Small Wars Journal

The Strategic Implications of America’s Coming Choice on the Korean Peninsula

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 3:15pm

The Strategic Implications of America’s Coming Choice on the Korean Peninsula

Fredrick Vincenzo

The growing lethality of North Korea’s military threat increasingly undercuts America’s ability to use diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions or military force to counter its dangerously provocative behavior. As Kim Jong Un accelerates the buildup of his nuclear-tipped missile arsenal, there is a distinct possibility that no matter what actions the United States and its allies take, the Korean peninsula is headed for war.

What is to be done?  It is important to keep demonstrating U.S. resolve—shooting down a missile perhaps—to reinforce the credibility of American deterrence.  Yet it is vital that the U.S. also take steps to drive events toward a more acceptable outcome. Diplomacy could have consequences almost as bad as a conflict. Should Kim Jong Un’s challenge of American resolve be rewarded with a diplomatic settlement, the U.S. will be seen as having been forced to accept the North’s terms—something that would irreparably damage the credibility of America’s extended deterrence worldwide.

Driving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies is a longstanding goal of America’s adversaries to include Russia, China and North Korea. Accordingly, Pyongyang wants to weaken the U.S-Korea Alliance. Kim’s aim is to compel American troops to withdraw from the Korean peninsula, thereby leaving Pyongyang in a more advantageous position to settle matters with Seoul. Having recently tested a thermonuclear device, North Korea may soon have the leverage to foment a serious enough crisis to force the U.S. to choose between war or negotiations on North Korean terms. While it would lose an actual fight, North Korea almost certainly believes the U.S. will back down rather than risk nuclear war. Such a move could tear the Alliance apart and, with the whole world watching, fatally undermine America’s reliability as a security partner. It is not hard to imagine an emboldened Russia taking more aggressive hybrid actions in the Baltics, Poland or Ukraine as a challenge to the political cohesion of the NATO Alliance; for China to be more aggressive in the South China Sea; or for other adversaries to overtly circumvent non-proliferation conventions.

The first question regarding military options is “toward what end?”  North Korea’s military threat makes the use of force extremely risky. If the U.S. decided to demonstrate its resolve by conducting some sort of minor, localized strike, the North could simply play the victim without changing its strategic calculus. However, to achieve real punitive effects, North Korea’s capable air defenses and hardened military-industrial infrastructure would require that the Alliance mount a sustained military campaign. Things would almost certainly escalate quickly. To make military options viable, the lethality of the North’s military must be significantly reduced beforehand or the price will be extraordinarily high—the Alliance would not be able to prevent North Korea from launching its road mobile missiles nor its artillery from punishing Seoul.

Reports that the U.S. is exploring negotiations with North Korea are broadly welcome.  However, starting or carrying on talks will be far easier than converting them into sensible, durable achievements.  In this context, reaching a settlement with North Korea may be no more feasible than resorting to military force.  It takes two to negotiate, and the Kim regime has no reason to negotiate a settlement that doesn’t give it what it wants—which is a peace treaty and the withdrawal of U.S. forces while it retains its nuclear capabilities. Not only would this put America’s other security arrangements at risk, once U.S. forces have departed, the North could seek to unify the Korean Peninsula—and use those nuclear weapons to deter interference.

Relying on China to rein in North Korea is similarly problematic. Why should China take responsibility for what it sees as a U.S. problem? China is an adversarial competitor whose strategic interests and risk calculus vis-a-vis North Korea diverges sharply from those of the United States. China has probably concluded that it cannot overly pressure the Kim regime without risking its collapse or other unpredictable outcomes. Although China may incrementally do more to moderate rising tensions, it would be a mistake to interpret these actions as support for U.S. objectives. Its long-term interests are probably better served by preserving some relationship with North Korea, however strained, until it assesses that the risks of doing so outweigh the risks of acting against the Kim regime—particularly if it has concluded the current course of events might lead to a major reduction in U.S. presence and influence in Asia.

If the international community could muster the resolve to implement sanctions heavy enough to truly pressure North Korea, what would be the actual outcome? The hope being that maximum sanction pressure would dissuade North Korea from deploying nuclear weapons.  Unfortunately, effective sanctions could easily lead to as destructive a conflict as would the pre-emptive use of force. There are no indications that Kim will simply give in. Faced with crippling sanctions that directly and immediately threaten the survival of his regime, Kim is more likely to lash out violently and bring the peninsula to the brink of war to break international resolve and relieve the pressure.

North Korea’s military threat is at core of its own deterrence strategy. As long as North Korea holds the Alliance at such high risk it is very unlikely that military, diplomatic, economic or political pressure will force it to change its course. The enormous damage it could inflict prevents countries from applying enough pressure to alter its behavior—leverage it uses to maximum advantage. The U.S. and its allies need to undercut the North’s strategy by taking steps to significantly reduce the lethality of its military and shake Kim Jong Un’s confidence. This might make it possible to apply enough diplomatic and economic pressure to force a more favorable outcome while providing increased options to de-escalate a crisis before it turns kinetic. If conflict becomes inevitable, the end costs would be significantly more acceptable.

Improving the readiness of the Alliance and the reliability of its missile defenses would provide increased deterrence but these measures alone cannot be the focus of effort. North Korea’s military would still be lethal enough for it pursue an aggressive strategy of nuclear brinksmanship. Deterrence has been the cornerstone of the Alliance but unless something is done to reduce North Korea’s ability to threaten, events increasingly point to miscalculation and war. Should it come to war, a strengthened Alliance military posture would enable it to destroy North Korean forces more quickly, but the North would still be able to inflict a lot of damage. Furthermore, the U.S. has yet to demonstrate that it can reliably defeat volleys of ballistic missiles—leaving its cities potentially vulnerable.

So, if all options are unsatisfactory, what can be done? The short to medium-term answer is containment and crisis management but the long-term solution may be to open up the Alliance’s options by reducing the North’s military threat. In both cases, the under-utilized instrument of power is information. Time matters. If North Korea does not yet have a reliable enough nuclear/missile combination, it soon will. Once a crisis escalates it will be too late. Should it come to war, the full price North Korea has set will have to be paid. Given the adversarial mindset of China and Russia as well as the global interests at stake, a lot more hangs in the balance than just northeast Asia.

The U.S. and its allies should implement an influence campaign to convince North Koreans that if Kim Jong Un’s actions lead them to war, their best hope would be to cooperate and actively assist in a peaceful reunification. Of particular emphasis are the mid-level and senior elites whose personal decisions would directly impact the level of violence. A significant amount of data suggests this is entirely possible—although North Koreans demonstrate loyalty now, this does not mean they will not look to their own futures when forced to choose by life and death circumstances.

An information-centered strategy that undercuts Kim’s military threat can help preserve our deterrence, increase the effectiveness of our crisis management, and, in the event of a conflict or regime collapse, substantially reduce the costs of establishing an acceptable peace. There is no easy solution, but the time has come to begin forcing events toward a more favorable conclusion rather than waiting for one to be forced upon us.

The views expressed herein are his alone. They are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense or U.S. government or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Assessments made in this study do not necessarily represent the position of the US intelligence community or any US government organization.

About the Author(s)

Commander Fredrick 'Skip' Vincenzo is a career Navy SEAL who has spent most of the past 24 years either on the Korean Peninsula or doing work related to it. He focused on tactical and operational initiatives to support strategies of deterrence. The views expressed herein are his alone. They are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the Department of Defense or U.S. government or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Assessments made in this study do not necessarily represent the position of the US intelligence community or any US government organization.



Wed, 11/29/2017 - 4:34pm

Link to interview of LTG. Steven Kwast USAF former Air University Commander. Interesting comments on Korea and other challenges USA faces. Good faith alert I met General Kwast at Colonel Warden's office while going to a class there. This is one smart general

As an update, and to return to issues of greater import than debating the Vietnam War, North Korea has recently successfully tested what it claimed was a HS-15 ICBM. Irrespective of naming, it is now clear that the HS-14/15 ICBM has the range to strike targets in the continental United States, although to what accuracy is unknown.

For those who are dismissive of North Korean research and development capabilities, note that North Korea has detonated as many nuclear bombs as Pakistan (and of greater power) and has tested as many ballistic missiles. Further testing should not be necessary for North Korea to miniaturize a hydrogen or advanced atomic warhead that could fit on its ICBMs, nor to develop a survivable re-entry vehicle.

If any power or coalition was planning on a preventive war to eliminate the threat of North Korea's CBRN weaponry and its conventional systems targeting the DMZ and Greater Seoul, the window of opportunity to take such an action without an unacceptable risk of nuclear retaliation is closing very quickly.


Sat, 11/18/2017 - 11:10pm

From Strategic Patience to Strategic Paralysis!

Once again azor makes an excellent point about TLAMS and the Airpower concept! Your understanding and analysis is spot on.

Airpower is not simply Airplanes as is so often believed. To put it simply Airpower is any platform that can drop a bomb or launch a missile, combined into a single cordinated unit. It is worth remembering that the opening strike of Desert Storm was an Army helicopter shooting an Anti Tank missile at an enemy Air Defense Radar station.

That was the beginning of the "revolution in military thinking"! This was further expanded into what was briefly known as EBO (effects based operations). This concept is about to come roaring back if operations against Korea are iniated.

If this happens you may see that the 10,000 artillery pieces aimed at soul stuck in mountains are actually sitting ducks to any student Warden's idea of Strategic Paralysis.

As Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc., have shown us of late, the U.S./the West has neither the ability nor the capability to handle the short-term and/or the long-term "follow-on" requirements/responsibilities of war and/or of regime change.


The “goal” has always been a political outcome that determines who rules what territory, with what type of institutions. ... The United States continues to lack the operational capabilities to consolidate combat gains in order to reconstitute political order.


(See the introduction to Nadia Schadlow's recent book "War and the Art of Governance: Consolidating Combat Success into Political Victory.")

This such deficit, in recent years, stemming from such ideas as "universal western values," "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life" and the western version of "the end of history." All of which suggested that, post-war/post-regime change, the reconstitution of political order -- now more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines -- this would be achieved quickly, easily and mostly by the local populations themselves. The U.S./the West, thus, needing only to give these such cooperative populations a "development" leg-up, and help these such cooperative populations eliminate the -- very few remaining -- "dead-enders."

Now that we know that these such "this will be easy/we will not have to do much in the post-war/post-regime-change environment" concepts were, and indeed still are, pure "B.S.," now we must face the fact that -- much as with Afghanistan and Iraq -- our post-war/post-regime-change requirements/ responsibilities in N. Korea will be both hard and, indeed, endless. (Bottom Line: the populations will be against us.)

With these such matters now in the forefront of our mind, to wit: that (a) we "lack the operation capabilities needed to consolidate combat gains in order to reconstitute political order" and (b) the post-war/post-regime-change requirements/responsibilities in N. Korea (much as with Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) will be both hard and, indeed, endless.

With these such matters now in mind, how do we proceed?

Bill M.

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 4:30pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

I'm siding with Azor on this one, if the people of DPRK were told to be proud of KJU when he took crap, they would applaud and jump up and down with fake joy when the demigod crapped. That hardly reflects the real views of the people compared to elite. If the people were as proud of their nation as you elude to, DPRK wouldn't need to put tens of thousands in gulags, or threaten to imprison or kill the family members of those who flee the country. There is little to suggest legitimacy, instead it is legitimacy via coercion, state terrorism, information control, and propaganda.

To your other points about KJU making rational decisions, I suspect you are right about the illogic in his view of abandoning his weapons program. I suspect you are also right about the potential costs in lives and dollars if we decide to resolve this militarily, but that shouldn't deter us if it is least bad of the bad options available. Azor's points about the strategic impact globally on U.S. credibility if after all our rhetoric we don't resolve this issue is certainly a point not to be taken lightly.

We tend to hope, rather than know, that if more actors obtain nuclear weapons that they will act rationally as defined by the U.S. One or more of these actors may consider it rational to employ their nuclear weapons. I suspect a lot of Iran's and DPRK's rhetoric is huff and puff, but then again can we afford to take that chance? They stated their intent, and if they have the capability to act, then are we wise to ignore it or act upon these threats?

It wasn't just the last two administrations that got us in this mess, it was the last three. One could argue it goes back to Truman when he fired MacArthur, but as you said, reasonable people can disagree. It also was never our decision to make alone, multiple factors influenced our decisions, not the least being the interests of the ROKs, and the risks associated with the Russians and Chinese intervening. We can't honestly point our finger at one person, one bad decision, etc. that led to this situation. It evolved in a complex, strategic ecosystem.

I certainly empathize with the people of South Korea, most who only want to build a better future for their kids, and have done a fantastic job in doing this over the last few decades. Seoul, one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world sits within artillery range of a crazy despot that murders and starves his own people to retain power. This is a tale of two cities on steroids. The ultimate goal in my view would be to destroy KJU's regime, but an acceptable goal would be denuclearization without putting South Korea at risk. It will take some creative thinking to make that aim feasible. Skip's recommended course of action will not be easy, but it may be the best one available.


Tue, 01/02/2018 - 2:17pm

In reply to by Azor

Going twice...


Sat, 11/18/2017 - 3:52pm

In reply to by SWJED

Interesting offer. I had been considering writing a "policy paper" along these lines for Divergent Options, however, I have been reading/commenting at SWJ/SWC for a few years...



Sat, 11/18/2017 - 3:42pm

In reply to by Azor

This, and other comments on this Journal article would make for an excellent SWJ article. Takers? - Dave D.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 5:14pm

In reply to by Azor

The assessments of Kim and his people are those of the ROK, not my own. I merely contextualize the assessments of others. I took their positions as informed and rational. Reasonable minds may differ.


Fri, 11/17/2017 - 1:16pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Kim Jong-un has been leader for 5 years. For comparison, you might say that Hitler was also a “surprisingly rational and effective leader” for 8 years, Mussolini for almost 20, Hussein for 11, Qaddafi for 40, Milosevic for 9, Ceausescu for 24 and Pol Pot for less than 4. It also appears that Mugabe should be added to this illustrious list in the coming days. Therefore, I will remind you that personal rule is inherently unstable.

Nor do you have any inkling as to what the people of North Korea think: you have some idea of what they are instructed to think or risk starvation, enslavement, torture and death. As for “foreign efforts”, you may recall that the North Korean state is a product of Mao and Stalin, rather than the Korean people, and that this client invaded South Korea with Sino-Soviet help.

If North Korea’s nuclear buildup is tolerated, it will destabilize East Asia, cause other tyrants to develop their own nuclear weapons, cause Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to field their own independent deterrents, and bring about the collapse of strategic arms limitations between the U.S. and Russia.

I agree with you that the previous three administrations created this “shit sandwich” by adventuring in Serbia (1999), Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011), while ignoring the much greater threat, aggressor and worse human rights abuser.

I also agree that unification should be assuredly off the table, for the benefit of Sino-Russian strategic concerns, South Korea’s society and economy, and the North Korean elite itself.

North Korea has been deterred for more than 60 years, but deterrence can always break down, and I am convinced that action now is better than reaction in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 11:30am

The West persists in contextualizing problems of political conflict in a manner that is increasingly irrelevant and obsolete. We are so blinded by the bias of our perspective that we can’t see things as they actually are, but only as we wish them to be.

Kim has proven to be a surprisingly rational and effective leader.

The people of the DPRK are proud of their missile and nuclear programs and cannot be talked into supporting or not resisting some foreign effort to deprive their nation of that capability by force.

It is in the vital interest of the DPRK to possess this capability, but a disaster to their vital interests to ever employ it. They appreciate this very well.

I think only the US department of State believes it possible and necessary to make DPRK give up both programs. They are wrong on both counts.

Any military effort to deprive DPRK of these weapons will result in the loss of trillions of dollars, perhaps millions of lives, will fracture US alliances with South Korea and Japan, and will solidify into the foreseeable future the role of the Kim family as rulers of the DPRK. All while serving to diminish US influence with friends and foes alike.

We have chosen to make this our greatest test. I see little to indicate we are prepared to handle it wisely. Mr. Trump got handed a shit sandwich by the previous two administrations. Now the world waits in nervous apprehension to see what he does with it.

Personally I think any viable solution must do three things:
1. Assurance. We must assure the DPRK that the US will not seek to unify the peninsula under governance approved of by us, nor will we allow or support any of our allies to attempt the same.

2. Respect. We must show the DPRK and it’s leadership the respect due to a sovereign, nuclear power.

3. Deterrence. We must make absolutely clear, that any use of nuclear weapons for any purpose; or any effort to attempt to unify the peninsula under DPRK governance will result in the absolute and total destruction of their nation.

To only do 3 without 1 and 2, and to expect Kim to surrender his nuclear and missile capability is mission impossible.

Bill M.

Fri, 11/17/2017 - 10:43am

Human rights are still important, though we did little more than talk about it when it came to North Korea. I don't think Skip is advocating a popular uprising in the traditional sense, but rather an information campaign to weaken resistance to coalition forces when we attack. Regardless of how ineffective we have been with PSYOP against VEOs, we have a decent track record against this type of problem. It shouldn't be too hard to create cognitive dissonance for those who embrace jouche, if we follow words with appropriate action that drive a wedge between the regime its army and people. It will be essential to create some degree of stability quickly to begin the disarmament process before other factors complicate the effort. Human rights and humanitarian response will be as decisive strategically over time as combat operations.


Thu, 11/16/2017 - 11:57pm

In reply to by slapout9

Thank you for recommending this slapout9. I will review Warden's work closely. I wish I had more time to delve through all of this information, and in no way am I holding myself out as a SME. However, the think tank and mainstream media implication that anti-WMD and anti-artillery/BM strikes against North Korea are mutually exclusive is puzzling. It is as if these commentators conceive of war as a set piece chess game. For a crowd that pushed Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Odyssey Dawn, this is all disingenuous.


Thu, 11/16/2017 - 4:25pm

It is worth noting what azor has brought up about simultaneous attack. This is one of the key points of Colonel Warden's theory that is often overlooked which is to "Attack in Parallel" followed by "The Time Value of Action" This would be critical in any attack against Korea if you want to avoid a blood bath.


Fri, 11/17/2017 - 12:53pm

In reply to by Warlock



3. I completely disagree:

(a) North Korea is 3.5X smaller in area than Iraq and has far more areas that cannot be traversed by military vehicles, including TELs.

(b) Unlike Iraq prior to 1991, North Korea has been subject to intense intelligence-gathering efforts for over 50 years, including dedicated aircraft and satellite overflights even during periods of low tension.

(c) The USAF and USN currently have enough TLAMs to deal with the urgent set of discrete Parallel Attack targets, and in addition, there are B-2s to complement the stand-off with stealth. In the most dire scenario, the Operation Inherent Resolve air campaign against Daesh may have to be paused or the tempo reduced.

(d) As North Korea's IADS would be destroyed in the initial stand-off/stealth attack, follow-on non-stealth aircraft can complete the mission, including the 10-12 squadrons of the ROKAF, 4-12 USN squadrons and 7-8 USAF squadrons (USFK, USFJ).

(e) This is not a case where every KPA tank or the contents of every HARTS must be destroyed in the first wave; it will often be enough to disrupt North Korea's limited infrastructure network and to block the entrances/exits of the HARTS.

(f) I highly doubt that after the DMZ is subject to this pounding, that the KPA will try to advance toward Seoul without air or artillery support, through rubble and under air attack.


Fri, 11/17/2017 - 9:51am

In reply to by Azor

3. North Korea is a far more difficult targeting and weaponeering problem than Iraq was. Add to that the reduction in available forces since 1991, which more than offsets improvements in PGMs since that time -- parallel attack as Slapout describes is absolutely necessary, but there aren't the resources to carry it out. One way or another, conventional war in Korea will be a bloodbath centered on Seoul, and the South will do much to avoid that if they possibly can.

4. Agreed. But given the tight control of information reaching the populace, either approach is moot.


Thu, 11/16/2017 - 11:50pm

In reply to by Warlock



1. Cdr. Vincenzo suggested that shooting down a North Korean ICBM would be a demonstration of U.S. "resolve" and that it would "reinforce the credibility of American deterrence." Basically, he seemed to treat such an action as below the threshold of war: hence my questioning of his assumptions on BMD and North Korea's perception of war. My scenario is a preventive war.

2. Cdr. Vincenzo observes that, "[d]riving a wedge between the U.S. and its allies is a longstanding goal of America’s adversaries". There are allies and there are allies, and given the asymmetrical US-ROK relationship, I am simply countering that the US should be as wary of entrapment as the ROK is of abandonment. Note that the partition of Korea, the destruction of the Korean War, the mass murder of Koreans in the DPRK (9% of the population) and the crisis today are all due to deliberate Chinese and Russian/Soviet actions. Whereas I believe that Japan would come to America's assistance were China to invade Taiwan, I doubt South Korea would even allow USFK bases to be used in the conflict.

3. As outlined in my scenario, the US has very good conventional options to deal with the North Korean threat to itself and its allies, as long as it approaches the problem as it did with Operation Desert Storm as opposed to Allied Force or Iraqi Freedom.

4. Cdr. Vincenzo's recommendation of an information warfare campaign is 20 years too late. A popular revolution in a nuclear-armed state would be a disaster. After 2006, human rights are no longer the priority: disarmament is.


Thu, 11/16/2017 - 2:18pm

In reply to by Azor

1. Shooting at a North Korean launch is an act of war, but a massed air and artillery strike (ref your link) is not? Agreed that success is problematic, and probably not helpful in the long run.

2. Doubtful even if Seoul was willing -- South Korea shares no border with China or Russia, and isn't organized to be expeditionary in any strength. And if they deployed a significant amount of force out of country, the DPRK would inevitably take advantage of it....

3. Yes. That may happen anyhow, as it's not certain at all that the U.S. would respond with nuclear weapons to a DPRK one- or two-missile strike on Japan or the ROK, even if U.S. troops were still there. We're just as likely to respond conventionally, which will make wreckage of the entire Korean peninsula.

4. The biggest problem with an information campaign is getting the message to the target population. I shared an assignment with a guy who'd gone into the North to recover U.S. remains, and have seen a few interviews with escapees -- the control of information reaching the populace is incredible.

I largely agree with Cdr. Vincenzo.

The signal that American toleration of a nuclear-armed North Korea would send to adversaries/rivals such as Iran, Syria, Sudan, Belarus and Cuba – and even partners or neutrals such as Ukraine and Brazil – is worthy to note. The “faits accompli” of India, Israel, Pakistan and ostensibly North Korea will be recognized as the rule rather than the exception.

I also agree that any military option against North Korea must simultaneously target all of its assets holding South Korea, specifically Seoul, at risk. Therefore, any WMD-related strikes must be concurrent with strikes on the artillery along the DMZ. However, it is doable. Ref:

However, a few points:

1. It is probably not be possible to “perhaps” shoot down a North Korean ICBM, unless than ICBM is aimed at a target protected by ballistic missile defenses. In addition, shooting at a missile on a North Korean launch would be an overt act of war and almost certainly be perceived by Pyongyang as such. Such discussion is unhelpful as it suggests that American BMD systems are more effective than in actuality, which can lead to American voters and policymakers not taking the North Korean threat seriously enough.

2. The US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty is mainly a one-sided alliance, whereby the United States would come to South Korea’s aid if the latter were attacked. It is unclear, however, whether South Korea would come to the aid of the United States if China or Russia attacked its forces, Pacific island states/territories or the CONUS itself. Ref:

3. Were the United States to withdraw from East and Southeast Asia entirely and terminate their security commitments, it is reasonable to expect Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to develop nuclear weapons within a 6-12 month period. The dynamics of four growing nuclear arsenals in East Asia would cast into doubt the effectiveness of China’s “minimum credible deterrent”, and lead to knock-on effects such as Russia abrogating the INF Treaty and New START. As much as the United States is a convenient external adversary for Beijing and Moscow to focus internal attention upon, it also reliably ensures that no country in the region becomes nuclear-armed and aggressively hostile to either.

4. Using “information” to spark a revolt in North Korea is playing with fire, as a state failure may result in the formation of hostile nuclear-armed non-state actors. Moreover, promoting liberal democracy and respect for human rights should be divorced from disarming North Korea.