The “crazy fat kid” as Senator John McCain calls him is at it again in North Korea.  The escalation in tensions on the Korean Peninsula comes right on the heels of the annual Foal Eagle exercise.  The exercise has been held once a year since the 1960’s and in part involves US and South Korean Special Operations Forces “red teaming” South Korean military facilities and other infrastructure.  It is widely believed, in the event of war, that North Korea will infiltrate their Special Purpose Forces into the South via penetration of the DMZ (including by tunnel), by boat, by submarine, or even by glider.  Once in the South these troops would than engage in a campaign of terror, mayhem, and sabotage that would soften up South Korean rear areas and distract forces away from the frontline, as well as sever their logistics lines.  During Foal Eagle, SOF elements train by conducting Direct Action operations against South Korean infrastructure, the way they would in the North or in occupied South Korean territory during a war.  Meanwhile, the South Korean forces practice defending their installations from the aggressors.

Senator McCain’s insult against Kim Jong-Un may have been funny, and we may get some chuckles watching Team America: World Police, in which Kim Jong-Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, sang “I’m so ronry” but at the end of the day the threat posed by the North and the suffering and oppression experienced by the people who live there is no laughing matter.

The ratcheting up of tensions by North Korea follows a familiar pattern.  This is their negotiation strategy, escalating the situation right up to the brink of war in order to gain political leverage and increased concessions from the United States, South Korea, and their allies.  The latest round of brinksmanship can perhaps be traced back to a diabolically well planned assassination in Malaysia.  The victim was Kim Jong-Nam, the North Korean dictator’s half-brother.  Unwitting assassins sprayed him with VX nerve agent, allegedly under the false pretenses that they were participating in a reality television show.

Tensions have been steadily rising during this year’s Foal Eagle exercise with a South Korean newspaper announcing that Delta Force and SEAL Team Six were on hand to practice so-called “decapitation” operations against the North.  The claim is almost certainly false as America’s highly trained counter-terrorism operators are unlikely to be thrown away on suicide missions in the North, missions that could be accomplished by cruise missiles or JDAM strikes.  For their part, the North has been testing ballistic missiles, some of which could reach Japan.  These tests were designed to menace and interrupt President Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida this past week.  For North Korea, the worst thing that could happen is that they are forgotten, discarded to history’s waste bin and so the Kim Family Regime has to keep themselves in the headlines of our newspapers.

The Chinese issue is an interesting one.  China is North Korea’s only real ally since the collapse of the USSR.  China would like to take economic advantage of North Korea, but at the same time they certainly do not want to be responsible for the economic burden if the regime were to collapse.  In this manner, the Chinese take a status quo position in regards to North Korea.  At the same time, they would like to see changes in South Korea, namely the removal of American forces stationed there under Combined Forces Command.  This is part and parcel of China’s larger geo-strategic vision to kick America out China’s backyard and maintain their own stranglehold over the South China Sea.  North Korea would like to see this reality as well, since it will undoubtedly make a forced reunification with the South that much easier.  However, informed observers had told SOFREP that at this point South Korea can defend itself from the North, although the damage would be catastrophic without American support.

President Trump comes to the North Korean conundrum new and untested, his first major military action consisting of backing down President Assad over the use of chemical weapons in Syria via a cruise missile strike. Meanwhile, a second Korean War will be a Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) environment. Trump recently said, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you,” but his tough talk was generally derided or even laughed at in the region.  He was implying that America would act unilaterally but our military minds have been trying to “solve” North Korea for decades with little success.  Factor in the fact that North Korea now has nuclear weapons and these words seem even more silly.  President Trump is no doubt being presented with various military options and read on to OPLAN 5027, American war plans for defense of South Korea, and is finding himself in the same tricky situation as every other US President in living memory.

As a US carrier group is deployed off the coast of Korea in the latest round of posturing, the United States should seriously develop a long-term plan for the reunification of the Korean Peninsula with our South Korean partners.  This would be less of a military action and more of a long-term political, diplomatic, and intelligence operation, one which would include information operations to desensitize and condition the North Korean people to what is likely to be a traumatic experience when they finally discover the world has long ago left them behind.  While Kim Jong-Un is a ruthless dictator, there are some hints that he may be preparing his country in subtle ways for a shift to a market economy, a shift that would occur over a much longer timeline.

These possibilities should be thoughtfully considered, along with our military deterrence, without losing sight of one or the other.