According to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, the Pentagon is accelerating plans for potential nuclear strikes against North Korean nuclear facilities. In an article that appeared in Friday's edition of the Times, Mr. Gertz reported that the U.S. military has "stepped up" its planning in recent months, and bolstered its forces in the Far East, in preparation for possible attacks. A senior defense official, speaking with Gertz on the condition of anonymity, said the planning process was given "new impetus" by North Korea's underground nuclear test on 9 October, and growing Chinese and South Korean opposition to Kim Jong-il's nuclear program.
Officials familiar with the effort told Mr. Gertz that military plans include potential commando or Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against North Korea's Yongbyon plutonium processing facility and other sites. Yongbyon is believed to have provided the plutonium used in the recent North Korea nuclear test, which was judged only marginally successful by western analysts. Military planners believe a successful commando operation and/or cruise missile strikes could destroy the Yongbyon facility, and it would take Pyongyang 5-10 years to replace it. Other potential targets are located near the site in northeastern North Korea, where last month's nuclear test took place.
The fact that we're planning for military options is hardly surprising; potential strikes against Yongbyon have been weighed for years, with the level of activity consistent with what's going on with the North Korean nuclear program. The most interesting aspect of Gertz's article is that Beijing's recent condemnation of the DPRK has apparently given us the "green light" for more accelerated planning. In the past, U.S. military plans apparently dictated that China be notified of any attack in advance, a requirement that would likely compromise any proposed action because of the longtime alliance between Pyongyang and Beijing. Comments from defense officials who spoke with Gertz suggest that the notification requirement has somehow been resolved.
Potential military strikes against North Korea present two genuine dangers. The immediate concern, of course, is how Pyongyang might react. Depending on a variety of factors, ranging from time of year to military preparedness levels, North Korea could respond with anything from missile strikes against allied targets in the region, to a limited invasion of South Korea. That's one reason the U.S. has been steadily increasing its military presence in the Far East, and will likely send more forces to the area in the coming months.
There is also talk (so far, nothing official) that some military personnel now serving in Korea might have their tours extended, although there are other reasons for scenario, including the situation in Iraq. However, extended tours would give American commanders more personnel (albeit for a limited period), and ensure a better transition during a critical period. Most U.S. troops in Korea serve a one-year "remote" tour (without their families), and the constant turnover is a problem is maintaining continuity and full combat readiness. During my own tour in Korea in the early 1990s, I replaced an officer who departed more than a month before I arrived, and my successor came on board about five weeks after I rotated back to the states. With tensions running high on the peninsula, that sort of transition is hardly ideal, and extended tours would help alleviate the "overlap" and continuity issues.
As we've noted before, things may get very interesting in Korea during the coming months. North Korea's upcoming Winter Training Cycle (WTC) promises to be a critical indicator of Pyongyang's intentions and capabilities. By mid-December (about 2-4 weeks intothe cycle), we should have some idea of where this year's WTC is headed.