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How would a group of teenage girls solve the nuclear standoff with North Korea? A unique war gaming exercise designed by women allows girls to be powerful generals for a day. As NPR's Hannah Allam reports, it's part of a wider effort to boost women's participation in national security.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: On a recent morning, 15 teenage girls and young women cluster around maps of North Korea in an office overlooking the Pentagon.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So say you were to denuclearize North Korea. Can't they just make more?
ALLAM: The teens are here through a nonprofit called Girl Security. This is their first time in the world of war gaming. Military commanders use war games to test strategies and likely consequences. Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure exercise to find the best course of action. The North Korea scenario comes from women war gamers at the RAND Corporation, a defense think tank. They call themselves the dames of war games. And one of them, Stacie Pettyjohn, lays out the dire but fictional scenario the girls will face.
STACIE PETTYJOHN: Today is July 8, 202X, sometime in the not-so-distant future. An open conflict has broken out on the Korean Peninsula.
ALLAM: What Pettyjohn describes is the Pentagon's nightmare scenario. Talks have collapsed. And after a series of deadly tit-for-tat escalations, two nuclear powers are on the brink of war.
PETTYJOHN: This is where I want you to stop being you. You're going to have to start to roleplay here.
ALLAM: Half of them are assigned to the blue team, the joint command of the United States and South Korea. The rest go to the red team. They'll play North Korean leaders trying to stay in power. Both sides get right down to strategy. First up, the American group.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are we doing the air and missile assault or the conventional attack?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think we're doing conventional. I don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. But then we're going to use our air power to fake out and support the ground.
ALLAM: On the other side, the North Korean red team - they're plotting a sneak attack to cut off U.S. allied forces at the South Korean border.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What if we used, like, a small nuke or chemical weapon so that they could not flee any further south?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK. At what cost do we...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I mean, that would just make them immobile.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It would be fairly assertive. It would be bold move.
ALLAM: All of this is a lesson in asymmetric warfare. Jenny Oberholtzer, one of the game designers, says it makes sense that the girls are good at this.
JENNY OBERHOLTZER: I can't imagine a better training for thinking about trying to win an unfair fight when things are stacked against you than being a teenage girl.
ALLAM: When Oberholtzer got into war gaming in her early 20s, she loved being on the red team, the enemy team, trying to beat superpowers who had more weapons, money and allies.
OBERHOLTZER: I wasn’t a lieutenant colonel that had that big army on my side. I was the little girl running through, pulling things up, seeing what this button would do and trying to figure out how to sneak past them and win because that's how I had to think just to get through the lunch line.
ALLAM: By now, the teens who started the exercise with basic questions are discussing civilian casualties and international treaties. They're also learning that power, even imaginary power, can be intoxicating.
ROSE KELLY: I'm loving it.
ALLAM: That's 18-year-old Rose Kelly from Maryland.
KELLY: I have surprised myself in just how easy it has been to hit the proverbial button. It’s been really, really easy.
ALLAM: For a couple of the young women, there was a personal dimension to the game. On the red team, Crystal Lee.
CRYSTAL LEE: I'm currently 18 years old. I'm from Fairfax, Va., and I'm a recent high school graduate.
ALLAM: She has family ties to the country, the people that her team is targeting. It's not lost on her that, for many on the peninsula, this is not a game.
LEE: As a Korean American, I grew up in, you know, Virginia. But my parents were immigrants from South Korea. So it puts a more real-life aspect to what we're doing today.
ALLAM: And on the blue team, Alexis Visser, a 19-year-old Army Reservist who comes from a military family in Florida. The little plastic figurine she's moving around could represent people she knows, maybe even herself one day.
ALEXIS VISSER: That's the one thing that I've had on my mind this whole time - is how you're strategically putting lives for a cause.
ALLAM: She plays with the pieces, looking for the best way to keep her forces safe. Maybe she could pair artillery with infantry to attack. But Visser soon runs into the ugly reality of war.
VISSER: There's no way around kind of military, like, casualties, soldier casualties. And it is - it's something that - this has made a very real picture in my mind as - if anything was to happen like this, how - who it could put in danger - people I know, friends, family, people I work with.
PETTYJOHN: Let's gather around the map.
ALLAM: After a couple more rounds, the game is winding down. And no, the girls haven't discovered some magical breakthrough. Pettyjohn again.
PETTYJOHN: The situation is not good.
ALLAM: By the end of the game, North Korea had used chemical weapons and deployed a nuclear land mine but lost much of its ground forces. The U.S. and South Korean side also suffered heavy casualties after a chemical attack. The girls looked glum.
Rose Kelly, the trigger-happy red team player, didn't sound so stoked anymore.
KELLY: It's really easy to forget the human cost - too easy.
ALLAM: Nobody won. Nobody ever wins in this scenario. RAND war gamer Ellie Bartel told the girls that professional military planners run into all the same frustrations.
ELLIE BARTEL: One of the things we hope to do with war games is help people plan for wars so we never have to fight them. And this is not a pretty war. It's not a war that's going to be low-cost, either, in terms of money or lives. And so...
ALLAM: Before they break, RAND's Becca Wasser announces that each player gets a souvenir - a miniature tank bedazzled with gold glitter.
BECCA WASSER: I want to see these on your desks at the Pentagon, when you are the CEO of Google, when you are teaching history, whatever it is you decide to do in your career.
ALLAM: The young women say they're also taking away a newfound confidence from their glimpse into the national security sisterhood they hope to join one day. Some want to go into cybersecurity, others into human rights work, some to intelligence.
But do you think this has prepared you, then? I mean, you know, you can walk into a room, maybe sort of hold your own.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I can strut into a room, absolutely.
ALLAM: And in any field, confidence is half the battle.
Hannah Allam, NPR News, Arlington, Va.