Chief Military Correspondent
The soaring modern glass towers of downtown Seoul are magnificent -- and to a North Korean artillery officer squinting through his sights from just 32 miles away, a delicious set of targets. The glistening South Korean capital is a city of glass, almost literally in the shadow of some 500 long-range heavy artillery guns from which North Korea can fire half a million artillery shells an hour
, for several hours.
A war on the Korean peninsula could explode almost without warning, senior U.S. military officers say. North Korea's immediate, if suicidal, intent in such a conflict: to demolish Seoul in a blizzard of glass shards and cause tens of thousands of casualties, before U.S. and South Korea forces could react.
That is why millions of people living in Seoul regularly practice scrambling into bomb shelters in subway stations
-- and why any disruption in "normal'' relations with the reclusive and unpredictable regime to the north quickly gets the world's attention: a surprise attack from the North, whether deliberate or a miscalculation, would be bloody and costly, and likely would trigger all-out war.
Within hours of North Korea's apparently unprovoked artillery attack
on South Korean territory and the South's retaliatory artillery barrage, U.S. officials, diplomats and policy analysts
were assuring each other that this was only a "provocation'' by the North. The Obama administration took a rhetorical firm but low-key line on Tuesday, with Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell saying that the North Korean attack was "not, frankly, out of pattern for the North lately."
"North Korea has a pattern of doing things that are provocative,'' deputy White House spokesman Bill Burton explained to reporters Tuesday as Air Force One took President Obama to Kokomo, Ind., for an economic pep talk.
Nonetheless, Obama, saying the United States stands "shoulder to shoulder'' with South Korea, has dispatched the aircraft carrier George Washington
, together with a guided missile cruiser and three guided missile destroyers, to begin "defensive'' naval exercises in the Yellow Sea off South Korea's west coast. The U.S. strike group will conduct air defense and surface warfare readiness training with South Korean naval units.
A spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet said the three-day joint exercises, which were previously planned, will begin Sunday. The warships include the cruiser USS Cowpens and the destroyers USS Lassen, USS Stethem and USS Fitzgerald.
But why Pyongyang ignited the crisis remained a mystery.
One favored theory in Washington is that Kim Jong-Un, the pudgy, Swiss-schooled son and heir of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-Il, needs to establish credibility with the military and focus them on the enemy to the south while he replaces some senior generals with his own cronies. A related theory holds that the elder Kim, having twice failed to win a massive injection of Chinese foreign aid, is now seeking to intimidate Seoul and Washington into giving more aid by threatening war and boasting of progress on his nuclear weapons program.
But nobody knows. The DMZ that has divided North and South since 1953 also has blocked the two sides from developing any hot line or joint measures to handle crises, the kinds of arrangements that once flourished between the West and the Soviet Union along the heavily fortified borders of the Cold War.
Even so, the United States is required under a 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty to help the Republic of Korea defend itself. On Tuesday, Morrell, speaking on MSNBC, said the United States would "honor our alliance obligations to the South.'' South Korea put its military on its highest peacetime alert, but at the Pentagon, Marine Col. Dave Lapan, a spokesman, said it was "premature'' to say what action, if any, the United States was considering in reaction to the shelling exchange.
A lightning strike from the North, quickly followed by a massive and powerful push through South Korea by North Korean infantry and tanks, is how the last war began in 1950. South Korea and the U.S. were woefully unprepared; among the first American units to arrive to defend South Korea was Task Force Smith, mostly untrained and poorly equipped American GIs who fought valiantly but were virtually wiped out in the North Korean onslaught.
The 28,500 U.S. troops now stationed in South Korea, along with a large and powerful South Korean military, are better prepared, according to U.S. Army Gen. Walter "Skip'' Sharp, who commands U.S. and allied forces there.
A West Point armor officer who was born while his father was fighting in Korea, Sharp is charged with executing Op Plan 5027, the war-fighting blueprint that focuses immediately on destroying North Korean artillery. Those targets are already stored in U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK) computers for instant destruction by artillery, missiles or air strikes. Radar which back-traces the trajectory of enemy artillery shells would precisely locate mobile artillery.
"The real threat in South Korea is long-range artillery that's located right on the DMZ that can range Seoul, a city of tens of millions, so we really focus on being able to quickly take that artillery out, if it ever started,'' Sharp told reporters last year. "That I'm very confident in because we work very hard on that.''
The North Korean military is huge but old and rusty, U.S. officers say, largely consisting of castoff Russian and Chinese weapons and hampered by a shortage of fuel, training and spare parts. Aside from its artillery, North Korea has invested what it can in its missiles and special operations forces -- the missiles to augment artillery strikes in the opening hours of a conflict, and its commandos to punch across the DMZ to sow chaos behind the U.S.-ROK lines with sabotage and IEDs, the roadside bombs used with effect in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Op Plan 5027, rehearsed at least annually by U.S. and ROK ground, sea and air units, calls for a vigorous counterattack against North Korean artillery, air bases and the 700,000 troops and 2,000 tanks stationed near the DMZ. The plan, refined constantly since the 1970s, also identifies the units and sequenced movement of U.S. reinforcements as they are needed.
U.S. air power, including B-1 bombers, would play a critical role in attacking the North's artillery and missile sites in the opening hours of a conflict. Should North Korean armor succeed in breaking through the DMZ, the tanks would have to squeeze through narrow mountain valleys where they'd be vulnerable to air strikes. In addition, South Korean highway overpasses are designed to be blown up and dropped, the rubble blocking the roadway, in case of invasion.
Among other military preparations for war are plans to evacuate U.S. citizens and military dependents, a complex operation that U.S. forces practice twice a year.
"I think the North Koreans probably realize they could not win in a normal conventional all-out attack,'' Sharp said last year. But recognizing that the North has deliberately provoked crises in the past, Sharp said he has worked with the U.S. embassy to develop a series of potential responses to incidents such as Monday's artillery shelling.
"In every case, though, there is a recognition and a plan that in the midst of whatever is going on up North, we have to be prepared to defend South Korea in case we guess wrong,'' he said.
Bottom line, he said, if there is war the U.S. intention is to "fight and win.''