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Monday, January 25, 2010     GET REAL

Rand: 400,000 troops needed to secure N. Korea and its 'loose nukes'

By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON — If there's one sure way to infuriate the North Koreans, it's to talk of "regime collapse" and "contingency planning". As far as Pyongyang is concerned, such speculation is proof positive of United States-led plotting of a "pre-emptive strike".   

Against this background, one should not be surprised if the North Koreans see a study conducted by Rand Corporation analyst Bruce Bennett and Dartmouth College scholar Jennifer Lind as the most conclusive evidence to date that the planning is in an advanced stage. Considering Rand's contracts with the U.S. defense establishment, one has to perceive the study as a scenario for an invasion of the North that would plunge the Korean Peninsula into a second Korean War.

Lind offers specific estimates of what it would take to seize North Korea's nuclear facilities and disarm the entire North Korean defense establishment as if the collapse of the North Korean regime were almost certain and the U.S. had to lead the charge to fill the vacuum. The study offers a raft of figures on the exact number of troops needed to subdue North Korea — 400,000 seems to be the operative figure with six brigades of troops dispatched right away to address the "paramount problem upon the North Korean collapse" — "the prevention of loose nukes".

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It hardly appears coincidental that Lind and Bennett are coming up with their study just as South Korea is doing its own contingency planning — and North Korea is resisting with predictable fury any insinuation that the regime is anywhere near falling apart. North Korean indignation was enough to undo signs of renewed efforts at reconciliation — and revival of six-party talks on the North's nuclear program.

At times North and South Korea seemed to be vying with one another to see which side could issue the most menacing statement. No sooner had North Korea got wind of South Korea's "contingency planning" for North Korea's collapse than the North's Korean Central News Agency warned of a "sacred nationwide retaliatory battle to blow up the stronghold of the South Korean authorities".

South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Tae-young went one better, saying that South Korea would indeed have to stage a pre-emptive strike "if we detected that it has a clear intention to attack with nuclear weapons".

If that remark appeared alarmist, it reflected yet another concern — that is, worries about South Korea's ability to command all forces in the South in the event of war. The plan for South Korea to assume war-time command instead of the U.S. takes effect in 2012, and South Korean military leaders are frankly worried about whether or not they're capable of coordinating a massive war effort in which U.S. air, naval and ground forces play a secondary role.

Concern about OPCON — Operational Control — increases as North Korea raises the bar on returning to six-party talks, much less giving up its nukes.

North Korea in recent days has said six-party talks cannot resume until the United Nations Security Council does away with sanctions imposed after its test of a long-range Taepodong 2 missile on April 5 and strengthened after its explosion of a second nuclear device on May 25.

That demand alone appears to rule out serious dialogue on the North's nuclear program, but the North's demands do not stop there. North Korea also is demanding a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice — and setting withdrawal of the 28,500 U.S. troops from the South as a condition.

Clearly, however, many analysts view North Korea's demands as so much bluster, a cover for the weakness of a regime that is in the midst of a leadership crisis exacerbated by economic failure.

In that context, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il's visits to military units appear as rhetorical gestures that may or may not impress members of the National Defense Commission, the center of the power structure that he rules as the commission's chairman. While suffering from diabetes and recovering from a stroke, according to this reasoning, he knows that time is running out for him and he has to put his youngest son, still in his 20s, in a position to take over.

Lind acknowledges that any of a number of scenarios may come to pass but talks as if Kim's demise were inevitable — and the U.S. and South Korea had better work closely together to figure out what to do when that happens. She and Bennett seem to have thought of everything from the exact number of troops needed to take control of North Korean nuclear facilities to how many troops would be responsible for disarming the North Korean armed forces, estimated at 1.4 million, to what to do about a flood of refugees rushing north to China and south to South Korea.

"We don't envision large-scale organized resistance by the North Korean military," she told a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Nor, said Lind, in what presumably was an understatement, should anyone "assume everyone in North Korea would welcome U.S. forces". For that matter, Lind added, compounding the sense of understatement, "How to make these people citizens of a democratic unified Korea would require substantial troop requirement."

Pressed to describe the legality of the deployment that she was suggesting, Lind acknowledged, "There's no getting around it, this is an invasion of North Korea" in which "we're sending military forces into a country that doesn't want you to come." Thus it was "important for the U.S. and South Korea to work out an agreement on how this can be done."

Just how seriously U.S. planners take the analysis offered by Bennett and Lind is far from clear, but no one doubts that it represents a significant strand of thinking. It's not hard to imagine U.S. strategists turning to such a study in the event of a sudden shift of power in North Korea.

Amid speculation about what's really happening there, however, South and North Korean negotiators talked about increasing productivity at the Kaesong economic complex just above the North-South line about 64 kilometers north of Seoul. North Korea also has asked South Korea for talks about resuming tours to the Mount Kumkang region on the eastern side of the peninsula for the first time since they were canceled after North Korean soldiers shot and killed a South Korean woman who had strayed outside the tourist area in July 2008.

Yet another issue was the likely response of China, North Korea's ally ever since Chinese troops defended the North from advancing U.S. and South Korean forces in the Korean War. The Chinese, as Bruce Klinger, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted: "Do not want to talk about any contingency planning."

Lind seemed to think that somehow it would be possible to "reassure China" that U.S. and South Korean forces were not there to challenge China.

It was as though the lessons of the Chinese role in the Korean War — and China's focus on insuring the stability of the North Korean regime against collapse — were no longer relevant. As for South Korea's enthusiasm for sending troops into North Korea, said Lind: "We need to ask what is the future of the U.S. alliance with this country."

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