The Red Line
Episode 85. Could the US Conquer North Korea?
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North Korea, a nation whose GDP is equivalent to that of the small island of Jamaica, has tested a record amount of missiles this year. With these increasing tests, there is a worry that they will build upon this momentum, and in the future, pose a credible threat to the United States itself.
In response to this, several prominent figures have been calling for the US to preempt this event, and carry out an invasion of the DPRK, solving the issue once and for all. But how difficult would an invasion be, is the cost worth it, and will a conflict here pull the rest of the region in with it?
Part 1: An Abrupt Armageddon (8:45)
Bruce Bennett discusses the stark differences between the Korean War and any future scenario in which North Korea would be engaged in a military conflict.
We discuss the likely outcomes if North Korea utilised nuclear weapons in a conflict, including the US' calculus in evaluating if retaliating with nuclear weapons makes strategic sense and the difficulty of confirming intelligence about the location of North Korean missile launch sites.
We unpack non-nuclear military conflict scenarios, noting the lack of good options in launching a conventional attack on North Korea. We also note the difficulties of supply lines and a lack of indigenous supply options in any such attack.
We hypothesise about China's response to any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, noting that the instigator will likely determine which whether China would support the DPRK or remain neutral. We also note the potential for China to invade North Korea and ensure a buffer between itself and ROK.
Part 2: Use It or Lose It (39:00)
Chad O'Carroll notes North Korea has increased its military activity and training in response to exercises by ROK and Japan. We discuss the prospect of sanctions and other tactics to nudge North Korea towards de-escalation.
We also discuss decapitation of the DPRK leadership as a potential military tactic and the likely next steps after such an action.
In the event of Kim Jong-un's death, experts believe his sister Kim Yo-jung is the most likely successor. We discuss the likelihood of Yo-jung holding onto power in male-dominated North Korea and what her rule might look like.
Part 3: To Defang Pyongyang (54:28)
Michael Green discusses what a large-scale conflict between North Korea and the US and its allies would look like, including the flow of refugees from the peninsula during such a conflict and how that flow would destabilise the region.
We discuss the time pressures in any conflict with North Korea and the preference of the US for China or Russia to seize North Korean nuclear and biological weapons in a conflict, as opposed to those weapons being seized by fanatical DPRK forces or rogue actors.
We discuss how US allies in East Asia and the broader region would become involved in a military conflict with North Korea, with the most likely outcome to be the absence of Taiwanese involvement to avoid complicating the geopolitical stratagem.
Adjunct International/Defence Researcher at the RAND Corporation and Professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School
Bennett's work applies wargaming, risk management, deterrence-based strategy, competitive strategies, and military simulation and analysis. He specializes in “asymmetric threats” such as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and how to counter those threats with new strategies, operational concepts, and technologies
He is an expert in Northeast Asian military issues, having visited the region over 120 times and written much about Korean security issues
Founder of NK News/NK Pro and related holding company Korea Risk Group.
O'Carroll is a frequent writer and commentator about the Koreas, having written about the two nations since 2010
He has visited the DPRK multiple times with a focus on peninsula issues, and lived in the ROK since 2016
Senior Adviser (non-resident) and Henry A. Kissinger Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
He served on the staff of the National Security Council (NSC) from 2001 through 2005, first as Director for Asian Affairs with responsibility for Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, then as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Asia, with responsibility for East Asia and South Asia
Dr. Green has authored numerous books and articles on East Asian security, including most recently Line of Advantage: Japan’s Grand Strategy in the Era of Abe Shinzo (2022)
The Red Line's North Korea Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula and conflict with North Korea.
North Korea's Foreign Policy
Edited by Scott A. Snyder and Kyung-ae Park
North Korea Confidential
The Impossible State
Wael B. Hallaq
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members -George Hively, Eron Beligradi, Brent Nelson, Scott, and Sonof.