personnel carriers, armored infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopters. The U.S. 2d Infantry Division, deployed near the DMZ, does little to redress those imbalances.

Neither Korea possesses a large Navy. South Korea is quantitatively superior in surface combatants (9 destroyers, 29 frigates, and 4 corvettes vs. 3 DPRK frigates and 3 corvettes), but North Korea outclasses the ROK in every other category. Its 25 submarines, 175 torpedo boats, and 145 antiship missile craft are especially well suited for operations in and near coastal waters. The ROK Navy consequently would rely heavily on a U.S. carrier battle group based in Japan for early reenforcement.

                       SELECTED FORCE LEVELS
                        In Korea and Japan
                       DPRK        ROK          U.S.
                                            Korea     Japan
Total Personnel
  Active            1,127,000    633,000    35,000    42,800
  Reserve           6,000,000  4,500,000         0         0
  Personnel         1,000,000    520,000    26,000     1,900
  Divisions                26         22         1         0
  Brigades                 63          5         2         0
  Tanks                 4,200      1,800       116         0
  Other Armor 1         2,500      3,550       116         0
  Artillery             6,800      4,400        48         0
  Multiple Rocket
    Launchers           2,280        140        36         0
    Missiles               58         12         0         0
    Missiles           10,000        750         0         0
  Air Defense Guns      8,800        600         0         0
  Helicopters               0        588       266         6
  Personnel            45,000     60,000         0     7,300
  Aircraft Carriers         0          0         0         1
  Surface Combatants 2      6         42         0         8
  Submarines               25          4         0         3
  Missile Craft           145         11         0         0
  Torpedo Craft           175          0         0         0
  Coastal Patrol          387        120         0         0
Air Force
  Personnel            82,000     53,000     9,500   15,6000
  Bombers                  80          0         0         0
    Wings                 335        335        84        78
  AWACS                     0          0         0         3
  Helicopters             290         15         0         0
    Missiles              340          0         0         0
  Personnel                       25,000         0    18,000
  Divisions 3                          2         0         1
SOURCE: The Military Balance, 1993-1994, London, International
Institute for Strategic Studies; HQ U.S.Army (DCSOPS)
1. Armored personnel carriers; armored fighting vehicles
2. Cruisers, destroyers, frigates, corvettes
3. U.S. entry indicates a Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa

Neither Korea possesses a large air force. Numbers of fixed-wing aircraft are nearly equal. North Korea has half as many helicopters in its Air Force as South Korea has in its Army. The overall rotary-wing balance thereby favors the ROK somewhat less than described above. U.S. fighter/attack and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft based in Korea and Japan tip the numerical scales slightly in favor of the U.S./ROK coalition.

North Korea's armed services exclude Marines. Two ROK marine divisions and a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) on Okinawa accordingly afford amphibious assault and other capabilities that far exceed those of the DPRK.

Additional formations from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps comprise a strategic reserve ready to augment U.S. forward deployed forces if so directed. A light infantry division, a tactical fighter squadron, and assorted naval combatants in Hawaii are closest to the scene (3,975 miles from Pusan). The next nearest supplements are stationed along the U.S. west coast, nearly 5,000 miles away. One Maritime Prepositioning Squadron at Diego Garcia, another on Guam, are prepared to help on short notice.


It is true that quantity has a quality all its own, because large forces retain stronger capabilities than otherwise would be possible after suffering heavy losses and possess flexibilities not otherwise obtainable. The full significance of numbers, however, is revealed only in context with qualitative factors, many of them intangible, that contribute to combat power. Typical considerations include education, training, and combat experience; discipline, loyalty, morale, adaptability; technological competence; logistic systems; command, control, communications, and intelligence (C3I); dispositions; and leadership.

There is little to choose between DPRK and ROK military personnel. Both sides are well organized, thoroughly professional, dedicated, tough mentally as well as physically, and are thoroughly convinced that their cause is just, although one may question how large a share of North Korea's rank and file would welcome orders to initiate large-scale offensive operations.

North Korean armed forces enjoy several advantages.7 They get 20 percent ($4.5-5 billion) or more of a small GNP (now about $22 billion) year after year. The DPRK remains a backward, impoverished country in all other regards. Much of the DPRK weapon inventory is outmoded, especially combat aircraft, but all services are completing a longterm improvement plan that commenced in the late 1970s. The best units (about 60 percent) are positioned within 60 miles or less of the DMZ. Hardened facilities in forward positions, many beneath bedrock, protect artillery, combat aircraft, naval craft, and supplies. Some North Korean fortifications, in violation of the Armistice Agreement, penetrate the Demilitarized Zone virtually to the center line. An undetermined number of tunnels extend farther (four have been found; as many as 20 are suspected). Diversified special operations forces, which reportedly total 85,000 to 100,000, give North Korea capabilities to conduct large-scale, well-coordinated conventional and unconventional operations simultaneously. The presence of chemical warfare weapons that could cover all of South Korea and parts of Japan presently is confirmed. Biological weapons, as well as advanced missile delivery vehicle programs that could reach as far as Guam, reportedly are under development. North Korean efforts to acquire nuclear weapons already strengthen DPRK coercive and bargaining powers, although success is unsubstantiated. Proven possession would dramatically increase DPRK offensive capabilities, increase the likelihood of nuclear war in Korea, and probably encourage Japan as well as South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.

Three substantial liabilities counterbalance those North Korean assets. No reliable allies seem available since the Soviet Union collapsed and China ceased active military support. DPRK armed forces lack sufficient air power to gain air superiority or provide a protective umbrella over any fast-moving offensive in ROK territory. Military stockpiles reportedly are sufficient to last three months, but the logistic apparatus is ill-suited for mobile land warfare unless victory is quickly achievable.

Air power, naval power, technological superiority, and synergism strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance. North Korean armed forces and their lifelines would be exposed to standoff air and missile strikes from both flanks and the front, a crucial deficiency given U.S. target acquisition capabilities, stealth aircraft, land attack cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, and the dearth of credible DPRK defenses except those around static installations. U.S. and ROK forces plan together, train together and, in most instances, employ interoperable weapons, equipment, and supplies. The United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command foster unity of effort, common procedures, and common rules of engagement. Major improvements in C3I architecture are interwoven at every level. Computers accelerate decisionmaking cycles and enhance military operations in many other useful ways.8

Significant constraints, however, limit U.S. capabilities. The Pentagon's Inspector General, for example, recently found inadequate preparations for the reception, staging, and onward movement of U.S. forces scheduled to reinforce South Korea. He cited a list of logistical shortfalls such as insufficient docks, aircraft hangars, parking hardstands, unloading areas, rail facilities, trucks, billeting, cargo handling equipment, stevedores, and storage structures. His report in particular noted a need for alternative ports. Corrective actions in progress will take a long time to complete.9 Many senior military commanders and Members of Congress moreover question whether available U.S. airlift and sealift would be sufficient to deploy and sustain two major regional contingencies simultaneously.10

U.S. and South Korean forces both lack proven defenses against DPRK ballistic missiles, because upgraded Patriot batteries have never seen combat. Chemical warfare defense and countermine capabilities are deficient.


At least six distinctive military courses of action are open to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea if its leader elects to defy the world community. Distinctive objectives, advantages, and disadvantages accompany each:

- Option A: Minimize Military Risks
- Option B: Destabilize South Korea
- Option C: Conduct Incursions
- Option D: Intensify Transnational Terrorism
- Option E: Launch Conventional and Unconventional Invasions
- Option F: Employ Nuclear Weapons


The status quo may seem militarily attractive to Kim Il Sung in some respects. Perpetuation of the perennial confrontation between North Korea and the U.S./ROK coalition could minimize any immediate risk of major war and permit DPRK forces to further improve their posture. Nuclear weapon projects perhaps could proceed unimpeded indefinitely until they reach fruition, if the world community confined countermeasures to talk instead of action. North Korea thereafter would possess infinitely greater coercive/offensive power and might market nuclear weapons to any buyer willing to pay a high price.

The price of stalling for time, however, could be high. Option A, which minimizes military risks, also minimizes potential opportunities for great gains. Chances would be slim that 82-year-old Kim Il Sung could achieve any important objectives before he dies, becomes incapacitated, or transfers power to his son, Kim Jong Il, whose authority seems uncertain. Reunification of Korea on DPRK terms would become an empty dream if North Korea's mismanaged economy, already deprived of support from the former Soviet Union and China, collapsed. Domestic chaos probably would follow. Time consequently is on North Korea's side in few respects.11


Psychological operations (PSYOP) are nonlethal offensive and defensive "weapon systems" designed to influence the emotions, attitudes, and behavior of precisely targeted foreign audiences in ways that expedite the achievement of security objectives. They seek to influence friends, enemies, and neutrals favorably before activities begin; consolidate and exploit successes; minimize failures; and make the most of mixed results.

The overall purpose of North Korea's PSYOP campaigns is now and always has been to expedite the downfall of any ROK government that does not embrace Kim n Sung's unification policies. Option B would intensify two basic themes: the restoration of true ROK "independence" and the prompt removal of "reactionaries." Theme One aims to dismantle the U.S./ROK coalition. Its architects hope to exploit criticism of U.S. military presence by some factions in South Korea and U.S. desires to reduce the defense budget. Prospects of success, however, appear slim as long as Pyongyang issues inflammatory statements and tells the DPRK populace to prepare for war. Theme Two seeks to foment such serious political, economic, and social discontent in South Korea that the government would topple. To those ends, North Korean PSYOP programs focus on alleged repression and human rights abuses by ROK leaders, student activism, class struggles, labor-management disputes, and "unfair" U.S. trade policies. False "peace offensives" sometimes are interspersed.12

South Korea, however, remains a generally infertile ground for subversion. Its solidly anticommunist stance, appreciation for prosperity, pride in achievement, and a flair for self-determination have thwarted most psychological warfare efforts, but Kim Il Sung and his advisers keep trying.


North Korean special operations forces, skilled at clandestine infiltration and exfiltration, could conduct limited objective incursions across, under, or around the Demilitarized Zone by land, sea, and/or air. Lightly defended sectors along the line of contact, undetected tunnels beneath the DMZ, and indentations that typify South Korea's west coast all invite encroachments.

DPRK ends, in conformance with communist doctrine, would be mainly political rather than military: to test U.S./ROK reactions and resolve; to induce stress; to stoke sentiments for early political solutions favorable for North Korea; to provoke responses that could be politically counterproductive for the United States and its South Korean partner. Success could achieve a great deal at little cost, but most such operations thus far have been counterproductive.13


The U.S. Department of State brands North Korea a terrorist state, along with Iraq, Iran, and Libya, with which the DPRK maintains close ties.14 Highly publicized atrocities that span the last quarter century include two assassination attempts against ROK President Park Chung Hee (1968; a second botched attack in 1974 killed his wife); an attempt to assassinate President Chun Doo Hwan in Rangoon (17 ROK officials, including six cabinet ministers and aides, died, 1983); axe murders during a tree-trimming incident in the DMZ (1976); and the obliteration of a South Korean airliner with 115 passengers and crew aboard (1987). North Korea is not known to have sponsored any terrorist act since then, but it provides technicians, trainers, weapons, and other support to renegade groups and states that do.

The resurgence of North Korean terrorism might support Option B to intensify fear and suffering within South Korea, and thereby convince ROK officials that major concessions would be preferable to continued chaos. North Korean terrorists alternatively might wage an unconventional war against U.S. and allied people, enterprises, and property worldwide, including the United States proper, perhaps with assistance from other "outlaws." The objective in such event would be to weaken U.S. national will and crack the U.S./ROK coalition. Transnational terrorism, however, also could convince previously reluctant members of the United Nations that economic sanctions and, if necessary, stronger actions against North Korea were both advisable and unavoidable.


Kim Il Sung has rationally avoided a full-scale shooting war since 1953, probably because risks in his judgment seemed to outweigh gains. He declined to strike south when most U.S. long-haul airlift and sealift forces were required to deploy and sustain military operations in Southeast Asia (1965-1972) and during Desert Shield and Desert Storm (1990-1991). Prospects of early economic collapse and desperation, however, conceivably might make him change his mind. Overly ambitious and poorly informed generals moreover could seize control after his demise and, through miscalculation, conclude that war was preferable to gradual weakening or absorption by a vibrant South Korea and that a quick victory at acceptable costs was possible.

North Korea could launch major offensives from present positions with little additional preparation. Warning times, uncertain at best, might be measured in a few hours, a day or two at most. Three principal objectives appear most plausible: overrun U.S. and ROK forward defenses, which parallel the Demilitarized Zone; encircle Seoul quickly and hold its inhabitants hostage to encourage South Korea's capitulation; prevent decisive U.S. reinforcements from arriving before North Korean armed forces occupy and control the entire peninsula.

DPRK military doctrine amalgamates regular and irregular warfare on a grand scale. Derivative plans reportedly call for massed artillery fire from hundreds of heavily fortified bunkers to crack the crust so first wave infantry and armored units could pour through on selected fronts. Follow-on waves would try to envelop, then destroy, U.S. and ROK frontline forces, isolate Seoul (which is a short distance away), then drive south along high-speed routes. Defenders could anticipate air and missile strikes against South Korean ports, airfields, C3 centers, and logistic installations, perhaps employing chemical warfare weapons as well as high explosives.15 North Korean special operations forces (SOF), skilled at terrorism and sabotage, probably would attack civilian leaders, military command posts, air defenses, telecommunications, power distribution facilities, and other sensitive targets en masse to disrupt cohesion and create confusion in rear areas. Some SOF, assisted by DPRK sympathizers, also might conduct operations against U.S. military installations in Japan to prevent their use for reinforcement purposes. North Korean SOF numbers probably are much inflated, but capacities for mischief would be immense even if estimated strengths of 85,000-100,000 were divided by four or five.16

One glaring deficiency is evident. The 300 MiG-17/19/21 models that make up most of North Korea's combat aircraft inventory are obsolescent. Sixty MiG-23/29 fighters are more modern, but the amalgam seems no more likely to gain and maintain air superiority than the Iraqi Air Force did during Desert Storm. North Korean ground attack aircraft, which likewise feature antiquated MiG-17/19s, lack the payload capacities and range needed to support a swift, deep-penetrating offensive. Fuel shortages that curtail air crew training and maintenance problems that limit aircraft availability further restrict DPRK air combat capabilities. North Korean infantry and armored elements accordingly would be exposed to U.S./ROK air strikes soon after they enter South Korea. Failure to win quickly would seem fatal unless large allied forces unexpectedly intervened on North Korea's behalf, as they did in 1950.


The Democratic People's Republic of Korea currently possesses no more than one or two "primitive" nuclear weapons, if it has any at all, according to most open source estimates. Neither do North Korean armed forces have any credible aerial delivery vehicles. The U.S. Director of Central Intelligence suggests that truck transportation might be feasible, given the probable size and weight of DPRK weapons.17 Commercial boats and ships might infiltrate South Korean ports with one or more atomic bombs embarked. The DPRK may someday acquire man-portable suitcase size bombs for use by SOF but Seoul, sometimes mentioned as a lucrative target, meanwhile seems safe (it is not clear why Kim Il Sung would want to destroy Seoul rather than preserve its skilled manpower and economic treasures for his own use).

One realistic and potentially devastating alternative remains. North Korea could position one or more nuclear weapons in tunnels beneath the Demilitarized Zone and detonate them when windborne fallout from a subsurface burst would drift south. A huge crater and radioactive cloud would instantaneously breach U.S./ROK coalition lines which hug the DMZ. Electromagnetic pulse would disrupt radio communications and computers. North Korean troops then could pour south over safe routes while confusion reigned following the first use of nuclear weapons against armed forces in world history. Military planners in Pyongyang might speculate that a shocked and sickened world would simply look away. Catastrophic failure, however, would follow initial success if the President of the United States ordered nuclear retaliation against the DPRK (see U.S./ROK Option H) or, with U.N. assistance, applied overwhelming conventional military power.


The U.S./ROK coalition, which has been in a deterrent and defensive mode since 1953, could exercise a mix of offensive and defensive options. Options A-C pertain in peacetime. Options D-H involve some form of armed combat:

- Option A: Withdraw
- Option B: Maintain Military Status Quo
- Option C: Improve Deterrent/Defense Posture
- Option D: Conduct Forward Defense
- Option E: Blockade North Korea
- Option F: Destroy Enemy Nuclear Facilities
- Option G: Launch Preemptive Attack
- Option H: Employ Nuclear Weapons


"The best option is to offer to withdraw U.S. military forces from South Korea in exchange for North Korean abandonment of any nuclear weapons development and agreement to permit unimpeded international inspection to verify the agreement," according to the Center for Defense Information. As it stands, "U.S. forces in Korea, seen by the North as a very dangerous threat, actually have stimulated it to develop nuclear weapons rather than discouraged it."18 Support for those opinions is forthcoming from others who believe that "U.S. troops should come home -- they are not necessary to defend the ROK, and America has no interest at stake in the region that warrants using them as hostages in a nuclear game of chicken."19

Withdrawal would eliminate or greatly alleviate any possibility of land combat between U.S. and North Korean troops. The likelihood is low that large U.S. ground forces would return, even if North Korea reneged on its promises. Sizable budgetary savings would result if the 2d Infantry Division disbanded upon return to the United States. Abrogation of the U.S. security treaty with South Korea and abandonment of that long-standing ally, however, could seriously degrade the importance of military power as a U.S. foreign policy implement, undercut U.S. interests in national credibility, and perhaps encourage aggression against other U.S. friends around the world. Civil war on the Korean Peninsula probably would erupt. The Republic of Korea and Japan might feel needs to develop their own nuclear weapons.


Option B for the United States and South Korea is the obverse side of North Korea's Option A, which stalls for time. Stated succinctly, a "wait and see" attitude could achieve U.S./ROK objectives without risking war, if North Korea collapsed economically before taking rash actions and future DPRK leaders, like Kim Jong Il, continued to believe that the costs of war would outweigh gains. Ruinous results nevertheless could occur if North Korea survived economic sanctions and other nonmilitary pressures, took full advantage of available time to complete an ambitious nuclear weapon program with appropriate delivery systems, used products thereof for "blackmail" purposes, supplied some weapons to other rogue states, and/or employed them against South Korea.


Low profile augmentation of U.S. forces in Korea and Japan is in progress. A Patriot air defense battalion soon will help protect military air bases near Seoul. A second battalion in the Continental United States is ready to reinforce if the U.S./ROK coalition faces an emergency. Aircraft maintenance crews and repair parts are bolstering support capabilities in Korea and Japan. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry recently announced that additional unspecified preparations are possible.20 Reintroduction of theater nuclear weapon systems into South Korea and on board neighboring ships for deterrent purposes is one of many possibilities.

Senator Sam Nunn, who is Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and his colleague Senator Richard Lugar recommend the following precautions "at a minimum if North Korean intransigence forces the world community to impose sanctions: "(1) continue to strengthen our intelligence capabilities, making every effort to gain as much warning as possible of a North Korean attack; (2) accelerate our efforts to correct U.S. and South Korean force structure deficiencies, including theater missile and chemical defenses, counter-battery fire, and countermine capabilities; and (3) reinforce our military forces in South Korea to strengthen deterrence and reduce the dangers of a short-warning attack."21

Such actions would improve U.S./ROK military posture. Whether they would increase or decrease the likelihood of war depends on reactions in Pyongyang. Effects would be de-escalatory only if DPRK leaders view them as nonprovocative.


Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a speech to the National Press Club on January 12, 1950, diagrammed a U.S. insular defense perimeter from the Aleutian Islands through Japan and the Ryukyus to the Philippines. It excluded Formosa (Taiwan) and Korea because, he claimed, "it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack." Poorly armed, poorly equipped, poorly trained, and poorly motivated U.S. and ROK forces met the consequent North Korean armored onslaught in the summer of 1950.21 A disaster immediately developed.22

The U.S./ROK coalition today is far better prepared to perform much the same missions as its 1950 predecessor if North Korea once again should strike south. The supreme challenge would be to stop DPRK invaders at or near their line of departure. War plans and declaratory policies in this case are completely in consonance, because forward deployed defenders cannot trade space for time. Seoul is too close to the DMZ. Forced evacuation of that immense city would cause vast human misery. A protracted war up and down the peninsula in a worst case scenario would destroy the infrastructure that South Korea has so painstakingly constructed over the last four decades, shatter its economy, and fundamentally disrupt every facet of national life. Operations to regain a foothold in Korea in the unlikely event that U.S. forces were ousted (which almost happened in 1950) would be incalculably costly.23

"Should North Korean Armed Forces ever be unleashed, it will be because their leaders have concluded that they can win, and win quickly," opined General Richard G. Stilwell shortly after he relinquished command of the U.S./ROK coalition in 1976. His words remain relevant in 1994. "It will be an all-out offensive, sized and configured to ensure against failure," featuring "prolifigate expenditure of human life to achieve breakthrough. The area of main thrust may or may not be along the traditional avenues, for Kim Il Sung thinks unconventionally.24

"Confronted with all this," General Stilwell continued," the defender must get his priorities absolutely right and concentrate on essentials. The first vital task will be to marshal and orchestrate superior mass against the most dangerous threat.... The second task will be to gain control of the air space over the battle area as the precondition to dealing with the enemy's artillery. A third key task will be to insure that seaports remain open to receive sustaining support from offshore bases and the United States."25

The efficacy of forward defense, he concluded, "presupposes the ability to engage and neutralize that portion of the hostile force array beyond the range of ROK Army artillery." He further predicted that "the interaction of massive ground forces in a constricted space will generate an unprecedented intensity of combat; ammunition expenditures, consumption rates, and equipment losses will be inordinately high. Thus...there will be requirements for immediate and substantial augmentation by U.S. land- and carrier-based air; for equally prompt and substantial material assistance, initially by air lift and subsequently by sea; and for [U.S.] Seventh Fleet support in protecting the water approaches to ROK ports."26 North Korean armed forces could fold quickly, as Iraqi forces did during Desert Storm, but the U.S./ROK coalition cannot count on it.

Several potentially serious problems confront U.S. and ROK defenders:

  • The expeditious arrival of adequate U.S. reinforcements and supplies would appear problematic if U.S. armed forces became heavily involved in a major regional contingency elsewhere (say in Bosnia or Iraq) shortly before war commenced in Korea.
  • The security of ROK ports and airfields against ballistic missile attacks could be assured only if upgraded Patriot batteries, untested in combat, prove to be highly effective.
  • U.S./ROK forward deployment dilemmas exist, because ground forces massed just south of the DMZ to block conventional assaults are vulnerable to nuclear attack. Greater dispersal would better enable them to survive nearby nuclear detonations, but would make it more difficult to stop a conventional invasion.
  • Much of South Korea's civilian population is poorly protected against chemical warfare, which the DPRK could wage deep in ROK territory with ballistic missiles and special operations forces.
  • B-52 bombers will remain inconveniently positioned for operations against North Korea unless they return to Guam or some other relevant forward base. Round trips from Minot AFB, ND and Barksdale AFB, LA, for example, presently take approximately 27 and 34 hours respectively.
  • A range of objectives and war termination strategies that cover a range of unpredictable circumstances still seems advisable. The status quo antebellum and unconditional surrender represent possible ends; a negotiated settlement and forceable reunification of Korea on U.S. and ROK terms are possible means.


The United States and South Korea could conduct a naval blockade of North Korea if diplomatic measures and economic sanctions fail to produce desired results. Capabilities to do so are more than adequate. A strictly enforced cordon could break North Korea's economic back; prevent pariahs like Iran and Libya from shipping oil to North Korea if they refuse to abide by a U.N. embargo; and deprive its military establishment of sustaining resources.27 A naval blockade also could diminish, but not eradicate, DPRK abilities to supply Iran and other "outlaw" states with high-technology weapons, since some shipments move by air.28

Naval blockades are acts of war. Combatant surface ships and submarines of the DPRK Navy would suffer defeat if they tried to open gaps but North Korea, in response, might also precipitate major land battles that the United States and South Korea both want to avoid. Serious problems also could arise if blockaders barred ships from China, a prominent trading partner that furnishes North Korea a good deal of oil. Chinese and Russian supplies that arrive over land routes could also compromise a blockade.


U.S. interests in nuclear nonproliferation intensified in 1979-1980 when North Korea began to construct a small nuclear reactor, allegedly for research purposes. Refusal to allow full inspection of facilities to confirm the presence or absence of weapon-related activities has precipitated a crisis that extends far beyond Korea.29

All concerned consider direct military action to incapacitate or eradicate North Korean nuclear weapons plants as a last resort. Targeting problems are tremendous, since intelligence about key sites is sketchy. Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak acknowledges that air strikes "are not a very attractive option, quite frankly." Moreover, he continued, "we don't know if the North Koreans have nuclear material off-site about to be weaponized. We don't know where that is so we don't know how to attack it." Subterranean facilities magnify difficulties immensely. "If you build them deep enough under ground," McPeak admits, "we can't get down to them" (GBU-28 bombs, the best bunker-busters in the U.S. Air Force, can penetrate only 100 feet of earth or 20 feet of concrete).30

Success would not be assured, even if intelligence were perfect and air strikes achieved pinpoint accuracy against exposed targets. Direct hits that breached the core of North Korea's 5 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang, could cover Seoul with radioactive fallout within a few hours and southern Japan the next day (no such effect occurred in Iraq after Israeli aircraft demolished an inactive reactor in 1981; structural damage to Iraqi nuclear facilities during Desert Storm left radioactive cores intact).

U.S. and ROK special operations forces could attack North Korean nuclear installations using different techniques. Whether better results might be expected, perhaps using nonlethal, "soft kill," capabilities, are not discussed in open sources. DPRK responses would be unpredictable in any event.


Extreme provocation (DPRK sponsorship and participation in high-intensity transnational terrorism, for example) or belief that a North Korean invasion seemed imminent might tempt political leaders of the U.S./ROK military coalition to preempt. Such an unexpected move in the latter event might catch enemy forces off balance before their assault formations finished taking shape, upset their plans, short-circuit their timing, catch many units in the open, and otherwise increase prospects for a quick victory.

Option G, however, is politically unattractive in the United States and South Korea. It also seems very risky for pragmatic military reasons. Combat power now in place is insufficient, if one subscribes to widespread beliefs that frontal assaults by land forces against first-rate foes in formidable defenses demand quantitative superiority on the order of 3:1 (a little less or a lot more, depending on circumstances). Steps to bolster U.S. and ROK land capabilities enough to create a favorable balance near the DMZ could convince North Korea that it had nothing to lose and perhaps something to gain by striking before the buildup was complete. The same response most likely would ensue if the U.S./ROK coalition punished North Korean transgressions with air and missile strikes. The need for war termination objectives and strategies described in Option D once again would apply.


Political leaders of the U.S./ROK military coalition in extremis might seriously consider the use of nuclear weapons to avoid defeat or terminate what otherwise would be a protracted war accompanied by exorbitant economic and human costs. Inability of the United States to introduce adequate reinforcements and supplies into the Area of Operations because of deep U.S. military involvement in a major regional contingency elsewhere or because South Korean seaports were too badly damaged could create such conditions. So could DPRK use of nuclear weapons.

U.S. nuclear fire power unquestionably could quickly and cost-effectively obliterate North Korean abilities to continue the conflict. All might go well as a result. The first use of nuclear weapons in combat since 1945, however, might have political, military, and psychological implications of seriously adverse proportions. World opinion could condemn the United States as an "outlaw." Fewer friends and less international influence could be one consequence. Some signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty could seek to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons as trappings of national power. Psychological reservations that previously inhibited nuclear warfare might diminish, even among so-called "responsible" states. Rogues might employ nuclear fire power for frivolous purposes.


No form of armed combat in Korea seems salutary from U.S. standpoints. Limited objective operations by either side could trigger uncontrollable escalation. Neither side seems likely to benefit from a full-scale conventional or nuclear war during this decade no matter who declares victory, because North Korea and the U.S./ROK coalition both would suffer severely. Caution consequently appears advisable, since North Korean responses to U.S., U.N., and ROK political, economic, and military pressures are unpredictable.

Nevertheless, doing nothing while North Korea develops a nuclear arsenal and perhaps supplies nuclear weapons to other rogue states clearly would worsen any future military confrontation. New U.S. deterrent concepts and force postures then would be in demand not only on the Korean peninsula but elsewhere around the world.

1 Overviews are available in Shinn, Rinn-Sup, North Korea: Policy Determinants, Alternative Outcomes, U.S., Policy Approaches, Rpt. Nr. 93-612F, Washington, Congressional Research Service, June 24, 1993, 23 p.; Sutter, Robert G., Korea-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress, Issue Brief 92068, Washington, Congressional Research Service, March 21, 1994, 15 p., updated regularly.

2 Niksch, Larry, North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program, Issue Brief 91121, Washington, Congressional Research Service, March 23, 1994, 15 p., updated regularly.

3 Quotations are from Reid, T.R., "North Korea Warns of 'Brink of War'," Washington Post, March 23, 1994, p. 23; "North Korea's 'Sea of Fire' Threat Shakes Seoul," London, Financial Times, March 22, 1994, p. 6.

4 Area analyses are available in Vreeland, Nena, Rinn-Sup Shinn, Peter Just, and Philip W. Moeller, Area Handbook for North Korea, 2d Ed., Chapter 3, "Physical Environment," Washington, U.S. GPO, 1976, p. 39-52 and Area Handbook for South Korea, 2d. Ed., 1975, Chapter 3; North Korea: A Country Study, Ed. by Frederica M. Bunge, Washington, Foreign Area Studies, American University, 1981, p. 50-61; South Korea: A Country Study, Ed. by Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Washington, Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990, p. 70-85.

5 For alternative assessments, see Defense White Paper, 1993-1994, Seoul, The Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea, 1994, p. 53-93.

6 Military statistics in this section rely primarily on The Military Balance, 1993-1994, published by Brassey's for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 1994, p. 28, 159-162.

7 General Richard G. Stilwell, shortly after he retired as Commander in Chief United Nations Command and Commander in Chief United States Forces in Korea (August 1973-October 1976), produced an unpublished monograph entitled Security on the Korean Peninsula: A Military Appraisal. This section incorporates some nonperishable observations contained on p. 6-7,15, 21, 25-26. See also General Robert W. RisCassi, "Still Keeping Peace on Cold War Lines," Army, October 1993, p. 80-87 and Niksch, Larry N., North Korea's Nuclear Weapon Program, 15 p.

8 For elaboration, see General Robert W. RisCassi, "Still Keeping Peace on Cold War Lines," p. 87-91.

9 Weinschenk, Andrew, "Substantial Weaknesses Mar Reinforcement of Korea: IG," Defense Week, November 15, 1993, p. 1.

10 Matthews, William, "Airlift Woes," Air Force Times, March 21, 104, p. 22; Lewthwaite, Gilbert A., "Transport Plane Troubles Could Ground U.S. Troops," Baltimore Sun, March 28, 1994, p. 3. Both articles also address sealift.

11 For discussion concerning the transfer of political power, military loyalty, and economic performance, see Shinn, Rinn-Sup, North Korea: Policy Determinants, p. 6-14.

12 Defense White Paper, 1993-1994, p. 73-76; Sutter, Robert G., U.S.-Korea Relations, p. 2-3, 7-8, 9; Shinn, Rinn-Sup, North Korea: Policy Determinants, p. 4, 6.

13 General Richard G. Stilwell, Security on the Korean Peninsula, p. 39-40.

14 Patterns of Global Terrorism, Washington, U.S. Dept. of State, April 1993, p.21-24.

15 Defense White Paper, 1993-1994, p. 57-58; 60-62, 66; Army Green Book, October: General Louis C. Menetry, "Tough, Ready U.S. Forces Help Keep Peace in Korea," 1989, p. 92, 95 and "Training for War Under The Guns of a Hostile Neighbor," 1988, p. 74, and General William J. Livsey, "Task in Korea: Convince North Attack Is Futile," p. 134-135; Niksch, Larry A., "The Military Balance on the Korean Peninsula," Korea & World Affairs, Summer 1986, p. 260-264.

16 Major Douglas S. Watson, "North Korean Special-Purpose Forces," Special Warfare, October 1992, p. 35-41; Bermudez, Joseph S. Jr., "North Korea's Intelligence Agencies and Infiltration Operations," Jane's Intelligence Review, June 1991, p. 269-274; Jacobs, G., "North Korea Looks South: Unconventional Warfare Forces," Asian Defense Journal, December 1985, p. 10-17; Sanger, David E., "North Korea Is Collecting Millions From Koreans Who Live in Japan," New York Times, November 1, 1993, p. 1.

17 Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard G. Lugar, Statement on the Korean Peninsula, February 23, 1994, p. 7; Niksch, Larry A., North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program, p. 7-8; North Korea: A Potential Time Bomb, Special Report No. 2, Jane's Intelligence Review, April 1994, 24 p.

18 "Ending the Cold War: Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam," Defense Monitor, Washington, Center for Defense Information, January 1994, p. 4-6.

19 Bandow, Doug, North Korea and the Risks of Coercive Nonproliferation, Foreign Policy Briefing, Washington, CATO Institute, May 4, 1993, p. 13. See also Borosage, Robert L., "Bring Home the GI's from South Korea," Los Angeles Times, July 11, 1993, p. M5.

20 Smith, R. Jeffrey, "Perry Sharply Warns North Korea," Washington Post, March 31, 1994, p. 1, 23.

21 Senator Sam Nunn and Senator Richard Lugar, Statement on the Korean Peninsula, p. 3.

21 Acheson, Dean, Present at the Creation, NY, Signet, 1970, p. 465-466.

22 Results are described in Fehrenbach, T.R., This Kind of War, NY, MacMillan Co., 1963, p. 11-123; Appleman, Roy E., South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu, United States Army in the Korean War, Washington, U.S. GPO, 1960, p. 7-100.

23 General Richard G. Stilwell, Security on the Korean Peninsula, p. 38, 41-42.

24 Ibid., p. 43.

25 Ibid.,p.43-44.

26 Ibid., p. 44-45.

27 Young Nam-koong, "An Assessment of North Korean Economic Capability," in Economic Problems of National Unification, 1993, Seoul, Research Institute for National Unification, Republic of Korea, December 28, 1993, p. 43-58.

28 "N. Korea's Air Force Chief Visits Iran for Closer Ties," Washington Times, February 24, 1994, p. A14; "Minister to Make 'Strategic Deal'," Northeast Asia, FBIS-EAS-93-235, December 9, 1993, p. 11; Greenberger, Robert S., "North Korea's Missile Sales in Mideast, Along With Nuclear Issue, Raise Concern," Wall Street Journal, July 19, 1993.

29 Niksch, Larry A., North Korea's Nuclear Weapon Program, 15 p.

30 Capaccio, Tony, "New Report: Air Strikes Against Iraq's Key Nuclear Site Were Wanting," Defense Week, January 10, 1994, p. 1, 12. See also a series of related articles under the rubric of "Bomb and Bombast," Far Eastern Economic Review, February 10, 1994, p. 16-20, 22-23.

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