Not the Time to Abandon Strategic Patience

Sam Gardiner, Colonel, USAF (retired), April 19, 2017


            U.S. President Donald Trump implied he would only be pushed so far by the North Koreans. Too far turned out to be a missile test firing followed later in the day by North Korea’s sixth underground nuclear test.

            The strike came from U.S. Navy ships in the South China, 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles.  The target was the Yongbyon nuclear complex.  The White House meant it to be a limited response with a clear message.  The United States targeted the North Korean nuclear program not North Korea’s nuclear weapons.  The nuclear research center was hit with five weapons; the radiochemistry laboratory was hit; Building 500 close to that laboratory was hit, and the fuel fabrication facility was hit.  The targeting was done carefully to avoid the nuclear research reactor, the experimental reactor as well as the nuclear power plant.

            The White House said the United States was provoked.


            There was panic in Seoul even before the strike.  The United States had obviously notified the Japanese of the upcoming operation.  Much of the pre-strike panic was created as Japan evacuated its citizens from the city, following a plan Tokyo has had for the time when the Peninsula was in crisis,


            The major surprise was that there was no immediate reaction from P’yongyang.  After 48 hours, it became clear the reason for the pause.  North Korea was using the time to infiltrate special operations troops into the South.  They came through previously undiscovered tunnels under the DMZ; they came by small boats; they came in light aircraft flying under the air defense of the South.  Probably as many as 10,000 North Korean soldiers came across in these 48 hours.


            The primary mission of the special operations seemed to be to be to disrupt U.S. and South Korean air operations.  Bases all over the country were struck with conventional weapons and sarin gas.  Many of the attackers were killed, but they definitely had an impact.  In addition, a number of South Korean, Japanese and American officials disappeared in what was a major kidnapping effort.  The evacuation of Seoul was interrupted by attacks on the Inchon International Airport.


            The air base attacks were like the opening of the gates for combat operations throughout the Peninsula.


            The 8,000 North Korean artillery pieces within 100 miles of the DMZ began firing.  Seoul was a major target.


            U.S. and South Korean aircraft attacked the North.  Their targets included the tunnels where North Korean aircraft were based.  Deep penetrating conventional weapons were used against underground complexes where nuclear weapons could have been stored.  Missile facilities were hit.  The command and control center in P’yongyang was hit.  Some strikes were focused on the artillery shelling Seoul.


            Hundreds of thousands North Korean troops began moving south when operations started.  These were the 815th Corps which was to lead the attack at the DMZ, the Sariwon Corps, followed by the 8th Corps.  Their objective was the terrain favorable for attacking inside South Korea, the Kaeson/Munsan corridor.  On the east coast, the 108th Corps also moved.  Normally, all of these troops and equipment would be a target for air strikes, but there were just too many other important targets.


            The North Korean concept was to break through the defenses at the DMZ and then pour troops through the opening, moving quickly south into the Peninsula.


            We are less than 24 hours into the battle.  It is difficult to assess casualties.  The medical situation in Seoul is in crisis.  Some estimates have put the casualties from conventional shelling and chemicals at over one million.  It will be a long time before we really know.  Although the roads in Korea are much better than they were during the Korean War, the images of displaced persons have the same tragic look.  So many South Koreans fleeing, there is almost no movement.


            In the past few hours, a North Korean missile was fired at Tokyo.  The reports are not clear, but initial indications are that the missile contained sarin gas.  We will most likely see panic just from the rumors.


So early in this war, but South Korean and U.S. planners are already starting to look ahead.  Defending will be the mission for the next 60 days as U.S. reinforcement move into the area.  The counterattack into North Korea will not take place until then, in their terms D+60.  They are estimating it will take at least 60 days of heavy fighting to destroy the bulk of the North Korean forces and occupy major portions of the North.


Even after defeating the forces of the North, the list of tasks will be daunting.  A first priority will be to secure chemical, nuclear and biological facilities.  Preventing a major refugee and humanitarian crises will be high on the task list.   The occupation forces will have to establish the basic parameters of a functional national government, to include public security.


President Trump will have achieved his objective of removing nuclear weapons from the Peninsula.


We hear from the Trump Administration that the time for strategic patience has passed.  Just touching on some the consequences of not having strategic patience suggests that is not wise.