Warning signs are proliferating. The most obvious one is the sinking of the South Korean Corvette Cheonan on March 26th of this year, but there are others. There is a report that the North has moved seven light assault divisions (about 50,000 men) into positions just above the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It is also evident that they have not be able to modernize their military, or even to replace the huge stockpile of ammunition that is stored underground within range of the South Korean capital city of Seoul -- not to mention within range of US and South Korean forces. The Pyongyang government is facing a situation where it will either have to use this firepower or see it rot into uselessness.
It is rare for a war to break out without any warning, yet time and again nations which should have been on alert for an attack are surprised when in comes. Pearl Harbor in the US in 1941 and the Yom Kippur in Israel in 1973 are only two of the best know examples. To some extent this is natural; most people would rather not think about the horrible reality of full scale war.
When there had been a few incidents between the two Koreas in June 1950, no one, particularly in the US Government, anticipated the North's onslaught. Today, it would be comforting to think that things are different. America has substantial forces based in the South and, as a matter of routine, they are kept on a high level of alert. America's leaders in Washington are focused on other things that seem to be more important.
While the US Army and Air Force units in the theater have been reduced in size, South Korea's military has grown into a remarkably modern and effective force. They are now equipped with locally made robust and high tech weapons. They are supported by a defense industry that has made major progress in both skill and sophistication over the last two decades. Soldier for soldier, the South may have the best military in all of East Asia.
This presents the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- (DPRK) to use North Korea's official designation -- with a problem: How can they defeat a superior force with the tools available to them? The relative success of Hezbollah's 2006 war against Israel may hold a few clues to Pyongyang's thinking. Would it not be better for them to launch a major artillery and rocket barrage against the South. and then lure the superior mechanized forces of the US and South Korea into attacking? The fortified northern side of the DMZ is ideal territory in which to conduct defensive operations, especially if the defenders are equipped with a variety of antitank weapons, such as the Russian "Koronet" laser-guided missile.
The bombardment of Seoul would be accompanied by a large number of behind-the-lines attacks carried out by the North's special operations forces, in particular the Reconnaissance General Bureau, suspected of being the unit that blew up the Cheonan. For many years the US and the South Koreans have expected that any offensive launched by Pyongyang would include a massive campaign of sabotage and terror aimed at paralyzing allied transportation and logistics, as well as hitting at important political targets. Preparing an open and democratic nation for such attacks is, as we have found out in America, a difficult task.
The window of opportunity for launching this kind of attack is closing, just as the old plan to launch a large armored strike across the DMZ was effectively nullified a few years ago when the South deployed large numbers of their modern K-1 main battle tanks. Soon, the new and extremely advanced K-2 Black Panther tank will become operational; that would give the South a whole new level of operational maneuver superiority.
If the South were forced to take this bombardment threat seriously, they would need to develop an array of countermeasures. To begin with, they could buy counter-rocket and counter-artillery weapons from the US and especially from Israel, whose Iron Dome and Davids Sling defensive systems would, if proven, be well adapted to the needs of Seoul and the region around it.
In the face of this, the North will be trying to find any and all new asymmetric methods of warfare it can. The combination of wild threats and anti American and anti-foreign propaganda that served it well in the past has been losing its effectiveness. It has become almost impossible to hide the economic disaster that Kim Jong Il's regime faces. South Korea and the US must now expect the unexpected.
We have already seen Pyongyang use their nuclear program for political and diplomatic leverage. It is still and open question as to how many of these weapons they have, and if the nuclear material we know they have has been turned into usable bombs and warheads. If they were to fire a nuclear weapon. the retaliation would be terrible and the regime would not survive -- although, it must be said, the Obama administration has given them lots of reasons to imagine otherwise.
Increasing regional tension is an old North Korean tactic, and the allies have long learned to live with it. Now it seems that China, which has been the DPRK's only friend and ally, is getting tired of the problems caused by Kim Jong Il's government. There are rumors that the pro-Chinese faction within the ruling elite is being encouraged to stand up to the plans to install the ruler's third son, Kim Jong Eun, as the new supreme leader.
A Congressional Research Service study published in January, 2010, anticipated "potentially catastrophic consequences for China' economy and social structure if something should go terribly wrong in North Korea, with which China shares an 850 mile border." If a crisis initiated by the North were to get out of hand, China would be faced with a number of dangerous alternatives. If China allowed the DPRK regime to be destroyed, they would eventually face a powerful, technologically advanced, Asian democracy on their northeast border. They would also have lost an ally on which they have lavished decades' worth of support, and, from 1950 to 1953, tens of thousands of Chinese lives.
If China chooses to come to the aid of the North Koreans, they would precipitate a major conflict with the US which, under the best of circumstances, would ruin their economy and throw all their long range plans into the dustbin of history. If Beijing were to support a coup against the current leadership, they might gain a subservient ally, but there is no guarantee that the coup would succeed. Even if it did, China would find itself faced with a poisonous combination of nationalist resentment and an expensive obligation to underwrite the new Pro-China government.
Facing an economic crisis, a problematic succession, and food shortages possibly tantamount to a famine, the North Korean regime looks as if it is in deeper trouble than at any time in the last four decades. Kim Jong Eun is described by his supporters as an Omnipotent person of high talents and genius." If he does succeed his ailing father not even "Omnipotence" will be able to save North Korea from its current crisis. The best that America and South Korea can hope for is that behind the scenes, the allies are carrying out intensive talks with China so that in case of either a collapse or a conflict, a total disaster for all can be avoided.