How North Korea Deterred an American Invasion in 2002

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How North Korea Deterred an American Invasion in 2002

Colin Powell’s former chief of staff revealed that an invasion was considered but deemed too risky – well before North Korea’s nuclear deterrent was in place.

How North Korea Deterred an American Invasion in 2002

Third Armored Brigade Combat Team “Bulldog”, 1st Armored Division (Rotational), 2nd Infantry Division/ROK-US Combined Division, Soldiers drive an M88A2 Heavy Equipment Recovery Combat Utility Lifting Extraction System (HERCULES) across an improvised ribbon bridge on the Imjin-gang River during the Bulldog Bridging Exercise at Local Training Area 320, Republic of Korea, April 22, 2019.

Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Mearl Stone, 55th Combat Camera

American discourse regarding possible military options against North Korea has changed markedly since late 2017, after U.S. intelligence confirmed that the country had gained the capability to launch nuclear strikes against the American mainland using its then newly tested Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 intercontinental range ballistic missiles. Prior to that point, calls from both civilian and military leaders for an attack on North Korea had been considerable and growing, with examples from the Trump administration’s first year in office ranging from Senator Lindsey Graham to Army Colonel Ralph Peters

Since 2018, Washington has increasingly drawn a softer line against North Korea’s testing of ballistic missiles. Previously, any modernization of the country’s missile deterrent was harshly condemned as unacceptable and frequently responded to with sanctions (though all these efforts, including some ambitious Obama-era electronic sabotage efforts, failed to prevent North Korea from making rapid progress). 

The shift was best exemplified by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton’s assertions in 2019 that Washington had an understanding with Pyongyang that only testing of missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland would cease. On that basis, Trump administration officials downplayed and chose not to respond to multiple ballistic missile tests from other classes that year. 

This continued into the Biden administration. North Korea’s continuously modernizing missile arsenal has become an accepted fact, where it previously sparked furor and calls to action in the Western world. This process mirrors the West’s gradual coming to terms with the Soviet and Chinese nuclear and missile deterrents during the Cold War.

Before 2018, U.S. military options were widely discussed and called for, either to set back Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs or to invade and occupy the entire country. However, North Korea’s significantly superior conventional capabilities relative to other potential targets for U.S. attacks have long provided a degree of deterrence. This was an important factor ensuring North Korea did not ensure the same fates as Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and the other former Soviet security partners which the United States attacked during the height of its power. North Korean conventional capabilities were an important deterrent when the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations both came close to launching attacks on its nuclear program in 1994 and 2016, respectively.

In 2002, while the George W. Bush administration was preparing for its invasion of Iraq, it was simultaneously considering an attack on North Korea. Providing important new insight into Washington’s decision not to take military action against North Korea, former U.S. Army colonel Lawrence Wilkerson specifically discussed the issue in a December interview

Wilkerson is a veteran of the Navy’s Pacific Command based in South Korea, Japan, and Hawaii, and at the time served as chief of staff to State Secretary Colin Powell. In the interview, he recalled that during a at the Pentagon, “I was briefed we were going to war with North Korea, we were going to war with Iraq, that’d be followed by Syria, that’d be followed by Iran, although we wouldn’t have to do probably Syria and Iran because they’d quake in their boots after we did Iraq.”

Wilkerson further recalled that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had stated at the time: “We want to end all challenges, no matter how indistinct they might be, to American power,” with attacks on all these states considered a means of achieving this. 

“These were war plans,” Wilkerson emphasized. “I went to a colonel and I said: ‘Are these concept plans or are these TPFDD – Time Phased Force Deployment Data, that means they’re probably going to be executed.” To which Wilkerson recalled the colonel replied: “Oh they’re fully TPFDD.” 

Despite North Korea having been the priority target, however, the country’s significantly superior military capabilities compared to other targets led to plans for an attack being indefinitely postponed. Wilkerson stated to this effect: 

Later I would come back and find out that the air force general who had briefed me on the North Korean plan had ‘seen the light,’ if you will, and said ‘100,000 casualties, 30,000 of them in the first 30 days, a lot of them Americans – a quarter of a million American non-combatants in the Seoul region – maybe we shouldn’t do this one. Maybe we should put this one on a burner and do the easy ones – he called it the ‘low hanging fruit’, in the Middle East. This is the authority in the Pentagon talking, at that time, to his State Department representative who was absolutely floored by what they were doing.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was justified based on fabricated evidence of developing weapons of mass destruction. In that sense, North Korea was a more compelling target: Pyongyang not only already had a substantial chemical weapons arsenal, but had just two months prior, in January 2003, withdrawn from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). To do so, representatives cited Article 5 which allowed withdrawal in response to “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty” which “jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” 

One month before Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the NPT, the United States had cut the oil supplies that it was obliged to provide under the 1994 Agreed Framework. The deal had limited activities at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for U.S. support for a civilian “proliferation-proof” nuclear program and normalization of political and economic ties, including sanctions relief within three months of signing. This included removing the listing of North Korea under the Trading with the Enemy Act, which was a key step towards normalizing economic ties. Other than the often delayed interim energy supplies to compensate for the closure of Korean nuclear facilities, however, Washington had over the past eight years otherwise neglected to uphold the large majority of its commitments – a fact that was highlighted repeatedly in a U.S. Senate hearing in 1998 and by the agreement’s chief negotiator Robert Gallucci. 

The final collapse of the Agreed Framework in December paved the way to North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT in January 2003, removing the sole two treaties that had prohibited Pyongyang from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Estimates at the time indicated that it could have a nuclear arsenal that decade. Thus if Washington’s primary objective were to prevent countries outside its sphere of influence from acquiring nuclear capabilities, in early 2003 North Korea would have been the priority target for an attack – if all other factors were equal. 

Even without nuclear weapons, however, North Korea was considered a particularly challenging target, with U.S. intelligence reports highlighting its continued investments “to improve and train its forward deployed forces” and “maintain current conventional force capabilities and military readiness” with an emphasis on “high impact” arms, which continued even in the aftermath of the Agreed Framework’s signing. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had himself particularly emphasized that North Korea’s tremendous network of underground fortifications, which included “underground emplacements of enormous numbers of weapons,” would make an invasion extremely difficult. 

In 1994, when the Clinton administration was considering strikes on northern military facilities, Pentagon assessments projected that U.S. and South Korean forces would suffer over 540,000 military casualties in a war with the North. These estimates had only grown by the 2000s. And these projections consistently discounted the possibility of North Korea using unconventional weapons such as VX chemical agents

By contrast, Iraq and Libya were by far weaker targets, with both having disarmed unilaterally and allowed deep inspections of their military facilities in exchange for promises of sanctions relief. Even Syria was a far tougher target. It fielded more chemical weapons than Iraq ever did, and from the 1990s Syria had significantly modernized its ballistic missile arsenal through acquisitions from North Korea. By the early 200s, Syria was fielding missile classes far longer ranged and more precise than any Iraq had ever had – more so when considering that Iraq had disarmed. 

Wilkerson’s recollections indicate that, although North Korea was by far the most urgent target, and had initially been intended as the first to be invaded, its conventional military capabilities were sufficient to force the Bush administration to reassess its plans for an attack. This indicates a strong deterrent was in place long before North Korea had either tested nuclear weapons or demonstrated the ability to strike targets farther away than Japan. 

While North Korean military capabilities were not sufficient to take U.S. military options totally off the table, as demonstrated by the widespread calls in the U.S. for an attack up to 2018, they were sufficient to divert attentions toward attacking other adversary states – the “low hanging fruit in the Middle East,” as Wilkerson recalled they were referred to. 

This gave Pyongyang valuable time to strengthen its deterrent capabilities, with test nuclear detonations in 2006 and 2009 followed by accelerated modernization of both strategic and conventional arsenals in the 2010s. Nuclear weapons and ICBMs, which cost relatively little to develop, would gradually reduce the burden on the country’s then much more costly conventional forces, allowing for cuts to defense spending from around 2009 while providing a surer means of deterrence. 

Had North Korea’s conventional capabilities not been what they were, however, the mid-2000s may have been characterized by a new Korean War after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, rather than a second war with Iraq, with very significant implications for the geopolitical landscape across the wider world.