North Korea and the hot potato


Ever since the North and South Korean economies diverged from near parity in their early 1970s to their current disproportion, Pyongyang has been looking for a way to offload the resulting risk.  Charts from the BBC gives some sense of the immense tension that must be somehow dissipated.  By 2015 South Koreans had 19 times more cell phones, were 3 inches taller and had a per capita GDP nearly 20x higher than their Northern brethren.  This tension had to go somewhere if the Kim regime was to survive.

The dynasty adopted the strategy of exporting the risk.  Until recently North Korea lived off payoffs from its neighbors, the very nations it threatens. "Large swathes of North Koreaโ€™s population have suffered from chronic malnutrition since the mid-1990s. Food aidโ€”largely from China, South Korea, and the United Statesโ€”has been essential in filling the gap between North Koreaโ€™s supply and demand."

They paid up to avoid trouble. By passing the hot potato to allies the Kim regime could maintain its bare survival.

Pyongyang could extort these payoffs because of its supposed near-nuclear level artillery threat to South Korean cities. In 1995 the Defense Intelligence Agency noted "the continued deployment of long-range artillery systems (240-mm multiple rocket launchers and 170-mm self-propelled guns) near the DMZ. ... capable of targeting areas as Far South as Seoul."

The Nokor threat even acquired a name: the Sea of Fire. In 2009 the New York Times gave an example of its hold over decision-makers' minds. "In 1994, the United States was prepared to attack the North Korean nuclear complex, says Kim Young-sam, who was South Koreaโ€™s president at the time ...  'I said absolutely no to the United States unilaterally bombing Yongbyon,' Mr. Kim said. 'The North Korean artillery would have been rolling out within three minutes, and Seoul would have turned into a sea of fire.'"

Fear of the sea of fire held strategists in thrall for more than a decade.

But military technology rarely stands still.  In much quoted study published in 2012 Roger Cavados of the Nautilus Institute convincingly called into question Pyongyang's ability to turn South Korea's cities into a Sea of Fire in the face of new allied capabilities. He noted the worst Pyongyang's artillery could actually do was enrage the South Koreans though its use would guarantee the Allies would march on Pyongyang to hunt him down.

If the North Korean Peoples Army (KPA) were to start a doctrinal, conventional artillery barrage focused on South Korean forces, we could expect to see around three thousand casualties in the first few minutes, but the casualty rate would quickly drop as the surprise wears off and counter-battery fires slow down the North Korean rates of fire. If the KPA were to engage Seoul in a primarily counter-value fashion by firing into Seoul instead of primarily aiming at military targets, there would likely be around thirty-thousand casualties in a short amount of time. Statistically speaking, almost eight-hundred of those casualties would be foreigners given Seoulโ€™s international demographic. Chinese make up almost seventy percent of foreigners in Seoul and its northern environs which means KPA might also kill six-hundred Chinese diplomats, multi-national corporation leaders, and ranking cadre children who are students in Seoul. Horrible, but nothing approaching โ€œmillionsโ€. Three primary factors .... account for the huge discrepancy between rhetoric and reality:

  1. Range โ€“ Only about 1/3 of Seoul is presently in range from artillery along a DMZ trace.
  2. Numbers โ€“ Even though KPA has a tremendous number of artillery pieces, only a certain number are emplaced to range Seoul.
  3. Protection โ€“ Artillery shelters for twenty million people exist in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. After the initial surprise has worn off, there simply wonโ€™t be large numbers of exposed people.

If North Korea were to use chemical and biological weapons, any conflict would rapidly escalate to one of regime change in Pyongyang and is hence an a-strategic move (there is no strategy other than to cause a great deal of damage) inconsistent with North Koreaโ€™s goals of regime survival.