Murphy's Law: August 18, 2003

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The Great Blackout of 2003 and the Situation in Korea. We don't usually do much first person reporting in StrategyPage, but this one was too good to miss. About 4 PM on August 14th I was leaving a three minute meeting (my favorite kind) at 5th Avenue and 29th street in Manhattan. I was headed north to 1776 Broadway to get interviewed by a KBS (the South Korean "BBC") camera crew. Naturally, it was for a story on the military situation in Korea. I had done a similar story for one of their competitors (MBC, a commercial outfit) last March, so I'm now on producer rolodexes in South Korea.

I was going to catch a cab, but knew they would be more abundant up near Herald Square and started walking northwest. I soon began to notice the sidewalks were more crowded than usual. Actually, the stretch of Broadway I was walking on had, in the last few years, become a gathering place for street vendors and the sidewalks were usually crowded. Then I noticed that some stoplights were not working. Well, I had seen some of that in the past few weeks, as the city is installing newer (and actually better) stoplights and some of the existing ones were really on their last legs. A broken stoplight is no big deal in Manhattan. The pedestrians just sort of form a scrum and bull their way across the street. It's tough for cars and trucks to get up some decent, pedestrian intimidating, speed in Manhattan, so it's the folks on foot who face down the vehicles. 

But after a couple of blocks of this I began to wonder if something else was going on. Now keep in mind that there was no shouting or yelling on the streets (or not any more than usual) and no one was saying anything about "it's a blackout." I had sunglasses on and could not see inside store windows (to note that the lights were out.) So I dug into my briefcase and pulled out a small AM/FM radio and soon discovered that the lights had gone out over the entire northeast about five minutes ago. Well, that explained a lot of things. 

Catching a cab was now out of the question, as the usual custom in these situations is for the more adroit commuters to grab the nearest empty cab, wave a hundred dollar bill in front of the driver, and promptly depart for the burbs. At this point, empty cabs had joined the endangered species list. No juice meant no subway either. And here in midtown, surrounded by office towers disgorging hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, traffic in general, and buses in particular, were not moving very fast. So I continued walking north  to see if I could hook up with the KBS crew about a mile and a half away. If they had enough sense to get down 22 flights of stairs, and had charged batteries in their camera, we could do the interview. What else are you going to do when the lights go out and it's still daylight?

By the time I got to 1776 Broadway, the Koreans spotted me before I spotted them. They had batteries for their camera and I suggested we proceed another block north to Central Park, where we could find a relatively peaceful place to discuss another Korean war. Somehow, it all seemed so appropriate.

The KBS guys were well prepared, and wanted to move beyond the general strategic situation I had covered for the earlier MBC interview. They asked some pointed questions, and I gave them some answers they didn't expect. To wit (as best I can recollect from memory):

Who will win another Korean War? Well, the North Koreans can't win. They have no allies and despite having more troops (1.1 million to 600,000), tanks (3600 to 2200) and artillery (12,000 to 5,000), they were doing the attacking and were at a disadvantage in the quality department. The defender has huge advantages in Korea, where the 250 kilometer DMZ is heavily fortified in depth. The South Koreans are better trained and have had more combat experience in the last fifty years. The northerners disadvantages will add up to a very low probability of success. A future war is the southerners to lose.

What advantages does South Korea have? The major ones are quality, lots of it. South Korean weapons and equipment are two or three generations more modern than what the north has. Moreover, a decade of economic decline have reduced training in the north. The north does not have the fuel or money for spare parts. They can train their infantry, and they do, hoping to use better training infantry to break through the fortifications and mountain ridges along the DMZ. The south also has a morale advantage. Southern troops are from a democracy and know exactly what they are fighting for. Moreover, don't forget that it has never been U.S. policy to plan or prepare for an attack into the north. The Pentagon wargaming I have seen for over three decades has always been on how to defend South Korea. This means that the north will have to attack into heavily fortified mountains, which constitute most of the 250 kilometers long DMZ. The weapons advantage of the south is enormous. The South Korean K-1 tanks are similar to the American M-1, and would have the same effect on the North Korean tanks as American M-1s had on Iraqi tanks in 1991 and 2003. Moreover, Iraq actually had a more modern tank force than North Korea has. Most of North Koreas tanks are 1950s vintage T-55s. Same situation in the air and at sea. We know, from experience, that the North Koreans can train their troops (who are drafted for up to seven years service) to a high degree of skill. And a well trained soldier with inferior weapons is still a formidable force. But it's more than the troops. The training in the north is mainly drills, while in the south there get more effective American style training that emphasizes realism and dealing with a how your opponent will actually operate. 

How will North Korea cope with it's disadvantages? The North Korean generals are not fools, and it is known that they have studied carefully what happened in Kuwait in 1991 and Kosovo in 1999. There are hundreds of North Koreans (working on missile and nuclear projects) in Iran right now and I suspect some of them are there to get some first hand information on how the Iraqi armed forces got stomped in three weeks. You have to assume that the north will be working hard on tactics that will help them overcome their deficiencies. Since the 1970s, we've known about the tunnels the north has dug under the DMZ. We know they have thousands of commando troops, plus chemical weapons and ballistic missiles. We also know the north has spies in the south, and Japan. We can assume that there's some espionage going on in the north as well. But probably not a lot, as police states have advantages in dealing with enemy spies. Democracies are more open, and thus easier to spy on. What we don't know is exactly what the south and the U.S. knows about northern plans and what they will do about it. This sort of thing has to be kept secret, lest the north further adjust their surprise moves. The opening stages of a war will be revealing, as we will find out who worked out the most effective war plans. But it's unlikely that the north will be as successful as they were in 1950.

What about North Korean chemical weapons and ballistic missiles? Chemical weapons will cause the most physical and psychological effect on South Korean civilians. Soldiers are trained to deal with this sort of thing, although the troops will get hurt as well. But keep in mind that chemical weapons slow down attackers as well. The northern attack cannot afford to slow down. There aren't that many missiles, and their are American anti-missile systems that can stop most of them. North Korea has to conquer South Korea within a few months, or perhaps even weeks, before their numerical and surprise advantage disappears. Remember that the north has no allies. There will be no "volunteers" coming from China or Russia this time. Meanwhile, South Korea (which is now a major trading partner of China and Russia) has many powerful allies, particularly the United States and Japan. Time is not on North Korea's side.

Will the North be able to launch a surprise attack? To a certain extent, yes, and that has been the great fear in the south for over half a century. But considerable intelligence resources are devoted to watching the north and trying to detect a possible surprise attack. Obviously, the U.S. or South Korea cannot talk openly about these efforts, but analysts (like myself) who have watched this situation for a long time have noted that the north, over the past couple of decades, has been losing it's ability to make a surprise attack. American sensors and data collection are getting better. And the north hasn't got much new technology to help them get away with a surprise attack. The danger is there, but it's a danger that is closely watched. For South Korean troops, this is a matter of life and death, and that tends to focus ones attention. Moreover, the end of the Cold War revealed a lot of tricks and techniques the Warsaw Pact was going to use on NATO, and some of these were also known to the North Koreans. Early warning efforts in South Korea were much improved as a result of this.

How long would a war last? Probably a few weeks, no more than a few months. The major problems for the north are supplies (fuel, food, ammo) and morale. What happens when their troops get into South Korea and realize that everything they have been told (that North Korea is the best place in the world to live) is a lie? This is not a unique situation, When Soviet troops invaded the Baltic States in 1940, there was unrest among the Soviet troops because these guys had been told that the "capitalist countries" (like the Baltic States, which had been part of Russia twenty years earlier) screwed most of the people. This was obviously not the case when you could look around and see that everyone had a much higher standard of living. The Soviet political officers had to work overtime to deal with the "problem." The North Korean political officers will probably not be able to cope. This is because there have been growing reports out of North Korea that discipline in the armed forces, and in the government, is growing lax. The police state is falling apart. 

How far would the North Koreans get? They might make their deepest penetrations in the center of the DMZ, where most of the terrain is mountain and forest. Easier for the northern infantry to hide from the JDAMs and South Korean artillery. Along the coastal plains, there is no place to hide and it's easier for South Korean tanks to blast whatever northern vehicles show up. A breakthrough in the mountainous center is not a disaster, for the north has to control roads to get very far. And once they use roads, they are excellent targets for bombers, tanks and artillery. But consider the fact that South Korea has three million reservists, and with many of them owning their own cars and being better trained than their North Korean counterparts, these reserves would be mobilized a lot quicker than the reservists up north. This would create a lot of troops per kilometer of front. This, in all wars in the last century, has led to stalemate and millions of troops facing each other from trench lines. Time is not on the North Koreans side. With no allies and cut off from any external support, stalemate means defeat. If the south can stabilize the front, they win.

Could South Korea win without the United States? Yes, and this is mainly because South Korea now makes most of the high tech weapons that give it a quality edge. But South Korea will win faster, and with fewer casualties, with the United States as an ally. America brings a lot more air power, and lots of JDAM bombs. America also has lots more amphibious ships and the world's largest fleet. This makes it easier to land along the North Korean coast which, at the very least, forces the North Koreans to hold back a lot of troops to guard the coasts, or leave the coasts open to a landing.

What would the first 24 hours of the war be like? It would be hell in Seoul, which is within range of several hundred North Korean rocket launchers and long range guns. Both sides have surprises for each other, but the first 24 hours is where each sides plans run on automatic, until encounters with reality force revisions in the plans. Those initial plans call for lots of fire power to be used, and a lot of southern civilians are going to get in the way. The war in the air and at sea will be intense during the first 24 hours, as will North Korean attempts to get commandos into the south (and southern attempts to do the same in the north.)

Why is there disagreement between the United States and South Korea over how to deal with the North? The main problem is that Americans fear that the north will quietly sell nuclear or chemical weapons to terrorist groups, and these weapons will end up being used in the United States. The north has used terrorist attacks against South Korea for decades, so we know what they are capable of. Thus American are anxious to do something about North Korean nuclear and chemical weapons. South Koreans are more afraid of the North Attacking the south directly, which they did once before in 1950. To deal with the terrorist threat, it seems reasonable to threaten the north. But to deal with the war threat, you have to use more conciliatory moves. South Korea and America both fear the north, but for different reasons, and each wants to apply a different, and somewhat incompatible, solution.

The producer liked that last bit, about why South Koreans and Americans have a different take on, and solution for, North Korea.

The interview was interrupted at times by the sound of a police car, fire truck or ambulance screaming by on Central Park South. And then there was the constant noise of police and news helicopters overhead. But the director said that, given the circumstances and the subject matter, they'd leave a lot of those sounds in. 

We finished up the interview at about 6 PM. I gave them a copy of my latest book and inscribed it "Welcome to Baghdad on the Hudson." Some people who had been sitting on a park bench about ten feet away came up to ask what this was all about, and then thank us for an entertaining hour. I playfully said this was actually a city program that mobilized street theater groups in the event of emergencies, in order to keep morale up. A good laugh was had by all. 

Having taken care of the Korean war, there were other matters to attend to. I was supposed to have a business meeting, over dinner, later that night. I hooked up with the dinner gang by 8 PM (at a prearranged spot) and we scrounged some chow from stores and delis that were operating by candlelight and lantern in lower Manhattan. We then had the dinner meeting by moonlight in the West Side Hudson river park. Two of the guys at this meeting were from California, and were going to later hit the party circuit we saw forming in candle lit bars while we were foraging. The other lad called home, found all was well, and decided to camp out overnight at the office. Everyone else I knew was also coping quite well. Besides, we were told the lights would be back on by midnight. I went home and was asleep by 11 PM. 

I awoke at 3 AM, planning to get some other work done before catching the 7:10 train to Hartford, where I had a day long meeting. I immediately noted that the juice was still out. So I called downtown to see what was happening at the office and found that our two visitors from the coast were there, catching a few hours sleep before they headed for their hotel out by LaGuardia airport. Meanwhile, one of our NYC programmers had a small generator in the back of his SUV. He had had the generator repaired recently and had not gotten around to unloading it. This had been carried up six flights of stairs (after tipping one of the building staff to look the other way at what was obviously a violation of the city fire code in the making). Set up on a table next to an open window, it provided enough juice for two desktops and one laptop. Kind of smelly, though. Several of the guys decided to pull an all-night programming session rather than deal with the traffic and the (for two of them) wives and kids at home (who, apparently, were having a good time).

The radio said the railroad was kind of running. So I said I'd head downtown and guide the two visitors up to Penn Station, where I could check the situation with trains to Hartford, and they would have a better chance of snagging a bus, cab or whatever ride to LaGuardia. 

So I headed south at about 3:30 AM. NYC at night, without the lights on, is a sight to see, even if a bit dimly. The cops were all over the place, directing traffic or just hanging out. On many intersections, they popped flares to mark the lane for through traffic to use. This also provided enough light for pedestrians. I saw hundreds of people out and about. I picked up my two left-coasters and off we went for Penn Station. We detoured by Union Square where, as I suspected, there was a huge party going on (New York University, and several other colleges, are nearby.) At Penn Station, we found that hundred dollar bills made excellent bait if you are trolling to cabs during a blackout. This got our slightly hung over, but very entertained, software engineers back to La Guardia, their hotel and eventually back to California.

I never made it to Hartford, and found the telephone didn't really make up for that face-to-face experience. The lights finally came on downtown about noon on Friday, and at nine PM, further north where I lived. The lights never went out in South Korea. Jim Dunnigan

 


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