The North Korea dilemma, past and present

North Korea The Nuclear Pricetag
People wave flags and plastic flowers as a float with model missiles and rockets — and the words “For Peace and Stability in the World” — is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, in April.

July 27 marks the 64th anniversary of the truce that ended fighting in Korea. What a bloody and unanticipated war, with more than 37,000 U.S. soldiers dying in three years. Yet most Americans know nothing about this war.

North Korea invaded the South in June, 1950. Seoul, the capital, exchanged hands five times in less than a year. The war was almost lost in the first three weeks — saved by a last-minute stand at the Pusan peninsula. Following the brilliant tactical invasion at Inchon, orchestrated by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the American troops pushed the North Korean army to the Chinese border. Victory seemed assured.

But, according to David Halberstam in his classic book, The Coldest Winter, as brilliant as MacArthur’s invasion at Incheon was, his stubbornness, bravado, and outright racist views of the Chinese led to dark days for American fighting men.

Despite warnings by intelligence that Chinese troops were on the border, MacArthur ordered the thinly disbursed American troops to the Yalu River between Korea and China. In October, 1950, 270,000 Chinese soldiers crossed the border. For the next two months, the Chinese army pushed the American troops back to the 38th parallel, a “retreat” that included the famous Chosin Reservoir battle.

The First Marine Division, significantly outnumbered, fought its way in sub-zero weather out of the trap set by the enemy. The battle included the famous Marine Corps words: “Retreat Hell –we’re just attacking in another direction.”

And survive they did, bringing their dead, saving their equipment, and “retreating” with morale high — in the process killing and wounding 37,000 Chinese troops. Still, Chosen was a stunning defeat and some would argue the first from which the United States did not recover to win total victory.

One can understand the entire war by reading Halberstam’s book, but suffice to say the following events took place after Chosen: the firing of MacArthur by President Harry Truman; the courageous leadership of Gen. Matthew Ridgeway who restructured the American forces (and years later was praised by Colin Powell as the man to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for there even being a South Korea); the truce negotiation beginning in July, 1951; the long stalemate in fighting along the 38th parallel. Finally, negotiations culminated on July 27, 1953, encouraged with a veiled threat by President Dwight Eisenhower that he would use nuclear weapons.

And here we are again — but now it is North Korea threatening nuclear warfare. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Worse Problem on the Earth,” Mark Bowden, the former Inquirer reporter, indicates there are no good options. He examines four approaches: prevention, decapitation, turning the screws, and acceptance. There are serious problems with all — and none is full proof. Furthermore, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, echoed the same basic view but with more emphasis — “First: there are simply no good military options for attacking North Korea, the sheer destruction of an all-out war …takes that idea off the table; and second: China is the key no matter how you slice it.”

His approach would deal with China first and make these proposals: The United States would recognize North Korea and forswear no regime change; sign a formal peace treaty with North Korea; and dramatically change the military structure and forces in South Korea. In return North Korea must freeze its nuclear program, and keep delivery systems to a very short range — all actions to be enforced by the international community and China. Gates argues that it would be a nonstarter for the North to give up their nuclear weapons entirely.

Gates also suggests that if China would not accept these proposals, the United States would take steps that Beijing wouldn’t like, such as heavily populating Asia with missile defense; declaring it would shoot down anything “that looks like a launch of an intercontinental missile … and take whatever means to contain the regime.” Gates argues that the United States could take these steps in the absence of a negotiated settlement.

Gates offers gives and takes for both sides. And certainly nothing else has worked. But one thing is clear: We need to be aggressive now in pursuing a solution.

Richard F. Keevey is a former deputy undersecretary of defense  and is currently a senior policy fellow at the School of Planning and Policy at Rutgers University and a lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.