Small Wars Journal

North Korea: Don’t Pick A Fight We Can’t Win

Thu, 11/12/2015 - 1:32am

North Korea: Don’t Pick a Fight We Can’t Win

Jeong Lee


This paper examines potential covert operation scenarios against the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea, or North Korea) by dissecting retired Army Special Forces Colonel David S. Maxwell’s latest essay entitled “Unification Options and Scenarios; Assisting A Resistance.”[i] In his essay, Colonel Maxwell argues that the U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea, or South Korea) alliance should embark upon a paramilitary uprising against the Kim regime to reunify the Korean peninsula and to preempt against potential insurgency threats that might emanate from the north.

After testing the inherent assumptions within the Maxwell article to draw potential scenarios, I argue here that we must not pursue covert operations to topple Kim Jŏng-ŭn because doing so may trigger a global war. Lastly, I put forth two alternative courses of actions (COAs) to deal with the North Korean crisis. The COAs I propose are:

  1. Recognizing the DPRK as a nuclear state and engaging the DPRK through diplomacy and economic trade;
  2. Maintaining troop presence in the Korean peninsula to deter the DPRK aggression, and at the same time, bolstering our missile defense at home to protect our citizens against potential North Korean missile attacks.


To this day, the Korean Peninsula remains a veritable tinderbox where a full-scale war between two brethren states can erupt any moment. In the aftermath of Kim Jŏng-il’s death and the succession of his son, Kim Jŏng-ŭn, as the new leader in 2011, the DPRK remains unpredictable and dangerous as ever before.  Indeed, another conflict on the Korean Peninsula will likely lead to catastrophic consequences with global repercussions.[ii] Shortly after the 2010 sinking of the ROK corvette, the Ch’ŏnan, and the bombardment of the Yŏnpyŏng Island by the DPRK, the ROK Armed Forces have adopted swift and robust ROEs (rules of engagements) to counter any potential threats emanating from their northern brethren.[iii]

Also, for quite some time, the U.S.-ROK alliance has been planning covert operations deep inside the north. Retired Army Special Forces Colonel David S. Maxwell, who served as Chief of Staff of SOCKOR (Special Operations Command, Korea), and the chief author of OPLAN (Operational Plan) 5027-98 and CONPLAN (Concept of Operational Plan) 5029-99, has written extensively on covert operations against the DPRK.[iv] Explicit in Maxwell’s writings on U.S.-ROK covert operations against the Kim Jŏng-ŭn  regime is the assumption that the U.S. armed forces and their ROK counterparts will encounter a grander version of the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies, should Kim’s regime suddenly collapse.

Methodology and Key Argument

The key method for this paper involves dissecting the underlying assumptions in Maxwell’s article, laying out scenarios for what may transpire if we follow through with his recommendations, and coming up with alternative COAs if necessary.

The U.S.-ROK alliance must not pursue these risky COAs. This is because failed covert operations in the DPRK not only compromises requisite plausible deniability, but may also yield disastrous outcomes of a global magnitude.

Our Objectives in the DPRK Covert Operations

According to Maxwell, the rationales for joint U.S.-ROK covert operations against the DPRK are: to put an end to the DPRK’s WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) programs; to effect a regime change within Pyongyang; to co-opt the potential insurgency within the DPRK in the event of the collapse of the Kim Jŏng-ŭn regime; and finally, to reunify the Korean Peninsula under the ROKG (ROK Government) banner.[v]

In his paper, Maxwell discusses the so-called “pre-mortem analysis” whose purpose it is to expose flaws in supposedly failed OPLANs by “puncturing…the premises of a proposed course of action, its assumptions and tasks.”[vi] Through this method, Maxwell writes that the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Red Team Leaders at Fort Leavenworth identified potential “internal resistance and insurgency” waged by the adherents of the Kim Jŏng-ŭn regime and other North Koreans as the most significant barriers to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula.[vii] Basing his premises on the TRADOC pre-mortem analysis exercise results, Maxwell argues that we should embark upon covert operations that “focus on internal resistance.”[viii]

Potential Scenarios

To ascertain the potential scenarios were we to follow through with fomenting resistance within the DPRK, we must dissect the inherent assumptions and rationales for covert operations within the north.

Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s Legitimacy Has Become Tenuous[ix]

Although many analysts and pundits point to Kim’s health issues, relative youth, and lack of experience as evidence of instability within his regime, many of the so-called “indicators” are speculative.[x] We do not have accurate intelligence on Pyongyang, and Kim still appears to be in charge of his dynasty. Thus, were we to instigate an indigenous uprising, it will fail due to the totalitarian nature of the Kim regime. More importantly, the blowback from the failed paramilitary takeover will manifest itself immediately through compromised plausible deniability, and a full-scale war waged by Kim Jŏng-ŭn in retaliation against the failed insurrection.

We Should Talk About the Paramilitary Option Regardless of Whether it Might Upset China[xi]

Even though China remains one of the key trading partners of the ROK, and is favorably disposed towards President Park Geun-hye’s deft diplomacy, China will be anything but passive where their border security is concerned. In short, we will upset China if we embark upon the paramilitary operation to topple Kim Jŏng-ŭn. According to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) OPLANs that were leaked last year, in addition to setting up refugee camps along the Chinese border, the PLA units are ordered to detain DPRK political and military leaders in “special camps” where they are to be monitored closely by the PLA troops, lest they be co-opted by “foreign forces.”[xii] Richard C. Bush III, the Director for the East Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, argues that what might explain the Chinese desire to preserve the status quo may be that China fears a reunified Korea that is friendly towards the United States, and thus, may eventually pose a threat to China’s own authoritarian regime.[xiii]

We Must Identify and Co-opt “2nd Tier Leaders” Who are Opposed to the Kim Regime[xiv]

In his footnote, Maxwell defines 2nd tier leaders as “those who have regional political and military power and influence but who are not members of the core of the Kim family regime.”[xv] Given the lack of human intelligence (HUMINT) on the ground, identifying such opposition leaders may be difficult and fraught with uncertainties. First, 2nd tier leaders will be difficult to vet. Will they remain loyal to the causes of the U.S.-ROK alliance? Are they competent leaders respected by their men? What are their operational capabilities? Second, how will we protect them in the event of a failed paramilitary uprising against the Kim regime? As Maxwell rightly acknowledges, one of our key weaknesses is our “inability or unwillingness to back up [our] words with deeds.”[xvi] Third, and most important, how do we ensure that our North Korean paramilitary assets remain malleable to the wishes and demands of the U.S.-ROK alliance? Assuming that the paramilitary takeover even succeeds at all, our assets will likely demand rewards or some form of political recognition.

We Must Offer Protection for North Korean Scientists Involved in the Research and Development of WMDs[xvii]

Maxwell is correct to argue that the U.S.-ROK alliance should protect North Korean scientists involved in the development of WMDs if we embark upon covert operations against Kim Jŏng-ŭn. There are two reasons for this: to prevent the proliferation of WMDs; and to cement their allegiance to the U.S.-ROK alliance. However, rather than allowing the North Korean scientists to work for the ROKG, we should offer them an asylum here in the United States. The reason is because if they work for the ROKG, the ROKG will employ them to develop their own nuclear capabilities against Japan or China. Should the ROKG develop their own nuclear arsenals, they will indubitably destabilize Northeast Asia by triggering a nuclear arms race.

Our Mission is to Assist the ROK Forces with Stability Operations in the Aftermath of Kim’s Demise[xviii]

As stated previously, the underlying premise behind this assumption is that the U.S.-ROK forces will face a grander version of the Iraqi and Afghan insurgencies, should the DPRK implode suddenly. To buttress his claims, Maxwell cites the “guerrilla ethos” with which the North Koreans are indoctrinated, and the fact that the DPRK fields the largest number of SOF (Special Operations Forces) operators in the world, as factors which may preclude a complete reunification under the ROKG banner.[xix] Army LTG John Johnson and COL Bradley T. Gericke also second Maxwell’s claims when they argue that the DPRK troops will likely fight to the death should another Korean War break out.[xx] Thus, they believe that it is imperative that the U.S.-ROK forces must engage in stability operations.[xxi] But one must ask how a war in a different theater and with a different cultural setting will replicate another war in a distant land. Where are the absolute indicators? This does not even take into account the fact that the ROK forces have not fought in counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns since the Vietnam War. Although Maxwell suggests employing North Korean defectors to infiltrate back into their native land, one must ask why they would want to return after risking their lives to flee their homeland. [xxii] Furthermore, infiltrating North Korean defectors may lead to another Bay of Pigs-type fiasco, which, in turn, might damage our international image abroad. Last but not least, the American public will not likely tolerate yet another protracted conflict in a foreign country.

In short, at a glance, Maxwell’s proposal adheres to the range of covert operations laid out in Mark M. Lowenthal’s book, Intelligence: From Secrecy to Policy, to include political and economic activities, coups, and paramilitary actions.[xxiii] However, absent in his piece are the joint decision-making dynamics involved among the U.S. Executive, Congress, and the various SOF units and the IC (Intelligence Community) responsible for implementing covert actions as a policy instrument.[xxiv] Nor does the article offer an approximate time frame despite the advice that “it must be fully resourced and given the time to develop.” Third, the article does not mention the likely responses by China, were the USFK (U.S. Forces Korea) to embark upon secret operations against the north.[xxv] Last but not least, the pre-mortem analysis method may be flawed because we have no way of ascertaining how the TRADOC Red Team members arrived at their conclusion. How did they supposedly “puncture” the fallacies inherent in the extant OPLANs? More importantly, what exactly were the “flawed” assumptions within the OPLANs themselves prior to the exercises?

Decision: Don’t Pick A Fight We Can’t Win

After having laid out the potential scenarios based on the assumptions within Maxwell’s writings, I have no other recourse but to recommend that we discard our plans for covert operations against the Kim Jŏng-ŭn regime. Such endeavors are too risky, if not impossible to achieve. Regardless of the covert methods we adopt against the Kim regime, they will lead to a calamitous global war involving not only the DPRK, but also other East Asian actors such as China and Japan. Nor will the American public remain passive in the face of a protracted war in a foreign country.

Nonetheless, there are two viable COAs to deal with the DPRK. The first COA entails recognizing the DPRK as a nuclear state and attempting to engage the DPRK through diplomacy and economic trade. Even though we will not be able to completely rein in the reclusive regime, we still can make it malleable to our wishes and international norms. This option is pragmatic because the DPRK desperately needs trading partners to stave off famine and poverty in order to guarantee its own regime survival.

The second COA involves maintaining troop presence in the Korean peninsula to deter the DPRK aggression, and at the same time, bolstering our missile defense at home to protect our citizens against potential North Korean missile attacks. Although costly, maintaining our military presence in the Korean peninsula and bolstering our missile defense enable us to control the strategic calculus and the tempo in Northeast Asia.

Under no circumstances should we embark upon covert operations within the DPRK.

This position paper is based on an assignment for my Intelligence & National Security class at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. My hat is off to my instructor, Cmdr. Steve Recca (USN Ret.), for his invaluable insights on covert actions.

End Notes

[i] COL David S. Maxwell’s (USA Ret’d) “Unification Options and Scenarios; Assisting A Resistance,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies [24: 2], 2015, p. 127-152

[ii] LTG John Johnson (USA) and COL Bradley T. Gericke “Spinning the Top; American Land Power and the Ground Campaigns of a Korean Crisis,” Joint Forces Quarterly [78:3], 2015, pp. 99

[iii] Victor Cha and David Kang “Think Again: North Korea,” Foreign Policy, March 25, 2013 (

[iv] According to, OPLAN 5027-98 is the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces war plan in the event of a full war against the DPRK. (See “OPLAN 5027 Major Theater War – West,”, May 7, 2011 CONPLAN 5029-99, on the other hand, is the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces war plan to prepare for the eventual collapse of the DPRK. (See “OPLAN 5029 - Collapse of North Korea,”, May 7, 2011

[v][v] Maxwell, pp. 127-130.

[vi] “Red Team Leader Training ( )” cited in Maxwell, pp. 134-5

[vii] Maxwell, pp. 135

[viii]Ibid., pp. 130-131

[ix] Ibid., pp. 137

[x] One good example of such speculative commentaries is Victor Cha’s “Why I’m Worried About Kim Jŏng-ŭn” in Politico, October 10, 2014 (

[xi] Maxwell, pp. 130

[xii] Julian Ryall “China plans for North Korean regime collapse leaked,” The Telegraph, May 5, 2014 ( By “foreign forces,” the PLA means the U.S.-ROK forces.

[xiii] Richard C. Bush III “China's Response to Collapse in North Korea,” The Brookings Institution, November 14, 2013 (

[xiv] Maxwell, pp. 138

[xv] Maxwell, pp. 138

[xvi] Ibid., pp.148

[xvii] Ibid., pp.138

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Maxwell, pp. 135-136. See also his “Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula Thoughts on Irregular Threats for north Korea Post-Conflict and Post-Collapse: Understanding Them to Counter Them,” The Small Wars Journal, November 30, 2010 (

[xx] LTG Johnson and COL Gericke “Spinning the Top; American Land Power and the Ground Campaigns of a Korean Crisis,” Joint Forces Quarterly [78:3], 2015, pp. 103-104.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Maxwell, pp. 150

[xxiii] Mark M. Lowenthal Intelligence: From Secrecy to Policy CQ Press: Washington, D.C., 2000, pp. 111-112

[xxiv] Ibid., pp. 109-111

[xxv] Maxwell, pp. 150


About the Author(s)

Jeong Lee is a freelance writer and an MA candidate in International Security Studies Program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His writings on U.S. defense policy issues and inter-Korean affairs have appeared on various online publications including the Small Wars Journal.


Bill C.

Thu, 11/12/2015 - 12:30pm

"But one must ask how a war in a different theater and with a different cultural setting will replicate another war in a distant land."

The manner in which a war in a different theater -- and with a different cultural setting -- might replicate another war in a distant land is with regard to:

a. The common political objective of a great power and its allies. For example: the common political objective of the U.S./the West and its allies; which is, to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. And with regard to:

b. The common political objective of the enemies of a great power and its allies. For example: the common political objective of both our Greater Middle Eastern enemies and our N. Korean enemies; this being, to retain their alternative (non-western) ways of life, to retain their alternative (non-western) ways of governance and to retain their alternative (non-western) values, attitudes and beliefs.

The above, I suggest, is our contemporary "conflict environment." One which, I suggest, transcends "different theater," "different culture," etc., settings.

I leave it to you to consider the implications of my "commonality" suggestions here; as these relate to (a) the ideas presented by both COL Maxwell in his recent "Unification Options and Scenarios; Assisting a Resistance" proposal, and with regard to (b) Mr. Lee's alternative/contrary ideas.