TCS Daily

A Tough Nut

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - October 23, 2003 12:00 AM

It was very easy to start a war in Korea. It was no so easy to stop it.

-- Nikita Khrushchev

Nowhere is the wretched legacy of Soviet Communism more apparent than in North Korea. Stalin's Far Eastern puppet state has become far weirder and more sinister than "Chuckie" at his worst. And seldom has such an unfortunate confluence of geopolitical elements allowed a -- pardon the expression -- "piss ant" country to become such a serious global concern. These elements include:

· A populace starved and oppressed almost to retardation by its psychotic and maniacal leader.

· A determined accumulation and development of dangerous military technology including long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

· An intrinsic defensive advantage conferred by North Korea's own geology, geography and topography. It's a damn pile of rocks!

President George Bush has said that despite U.S. concern over its continuing development of nuclear weapons, the United States has "no intention" of "invading" North Korea. Wisely spoken. Now the White House is trying to secure some sort of multination nonaggression pact to entice Pyongyang back to the negotiating table on the issue of curtailing its nuclear weapons development.

Thus we have elaborate diplomatic invitations to the dance for a regime that, let's be blunt, needs a good bitch slapping just for starters. But the fact is every avenue for dealing with North Korea is now narrow and difficult. Crazy Kim Jong Il sits behind an elaborate complex of bristling fortresses -- the elaborately tunneled and bunkered mountains that glower down on the Demilitarized Zone separating North from South Korea.

North Korea may not be impregnable, but even with the U.S. military's latest smart weapons it is a tough nut to crack.

A Tough Nut

It is difficult enough to locate let alone destroy those facilities vital to North Korea's incipient nuclear weapons program. We believe we know where most of them are. But the real problem is dealing with the North's inevitable retaliation.

Pentagon planners who have endlessly war-gamed a conflict with Kim's military keep coming up with head-shaking costs in men and material. Any pre-emptive action would result in bloody retaliation against South Korea, whose economic and political vitals -- densely packed around the capitol city of Seoul -- lie within literal striking distance of the North's massed artillery.

The North Koreans have created a prodigious complex of underground bunkers to protect their military assets, and an ambitious system of tunnels to project saboteurs and fighting forces into the south. According to some reports there are 8,236 underground facilities of various sizes, connected by more than 1500 miles of deep tunnels, most of these in the south. While famine has continued to plague the country, the government has reportedly stored millions of tons of food, fuel and ammunition in these bunkers.

North Korean soldiers have a proven reputation for being fanatical and ruthless. More than 700,000 of them (out of an army of 1 million) are positioned within 100 miles of the DMZ. They have a reported 8000 artillery pieces and 2000 tanks positioned largely in these mountain redoubts.

At least 500 of North Korea's most powerful artillery pieces -- long-range 170 mm Koksan guns -- are within range of Seoul, which is now a sprawling, thickly populated urban area. Pyongyang is believed to have at least 500 Soviet designed Scud missiles that could easily reach Seoul and any other point in South Korea. The fact that North Korean military doctrine openly embraces the use of chemical warheads only adds to the threat.

Few doubt that America and South Korea would win a war against North Korea. But the cost would be very high. Back in 1993 American casualty estimates were over 50,000 killed and wounded in the first 90 days of a conflict with the North. South Korean casualty estimates were even higher. And the destruction of the South Korean economy and infrastructure would be enormous.

Students of the Game

North Korean military leaders have closely studied every modern conflict since the Korean War to hone their strategy and tactics. Lack of reserves was a major weakness of the North Korean army in 1950-53. Now 7.5 million reservists back up the million-man force. When the Soviet Union backed down from United States during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, North Korea determined it would never rely on Moscow or any other ally. It embarked on a program of military self-reliance.

From the Vietnam War, Pyongyang learned the importance of "irregular" forces. It now has perhaps the largest "special forces" contingent in the world -- over 100,000 men trained to operate independently and fluidly in conjunction with regular units as part of what North Korea calls "mixed tactics." These forces have already penetrated South Korea many times, often through the elaborate tunnels dug under the DMZ. (North Korea bought state-of-the-art tunneling machines from Sweden back in the 1970s and have put them to extensive use ever since.)

North Korean military leaders closely observed the success of American airpower both in the Gulf War and in Iraq. But the conflict that has proven most valuable as a teaching tool for North Korea was the Clinton-era operation in Kosovo. The mountainous terrain and the frequently cloudy and rainy weather closely resembled conditions on the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang duly noted American reluctance to commit ground troops, its heavy reliance on cruise missiles and precision bombing and the constraints that weather imposed on air operations. The result: An even more energetic effort to hide assets deep underground, protect bunkers and cave mouths, and work at elaborate deception programs, including false cave openings designed to emit heat and thus misdirect heat-seeking bombs and missiles.

Since Kosovo, of course, American precision weapons have vastly improved, as has all-weather operating capability. But the U.S. is feverishly working to come up with even better weapons to deal with North Korean defenses.

Better Mouse Traps

Military forensic geologists have been poring over maps of North Korea (the best ones, incidentally, were made by the Japanese back in 1904-5 during the Russo-Japanese War) to look for geological weak points and anomalies. They study multiple radar images to get even more precise pictures of the topography. Is it possible, for instance, to discover fissures in seemingly solid rock, or badly weathered rock formations that might be entry points for earth-penetrating bombs?

Another resource that may be employed is HAARP, the High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Project, located in Alaska. HAARP employs 72 huge antennae to send signals that heat the ionosphere, thus creating a "mirror." Extremely long frequency (ELF) and very long frequency (VLF) radio waves are bounced off this temporary mirror to penetrate the earth. Anomalies in the return signals can be processed to "paint" images of underground cavities, including the geometric patterns of man-made tunnels and facilities.

HAARP data can be used to direct more focused satellite and spy plane photography and help pinpoint camouflaged or hidden tunnel entrances for future targeting. It may even help precisely target the exact point in an underground complex at which an earth-penetrating warhead should enter.

Another key to operations against North Korea is greater improvement of U.S. earth penetrating weapons. Although the latest known American bunker-busting bombs can apparently penetrate 100 feet underground, many North Korean bunkers are 180 and more feet below the surface and are often under layers of solid rock. Efforts continue at Sandia Laboratories and other defense research facilities to improve U.S. earth penetrating capabilities with conventional explosives. One problem: There may be an impact velocity threshold beyond which a warhead, no matter how hardened, will deform rather than penetrate further.

The alternative, of course is a nuclear weapon. Work continues on the RNEP or Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, which involves extensive modification of a standard arsenal B61 nuclear bomb. This is a weapon that can be "dialed up" from 0.3 to a 340-kiloton yield (the Hiroshima bomb was 12 kilotons). It could produce an enormous shockwave that would have an effect underground far more destructive than any conventional weapon.

But the key, again, is to get the warhead deep into the earth before it detonates, so that the radioactivity would be contained underground rather than dispersing in the atmosphere. The United States reportedly has about 50 penetrating nuclear bombs in its arsenal now, but these can only reach a depth of about 20 feet.

The prospects of delivering some sort of pre-emptive knockout punch to North Korea are at the present time slim to none. Diplomacy with an amoral nut-case regime may be distasteful, even embarrassing, and ultimately unproductive. But there are no palatable alternative options right now.


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