U.S. Weighs Options In Possible N. Korea Conflict U.S. and South Korea began naval exercises off the coast of the Korean peninsula on Sunday; North Korea promised "sacred war" in response. The U.S. has considered how it would respond to two major scenarios in connection with Pyongyang: war and collapse of the regime. Each holds its unique challenges.
NPR logo

U.S. Weighs Options In Possible N. Korea Conflict

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/128795368/128804261" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
U.S. Weighs Options In Possible N. Korea Conflict

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And NPR's JJ Sutherland reports now on what those preparations look like.

JJ SUTHERLAND: The man in charge of the U.S. fleet in the Pacific is Admiral Robert Willard. When North Korea threatened war earlier this year, he said he's heard it all before.

ROBERT WILLARD: The rhetoric from North Korea is not unusual. We're prepared for any contingency in this region. It's my responsibility that we are.

SUTHERLAND: Now, with the latest naval exercise, there's a new standoff. The U.S. military has a number of plans on the shelf. There's a numbering system for them. John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org, explains how they're organized.

JOHN PIKE: 5027, the major theater war plan, that basically assumes that the initiative is mainly North Korean. 5026, which would be airstrikes against North Korea. Of course there's one plan dealing with the collapse of North Korea, which is no one's initiative - that's something that just happens.

SUTHERLAND: Michael Green is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served on President George W. Bush's National Security Council. He says the U.S. and South Korea would have to respond quickly.

MICHAEL GREEN: There would be enormous pressure. In fact, I think the war plans would argue for immediately suppressing the North Korean artillery capability, if they fired at all.

SUTHERLAND: Another risk - North Korea can launch chemical or biological weapons with that artillery. The North has thousands of guns lining the demilitarized zone - many of them in hardened positions, like caves. A few hundred could reach Seoul.

PIKE: The Americans and South Koreans have been aware of this artillery threat to Seoul for some time. They have counter-battery radars that would detect these guns firing, and counter-battery fire would probably destroy those guns before the first shells that they had fired had hit Seoul.

SUTHERLAND: But that first barrage would still hit a city of 10 million people, possibly killing thousands. Destroying North Korea's artillery would be an Air Force and Navy fight. Precision-guided munitions would fall from warplanes. Warships stationed nearby would launch guided missiles.

MICHAEL O: But then you have to say, well, okay...

SUTHERLAND: Michael O'Hanlon is a military expert at the Brookings Institution.

HANLON: If we've gotten to this point, where we're dropping hundreds or thousands of bombs on them, and they are shelling Seoul with hundreds or thousands of rounds, is this thing really containable?

SUTHERLAND: And if it's not, then OPLAN 5027 offers options for what comes next. One possibility, taking the fight on the ground into North Korea.

HANLON: Do we move in and secure at least a certain swath of land north of the DMZ to push back the artillery more systematically, or do we actually make a quick strike for Pyongyang and try to get the North Korean leadership?

SUTHERLAND: For the second scenario, there's OPLAN 5029 - regime collapse. Again, John Pike.

PIKE: Well, this is the plan that the South Koreans have been increasingly focused on. Over time, South Koreans concluded that an invasion from North Korea is improbable, but a collapse of North Korea may be inevitable. And then the question is: What do you do when North Korea falls apart?

SUTHERLAND: A collapsed scenario is very complicated.

NORRIS: securing the nuclear weapons the North is believed to possess.

HANLON: I tend to think that one of the most important priorities is going to be to establish, essentially, a cordon sanitaire around the country's perimeter, because you can't risk the nuclear weapons getting out. And what if some North Korean commander decides that he'll do a deal with al-Qaida?

SUTHERLAND: O'Hanlon admits that's unlikely. Still...

HANLON: We also have to acknowledge that the scenario can surprise us all. We don't get to choose the scenario. The enemy has a vote, so to speak.

SUTHERLAND: JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.