US plans total war against N. KoreaIAN MATHER DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT
WHILE the White House continues its public war of words with North Korea, a battle plan is already being laid in secret by military strategists at the Pentagon.Japan has already drawn a line in the sand, saying it would have the legal right to strike first if it were to receive intelligence of a planned missile attack by North Korea.
Until now leader Kim Jong Il’s increasingly flamboyant and frightening game of international brinkmanship has only attracted condemnation from the Bush administration.
But behind the scenes, American strategists are now weighing up the option of a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea as the rogue Stalinist state forges ahead with its plans to build a nuclear arsenal - threatening not only a "domino effect" of nuclear proliferation in east Asia but also a strike against the very heart of America.
It is a terrifying scenario, with likely casualties running to one million during the first day of an attack on North Korea - most falling victim to the long-range artillery trained on its southern neighbour.
Last week, in its most defiant act yet, a North Korean fighter jet crossed the border and played cat-and-mouse with a South Korean aircraft. When the US condemned the incursion, North Korea declared that there could be nuclear war on the Korean peninsula "at any time".
The US responded by placing on alert its long-range bombers based on Guam and ordering the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group to sail to waters off the Korean Peninsula, fuelling talk of a possible US pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities.
Military analysts predict North Korea’s next move will be a provocative missile test similar to the one carried out in 1998 which demonstrated that it could hit Japan. Only these days, North Korea has an as yet untested missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to California and, according to the CIA, "one or two plutonium-based devices".
As Victor Cha, a Korea expert at Washington’s Georgetown University, points out: "North Korea is not just a peninsula security problem for the US anymore. It is a homeland security issue."
And one member of the Capitol Hill staff warned: "They [the North Koreans] are the masters of brinkmanship, until they get to the point where they have crossed as yet undeclared lines."
The threat immediately drew condemnation from China and claims that Japan was "using the North Korean crisis to create an atmosphere to rearm".
China is resisting pressure from the Americans to exploit its position as North Korea’s leading trading partner and aid donor to persuade Kim to abandon his nuclear weapons programme.
China’s main concern is that a collapse of the North Korean economy would have a devastatingly destabilising impact on the region. It also fears a powerful re-unified neighbour.
The North Korean threat will dominate meetings this week that US Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to hold in Japan, China and South Korea. He is expected to announce the resumption of some food aid shipments to North Korea. But the gesture will do little to temper Kim’s nuclear ambitions. Rather than being a means to an end, his nuclear arsenal increasingly appears to be an end in itself.
Ironically, Powell, the reconstructed dove, had urged a continuation of Bill Clinton’s policy of engagement with Pyongyang when the Bush administration came to power. He was quickly slapped down by the president.
Powell was directly involved in the contingency plans drawn up by the US for a war in the Korean peninsula after Pyongyang threatened in 1993 to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. These are now having to be drastically revised to take account of its military commitments in the Gulf.
The US military assets now being sent to the region could stage air and missile strikes against the nuclear plant at Yongbyon and other sites where the North may have concealed production facilities for, and stockpiles of, nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
Strikes would also target the production and launching sites of North Korea’s growing ballistic missile programme.
But the odds are not good for the US. According to its own estimates, one million casualties could be expected in the first 24 hours of a war.
Even though much of North Korea’s hardware is old, its army is nearly a million strong and more than half of its soldiers are deployed within 100 miles of the demilitarised zone with 8,000 artillery pieces. It is estimated that North Korea could fire 300,000 shells an hour on to targets in the south.
In addition, it is believed to have about 5,000 tons of chemical and biological agents, including sarin, anthrax, smallpox and the plague.
John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, a group that tracks military developments, said: "The problem is that you just don’t know what fraction of North Korea’s capabilities would be destroyed in those attacks. "
Kim has pledged to respond in kind to any US military move. On Friday, North Korea condemned next month’s joint US-South Korean military exercises as a "nuclear test war" and prelude to military attack.
Andrew Kennedy, head of Asia programmes at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said: " There are few good military options available to the Bush administration. North Korea has spent the last 50 years planning for this. The missiles are already in place, and the tunnels are already dug. All they have to do is pull the trigger."
Kennedy added: "You have two countries, North Korea and Iraq, one with nuclear weapons and one without, one that is contained and one that is not. Yet you invade the one that has no nuclear weapons and is already contained, and you do a deal and send aid to the other."
As Powell arrives in Seoul tomorrow he will have good reason to rue his political master’s decision not to heed the advice he offered two years ago.
Join our Daily News Headlines Email Digest