North Korean Crisis: Possible Military Options
CRS Report for Congress
North Korean Crisis:
Possible Military Options
Edward F. Bruner
Specialist in National Defense
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
North Korea has confronted the United States with its decision, failing other
security accommodations, to pursue production of nuclear weapons. The Bush
Administration has stated that, although the situation is unacceptable, it will pursue its
resolution through diplomatic means. Military means, however, could be considered at
some point and become a serious issue for Congress. This short report discusses the
geography and military balance on the Korean Peninsula, presents the range of military
options that might be applied there to specific U.S. political objectives, and assesses
possible consequences. Military options discussed are: status quo, improved defensive
posture, enforce sanctions, preemptive strike against nuclear facilities, and preemptive
war. Also see CRS Issue Brief IB98045 on U.S.-Korean relations and CRS Issue Brief
IB91141 on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. This report will be updated if major
Background: Geography and Military Balance
The Korean peninsula lies at a nexus of military, economic, and political concerns
with global implications. From North Korea’s perspective, it is surrounded by world
powers: to the west and north are China and Russia, to the East is Japan, and to the South
is South Korea and military forces of the United States. Since the Korean War began in
1950, the North Korean dictatorship has presented continuous military and economic
challenges to its neighbors. Recent challenges have included a specter of economic
collapse and a threat to develop a nuclear arsenal.
North Korea, with a population of 22 million, maintains a large military force of
over 1 million active soldiers and 4.7 million reservists. Its force structure includes some
20 army corps with armor, mechanized infantry, and infantry units; notable enhancements
include 88,000 special purpose forces and a range of artillery, rocket, and missile forces
(some reportedly capable of delivering chemical and biological agents)1. Naval forces
1 Military force statistics from The International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
include some 300 patrol and coastal combatants, 26 submarines, and 66 inshore/coastal
submarines for inserting special forces. Air forces deploy over 500 Russian fighter and
attack aircraft and some 300 utility helicopters. Detracting from the potency of this large
force are the age and obsolescence of many combat systems and low training hours
afforded to their crews. Many draftees may reflect weakness stemming from ten years of
Directly facing the North Korean threat is South Korea with some 48 million people.
It has 686,000 personnel on active military duty and can muster 4.5 million reservists.
The South Korean Army is organized into some 10 corps, with equipment generally better
than that found to the North – for example, half of its tanks are comparable to the U.S.
Abrams tank. Its fleet of over 350 helicopters includes U.S. AH-1 Cobras, CH-47
Chinooks, and UH-60 Blackhawks. The Navy deploys 26 submarines, 39 principal
surface combatants, 84 patrol and coastal combatants, and a 2-division force of 28,000
Marines. The Air Force flies over 530 combat aircraft, including the F-16C/D. The
South Korean level of training is considered generally higher than that of North Korea.
Integral to the defense of South Korea is the direct presence of some 37,000 U.S.
military personnel. Major units are two brigades of the 2d Infantry Division, combat and
support units of the Eighth Army (including Patriot missile batteries), and U.S. Air Force
units deploying 90 combat aircraft. Dedicated reinforcement and supporting forces are
considerable, including a new Stryker Brigade2 and a corps headquarters in Fort Lewis,
Washington and the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. Powerful Air Force, Marine Corps,
and Navy forces (totaling 48,000 personnel) are nearby in Japan, including the Seventh
Fleet. Availability of additional Army forces in the near term, however, would be limited
by ongoing commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and other places.3
A unique strength of the defense of South Korea resides in the command
arrangements, both joint and combined. A U.S. officer, General Leon J. LaPorte, as
Commander of the Combined Forces Command, would command all allied forces in
South Korea during wartime, as well as all U.S. forces. A South Korean general would
be the ground component commander and have operational control of U.S. ground forces
assigned to him by General LaPorte. Higher headquarters integrate both U.S. and South
Korean intelligence and operational planning, an area of frequent testing and exercise.
Major military action on the Korean Peninsula could create a challenge exceeding
that recently met by the United States and its allies in Iraq. Some 80% of the peninsula,
Balance, 2002-2003, London, October 2002. A discussion of missile programs and their
potential to carry WMD warheads can be found in Andrew Feickert, North Korean Ballistic
Missile Threat to the United States. See CRS Report RS21473.
2 Newly constituted as part of the U.S. Army’s transformation initiative. See Edward F. Bruner,
Army Transformation and Modernization: Status and Issues for Congress, CRS Report RS20787.
3 Michael O’Hanlon. “Breaking the Army,” The Washington Post, July 3, 2003, p.A23. It appears
that U.S. contingency plans for a North Korean invasion have called for more divisions than the
active Army can provide today. See unclassified extracts of Operation Plan 5027 published in
Tokyo SAPIO, 28 Feb 96, pp. 17-22.
about the size of Utah, is covered by rugged hills and mountains.4 The winters are bitterly
cold, while the summers are hot and humid with periodic torrential rains and flooding.
Much of the North Korean force is protected by a system of underground caves and
tunnels. About two-thirds of the North Korean force is forward deployed along the
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the northern boundary of South Korea. Complicating
military defensive planning is the location of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Seoul,
a metropolis of some 10 million people, sits astride the major trafficable corridor between
North and South Korea, as close as 25 miles to the DMZ. In a surprise attack, the North
could inflict artillery and missile devastation upon Seoul – referred to by the North as a
“sea of fire”5 – and possibly reach the city with a coordinated ground and special
U.S. Military Alternatives
Should resort to force be deemed necessary, there are several military actions that
the United States could contemplate to achieve policy objectives on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea, unfortunately, has a history of unpredictable, and often violent, reactions to
even slight provocations. Therefore, even the most modest U.S. military action risks
escalation to higher levels of conflict and most analysts agree that no military option
should be chosen without full recognition of such danger. Also, a combination of options
could be chosen or even anticipated to ensue. U.S. allies and other nations in Northeast
Asia are aware of these dangers and the United States would likely undertake some form
of consultation with them – their active or passive cooperation could be needed. Some
suggest that, in light of potentially large casualties, proceeding without South Korean
agreement “would be immoral as well as ill-advised.”6
Status Quo. Current U.S. policy involves maintaining a stable military situation
while diplomacy proceeds to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis. South Korea and the
United States maintain strong defenses along the DMZ. Periodic military exercises elicit
complaints from North Korean officials, but, over time, they generally seem accustomed
to and respect the existing military situation.7 Some have suggested withdrawal or
drawdown of U.S. forces, but other analysts believe this could, in a time of tensions, send
unintended messages to North Korea or even to one or more of its powerful neighbors.
Ongoing studies and negotiations propose to relocate U.S. ground forces and
headquarters, primarily by moving the U.S. 2d Infantry Division from the north to the8
south of Seoul. Such a move would give U.S. forces greater flexibility to maneuver and
4 For a more detailed treatment, see John M. Collins, Korean Crisis, 1994 Military Geography,
Military Balance, Military Options, CRS Report 94-311, April 11, 1994, (archived, available on
request from Edward F. Bruner) 21pp.
5 Doug Struck, “U.S. Focuses On N. Korea’s Hidden Arms,” Washington Post, June 23, 2003,
6 John M. Collins. “Nuclear Bees in North Korea,” Army Magazine, August, 2003.
7 Conducted annually, the large Ulchi Focus Lens exercise will take place August 18-29, 2003.
“U.S.-S.Korea exercise slated for next month,” Associated Press, July 21, 2003.
8 Robert Karniol. “Seoul, US to realign basing of troops,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, June 11, 2003.
Non-military reasons include responding to nationalistic and environmental concerns of the South
make them less vulnerable to a surprise attack – essentially lessening the “tripwire” effect
of having U.S. forces close to the DMZ. Whether such an action will make the military
situation more or less stable could be argued either way,9 but the overall effect should not
unduly change the military status quo on the Korean Peninsula.
Improve Defensive Posture. Recognizing that the current situation is unusually
tense, the United States and South Korea could adopt a policy of temporarily increasing
military preparedness to deter a North Korean military strike,10 improve allied odds to
defeat such a strike, or reinforce diplomatic firmness. The least provocative action might
be to add more robust intelligence and warning activities, both those based in South Korea
and those using space assets and adjoining air and sea access. Other options include:
upgrading and testing alternate command headquarters, including those underground, as
well as information and communications networks; adding more air and missile defense
assets to protect additional key government and military facilities in South Korea and
Japan; and, strengthening unit reception plans and facilities for reinforcements. In so far
as the North Korean crisis is recognized as a priority military challenge to the United
States, the measures above are, in some cases, underway, according to recent press
reports.11 Although possible, it is unlikely that North Korea would attack solely in
response to such gradual, defensive measures. It might, however, feel greater pressure to
either reach a diplomatic solution or expend more resources on its own military
Calling up South Korean reservists or moving additional U.S. combat forces into the
Peninsula might also be considered. Unless done in response to overtly hostile North
Korean actions or intentions, such actions would most likely be construed as a serious
provocation or possibly a prelude to an allied attack. North Korean sensitivity is
illustrated by statements of concern even when temporary U.S. buildups and exercises are
held in Okinawa.12
Military Enforcement of Sanctions. Should North Korea attempt to export
weapons of mass destruction, longer range missiles, or the materials to create such things,
interception on the high seas or in the air by military forces might be considered.13 U.S.
and international policy objectives would be to enforce nonproliferation goals and,
perhaps secondarily, to restrict hard currency gains from such transactions. Such a
“blockade,” “quarantine,” or “containment,” to be effective, would require large,
9 Sang-hun Choe. “Redeployment from DMZ would alter Korean political climate,” Associated
Press, June 6, 2003.
10 Admiral Fargo, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, recently told the House International
Relations Committee that, “I believe the chances of war are low, but the consequences would be
very high.” Associated Press, June 26, 2003.
11 Hans Greimel. “Wolfowitz: More mobile force needed to counter N. Korea threat,” Associated
Press, Tokyo, June 3, 2003.
12 “N.K. Concerned About U.S. Military Build Up in Japan,” Seoul Yonhap, May 30, 2003.
13 Steven R. Weisman. “Plan To Block North Korean Nuclear Shipments Gains Support,” New
York Times, June 18, 2003, p A5. Note. Discovering or proving such activity is difficult.
dedicated U.S. Navy and Air Force participation, and at least some Coast Guard assets.
It would require the cooperation of other nations and international organizations, not least
being a commitment from China and Russia to actively seal their land, sea, and air
borders from penetration by North Korean conveyances and those of their customers.
Risks for such an operation are that innocent trade and other activities of many
nations could be inconvenienced; North Korea might circumvent even sophisticated
intelligence and interception operations; and, since a blockade is considered an act of war,
North Korea might respond with military action.14
Preemptive Strike on Nuclear Facilities. The Administration’s National
Security Strategy reserves the option for the President to order a preemptive strike to
forestall a weapons of mass destruction attack against the United States, its military
forces, or its allies.15 In this case, the possession of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles
could threaten, now or in the short term, U.S. forces and allied populations in South Korea
and Japan. In the longer term, a few observers are concerned that North Korea could16
threaten more distant targets, to include parts of the U.S. homeland. There is also the
possibility that North Korean nuclear materials and weapons could be exported to third
parties – terrorist groups or rogue states – that might wish to harm the United States. In
any event, a policy option would be to destroy identified weapons and materials and
associated production facilities in North Korea; it would be complicated by the North
Korean’s ability to hide or protect such targets, often deeply underground.
The United States has the ability to deliver both conventional and nuclear weapons17
against some underground targets, and is studying “robust nuclear earth penetrators.”
Some targets could presumably also be neutralized with special forces operations. A risk
with a preemptive strike option is that all identified targets, if they do exist, might not be
accurately located and that some may be deeply or effectively protected against U.S.18
weapons. Surviving capabilities might be used in retaliatory strikes, possibly creating
calamities that U.S. policy was trying to prevent. U.S. strikes would undoubtedly be
considered acts of war, and North Korea could attempt to launch selective or massive
conventional attacks against South Korea in response.19 It is, therefore, unlikely that
South Korea would support a preemptive strike option under most circumstances.
14 Doug Struck. “N. Korea Vows to Fight Any Blockade,” Washington Post, June 18, 2003, p.
15 The White House. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,
Washington, D.C., September 17, 2002, p. 15.
16 See Andrew Feickert, op. cit.
17 See Jonathan Medalia, Nuclear Earth Penetrator Weapons, CRS Report RS20834.
18 CIA. “We continue to monitor and assess North Korea’s nuclear weapons efforts which, given
the North’s closed society and the obvious covert nature of the program, remains a difficult
intelligence collection target.” Report to Congress on the Acquiring of Technology Related to
Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Weapons, January-June 2002.
19 See Doug Bandow. “Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Why Military Action Should
Not Be Used to Resolve the North Korean Nuclear Crisis,” CATO Institute Foreign Policy
Briefing, May 12, 2003, 13 pp.
Preemptive War. Initiating general war with North Korea is an unlikely option
for the United States, as South Korea would be unwilling to sustain the resultant, huge
costs on its population without extreme provocation. In theory, however, two policy
objectives might be met. First, should regime change in North Korea become a priority
policy objective, a military march to Pyongyang might be the only sure means available.
Second, should a major North Korean attack south appear imminent, the policy of
preemptive attack might offer advantages: the initial allied targeting and assaults could
reduce North Korean capabilities to destroy Seoul, WMD could be destroyed or captured,
and allied commanders would be able to execute their plan with nonattritted forces – a
particular advantage if the United States followed a doctrine of rapid, joint, and
coordinated attacks throughout the depth of North Korea.
In considering a war option, certain assumptions and risks would need to be
assessed. First, international support for the war would be desirable, given U.S. reliance
on global communications and transport; China’s reaction would be key – at the minimum
it would have to be neutral. Next, it would be difficult to mask attack preparations by
U.S. and South Korean forces. North Korea could launch its own preemptive attack,
possibly creating some of the adverse consequences U.S. policy was trying to circumvent.
Also, timing is a problem – due to heavy commitments in Iraq and many other places, the
U.S. Army is currently stretched very thin, and would find it difficult to contribute the20
major ground forces needed. To sustain such an operation, it is likely that many Army
National Guard and Army Reserve units not already on active duty would have to be
mobilized, as well as considerable numbers of individual reservists to fill out units and
replace casualties. It is likely that much of any post-war occupation of North Korea
required could be accomplished by South Korea.
Finally, American public acceptance of a more difficult and protracted war than it
might expect based on recent, quick U.S. military victories in Southwest Asia and the
Balkans may be a requisite. In addition to geographic problems highlighted above and
a larger enemy force that has possibly learned through observation how the United States
fights, the North Korean soldier may not surrender easily. The Korean War of 1950-1953
is a cautionary example: one U.S. veteran of that conflict said, “I’d rather fight the
Chinese any day than the North Koreans, who were more tenacious, more fanatical, and
more disciplined.”21 Others would point out that today’s North Korean soldier is
physically weaker, may resent state oppression, is severely outclassed in weaponry and
experience with modern warfare – and the current limits of his tenacity are not known.
Should a military option be deemed necessary, the Executive would be expected to
consult with appropriate congressional bodies.
20 O’Hanlon, op. cit. Note. In extremis, both sides retain the option to resort to nuclear warfare.
21 General Robert Kingston, U.S. Army, Retired, Oral History, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle
Barracks, PA, 1995. In context, it must be noted that Chinese soldiers were also tough opponents.