“Decapitation unit” in contextThe U.S. media have been abuzz about reports sourced to a Korean official that the Ministry of National Defense has plans to “accelerate” the establishment of a special “decapitation unit” at the brigade level to strike at Kim Jong-un and the North Korean command structure in the event of war on the peninsula.
In Korea these stories are about a week old, but CNN and other U.S. media are just beginning to pick up on the stories in the context of Donald Trump’s own war of words with Pyongyang. CNN follows North Korea stories closely and interviewed me and other experts with an eye to understanding whether this is an indication of greater danger on the peninsula. I am not privy to the inside story of this “decapitation unit” to be clear, but there are several ways to put the story in context.
First, it is fully appropriate and necessary to take steps to enhance deterrence as Pyongyang escalates its own rhetoric and capabilities. Seoul and Washington have been too dismissive of North Korean propaganda threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of flame” — or of images of Kim Jong-un surveying targets in the United States. While Kim’s nuclear theatrics are almost comical at times, they must be taken more seriously as the regime approaches the capability to launch a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile (a capability many experts think may already exist).
Deterrence depends on a demonstration of willpower, and a stated readiness to target the North Korean leadership demonstrates that the ROK government will not be intimidated by North Korean nuclear saber rattling. This is more critical today because of the danger that Pyongyang will think that its enhanced nuclear capability will deter Seoul or Washington from countering North Korean conventional attacks like the Cheonan incident.
Second, this is not a new threat to military planners on either side of the DMZ. North Korea has already made attempts at “decapitation” against the South, including the 1968 attack on the Blue House and the 1983 Rangoon bombing. There should be little doubt that in the event of war, this would be a top operational priority for the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA).
The North is also well aware that the United States opened its campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 with a “shock and awe” airstrike at the location where Saddam was thought to be hiding. In fact, Kim Jong-il went into deep hiding himself immediately afterward — most likely because his regime feared the Bush administration might make a similar strike against him. He was wrong, but the episode suggests that Pyongyang fully expects regime decapitation to be part of any CFC operational concept.
Third, Kim Jong-un is therefore unlikely to escalate beyond theater and rhetoric. In fact, the smartest play for Pyongyang would be to increase the sense of alarm in the South that this decapitation strategy could lead to war in order to energize the progressive left, but without being so provocative that he unifies South Korean public opinion behind the conservative government and the next Saenuri Party candidate.
That would suggest increased threatening rhetoric and then an ICBM test rather than a nuclear test. History suggests that direct North Korean attacks that kill South Koreans (like the Cheonan incident) will unify the country behind a hardline policy, while nuclear tests will require the progressive left to support some form of tough sanctions.
Missile tests, however, are most likely to leave the South Korean polity divided. Conservatives see a fundamental threat to the alliance and deterrence in missile provocations, while the progressive left is more likely to view missile tests as a U.S.-DPRK issue where Seoul must avoid entanglement. If Pyongyang can provoke Trump to issue threats of American retaliation in the wake of a missile test, then the divisions within Korea over the alliance and policy toward the North would widen further.
This is the dilemma the government in Seoul must currently be struggling to resolve. North Korean belligerence and capabilities must be deterred with stronger declaratory policy and capabilities by the South. But in the current context of Korea’s political confusion, there is a danger that the North could get a big win by turning the election against the current hardline policy. I support a significantly more robust declaratory policy and deterrent capability for the U.S.-ROK alliance, but this dilemma has to be thought through carefully.
This will be my last column before Ambassador Mark Lippert leaves Seoul. He leaves as the most popular U.S. ambassador in the history of U.S.-Korea relations. This reflects not only his winning personality, physical courage, slobbering dog and beautiful babies — but also his effectiveness at advancing U.S. interests while simultaneously strengthening bonds between the two countries.
As Lippert steps down to the accolades of his counterparts in Korea, readers should know that in Washington — which can be as partisan as Seoul — Lippert enjoys near unanimous bipartisan support and admiration from Democrats and Republicans for the job he has done. Thank you!
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.