No, let's not invade North Korea, mm-kay?

“North Korea is a joke,” writes Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at The Week, “and shame on us for laughing.” He’s half right at best, but Gobry is dead wrong where it counts. He uses that introduction to scold America for laughing at the strange and oppressive Kim dynasty in Pyongyang, especially through films like The Interview and presumably Team America: World Police, which doesn’t get a mention in the article. It’s the joke part that gets Gobry in trouble, as he uses it as a springboard to call for a new American invasion of the Hermit Kingdom, assuming it will be a walk-over that produces little consequence:

This is obviously the trickiest part. North Korea has nukes, as well as countless artillery positions trained on Seoul and South Korea. Any attempt at regime change in North Korea must destroy their offensive capabilities in one strike. 

U.S. forces should be able to destroy all of North Korea’s artillery in one strike. After all, if there’s one thing that the U.S. military is very good at, it’s launching enormous amounts of rockets and bombs with great precision. With satellite, any significant artillery positions are known. Given the U.S.’s overwhelming technological advantage and total dominance of the sky, and the effect of surprise, it should not be impossible to pull off.

We have total dominance of the skies over North Korea? Er, no, not really. The term Gobry seeks is air supremacy, which gets achieved by destroying enough of the enemy’s aircraft or facilities to remove the threat altogether. The US achieved that quickly in the 1991 war against Iraq, but we didn’t start that war with that advantage. We could probably achieve it within a reasonable time frame against North Korea, but we don’t have it now, and Pyongyang has spent decades structuring its forces to prevent that outcome.

That’s important to understand the folly of the rest of that argument. In order to achieve the ridiculously optimistic goal of hitting all of North Korea’s artillery in a single lightning strike, we’d have to already have air supremacy, as well as a pinpoint and perfect knowledge of all those pieces, and the ordnance at hand to hit them with it. That would take months of logistical preparation — as it did in 1991 and again in 2003 for the wars in Iraq — during which North Korea would be doing things like, oh, launching artillery strikes on Seoul.

By the way, we should also know where all the artillery under ISIS control is, since much of it is ours and we actually do have air supremacy over Iraq and parts of Syria. Almost a year after ISIS began its sweep across the desert, have we and our allies destroyed all that artillery and armor yet? And that’s against a marauding terrorist army rather than a disciplined native military with decades to plan against a US attack, like the DPRK’s forces.

Gobry’s assumptions read like a cartoon version of “the war will be over in a week,” a claim that precedes every war, even those that had to be fought. Speaking of delusions, Gobry then assures readers that China will stand by and do nothing while the US invades its client state:

China would be particularly unhappy, since it views North Korea as a useful pawn. But that makes it an accomplice with the North Korean regime. And although China would be very unhappy, it would ultimately come to live with it.

First, China is not going to nuke the U.S. over North Korea. Second, we should remember that the Chinese leadership is fundamentally obsessed with keeping growth and employment up so that their people don’t revolt against them. And given that serious economic or political retaliation against the U.S. would hurt that goal more than it would hurt the U.S., they will abstain from much more than gesticulation.

Neither Gobry nor I are old enough to recall this from personal experience, but the Chinese “gesticulated” in force across the Yalu River in October 1950 the last time the US attempted to liberate North Korea, with support from the Soviet Union’s air force. China wouldn’t “nuke the US over North Korea,” but neither will they allow a military invasion of their client state on their borders go unchallenged. The PLA has over 2.2 million active-duty soldiers and another 800,000 on reserve. Beijing can call up millions of soldiers in a very short period of time, and they have improved their technological prowess significantly over the last 65 years. Our military may be the finest in the world, but even our technological advantages will not stave off a Chinese offensive of overwhelming numbers. An American invasion will produce the same response, even if it’s just for the opportunity for Beijing to seize Pyongyang and replace the regime with someone less nutty.

Also, let’s not forget the DPRK’s military, too. According to the DoD’s assessment in 2014, it has almost a million active-duty members and upwards of 13,000 artillery and rocket pieces in the field. That’s an awful lot for a single US strike to take out. It’s no joke when planning an invasion, either. Where would we get the soldiers for an invasion that would force a million-person army into total surrender in their own homeland quickly enough to prevent a Chinese assault? It would take months to draft an army of sufficient size to mount that kind of invasion, which would make the assault something less of the surprise on which Gobry counts.

Finally, let’s take a look at their nuclear weapons. It’s true that they don’t threaten the US, or maybe it isn’t. However, they do threaten Japan, which would have to serve as a launching pad for any US invasion of the Korean peninsula, at least for the logistical effort that it would require. It seems doubtful that Japan would be willing to risk Tokyo on a plan by the US to secure the DPRK’s nukes in time to prevent a launch while we mount the biggest military invasion since 2003, or given the numbers required, perhaps since D-Day.

North Korea is no joke. The best path to unwinding the Kim regime is to keep pressure on Pyongyang, bolster South Korea to prepare for the eventual collapse, and engage China to push the Kims out of power and end the 65-year standoff as peacefully as possible, in part by embarrassing them over the depredations of the Kim clique. That may not be as satisfying as calling for an invasion, but it’s a lot less bloody, and has some relation to reality.

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