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Deterrence Capabilities of U.S. Adversaries; Is Iran a Much Softer Target than North Korea? Part Two - Popular Resistance, Military Readiness and Support from Allied Powers

July 31st - 2018

United or Divided Populations and Fifth Columns

When staging military interventions abroad to overthrow undesirable governments Western powers have long relied on exploiting divisions within a society based on ethnic, religious or political fault lines - a strategy which has proven highly successful on several occasions from U.S. support for the Iraqi Kurds and Tibetan saboteurs in China to backing anticommunists throughout Eastern Europe and Islamists in Syria, Indonesia and elsewhere at various times. Pressing an adversary on an internal as well as an external front can often serve to make a military campaign considerably easier, while embedding special forces and other assets with Western backed insurgents can be invaluable in the opening stages of a campaign. A more unified society and nation ultimately poses a considerably greater challenge, and in this regard, North Korea presents a considerably greater challenge to the United States than Iran ever could.

Pyongyang’s far greater control of information and over its borders, widespread education regarding the country’s experience during the Korean War, in which invading Western powers committed severe war crimes and killed an estimated 20-30% of the population in three years, and the lack of religious devisions or a theocratic political system which can serve to alienate segments of the population all serve to unify the Korean people in a way that has few comparisons elsewhere in the world. Iranian society, while far more united that those of Iraq or Syria, nevertheless suffers from fault lines internally which can be exploited by the United States in the event of war. U.S. ties to groups such as the highly organised Mujahedin E Khalq Islamist party, which national security advisor John Bolton pledged to aid in overthrowing the government in Tehran, is but one of several examples. These groups have received support in carrying out assassinations of high value targets and supporting protests against the Iranian government. No similar Western aligned opposition groups can be found in North Korea, and this makes a prospective war with the country considerably more difficult that it would against Iran. Iranians’ generally far more positive view of Western powers, demonstrated a number of times including by their consistent support for presidential candidates who have pledged rapprochement with the Western Bloc, is a further stark contrast to North Korea which makes a popular resistance against the United States a considerably greater threat in the case of the East Asian power than it does in the case of the Middle Eastern one.

Air Defence and Military Readiness

While the armed forces of both North Korea and Iran are highly formidable and well prepared for a potential conflict with the United States and its allies, Korea’s armed forces are considerably better prepared to wage a defensive war against a U.S. attack. As of 2018, North Korea’s armed forces are ranked as a tier two military power, while Iran is ranked as a tier three military power due to its somewhat lagging capabilities in a number of fields. One of the most critical of these is air defence and fortifications, key to denying the United States the ability to decisively win a war through air superiority. While Iran’s air defence network is highly capable, relying heavily on U.S. and Soviet technologies to fortify key sites, that of North Korea is considerably superior, denser and more survivable. With Iran deploying its radars and launchers from open sites, much as Iraq, Syria and Libya did, they are highly vulnerable to U.S. standoff munitions which would comprise a first strike to undermine the system. North Korea by contrast deploys its air defence assets from heavily fortified underground installations, often built into its mountains, which are mounted on lifts to emerge and again take cover as needed - thus making these assets extremely difficult to neutralise for standard air to ground munitions. While Iran fields a relatively small number of cutting edge long ranged air defence batteries, namely the Russian S-300 system, which are required to protect vast swathes of the country’s territory, North Korea benefits from a far smaller landmass and a far greater number of long range batteries - mass producing the KN-06 domestically as an effective analogue to the S-300 and thus posing a far greater threat to hostile aircraft.

North Korea benefits from extensive mountainous coverage, and remains by far the most tunnelled country in the world. The country’s numerous underground fortified sites can according to American analysts only be penetrated by bunker busting nuclear weapons, and allow the country’s armed forces to move men and supplies quickly and in considerable numbers across their territory with little danger. Even if the United States should successfully hold ground on the surface, their forces will be vulnerable to being outflanked by Korean assets travelling beneath them. Combined with the size of North Korea’s armed forces, which included a heavily armed general population forming paramilitary brigades which bring the country’s manpower up to 7 million, a war against such an enemy remains extremely difficult if not impossible to wage. The country’s special forces, numbering 180-200,000 men and extensively trained for offensive and sabotage operations, also pose a considerable threat. These assets have led a number analysts to seriously question the United States' ability to win a conventional war with North Korea. Iran by contrast, while relying on a large but far smaller military, some fortifications and mountain coverage and considerably less numerous special forces, makes it a considerably softer target in this regard. 

Support or Discouragement from and Risks to Allies

Key to any successful war effort far from a country’s own borders is support from regional partners. Operation Desert Storm during the 1991 Gulf War served as a key example, and was arguably a major success only because the United States enjoyed the almost unanimous support of Middle Eastern states against Iraq. Regarding the prospects for a U.S. military campaign against North Korea or Iran, there is a considerable discrepancy in the stances of their neighbours regarding their support for direct American armed intervention. While the United States retains a network of military bases in Northeast Asia far surpassing that in the Middle East, North Korea’s neighbours have warned Washington against taking military action against Pyongyang - due to the direct danger such a conflict would pose to their security. While Japan has stood out for its calls for a hard line against North Korea, it has notably stopped short of calling for a direct attack - and behind closed doors has reportedly urged its American partners not to take such action due to the considerable risk at which it would be placed. South Korea, China and Russia have meanwhile taken an extremely hard line against any prospective military action against North Korea - with the latter two threatening direct intervention should the United States seek to initiate such a conflict. In the Middle East by contrast, U.S. allies have repeatedly called for greater American military involvement against Iran and its regional partners. Israeli and Arab media strongly supported prospective U.S. military interventions against the Syrian Arab Republic, Iran’s most powerful regional ally, and have also been generally supportive of American military action against Iran since the Bush administration and highly critical of peace negotiations between Washington and Tehran. This paints a strong contrast to the Asia-Pacific region, and is of vital importance in facilitating a U.S. military campaign against Iran.

Location and Intelligence

Of all the United States' potential adversaries, indeed of all states in the world, North Korea has presented by far the most challenging intelligence target - and this has been a truly invaluable if widely under appreciated asset in Pyongyang's favour. The lack of fifth columnists and agents from within and the extreme difficultly of accessing a country which is highly cautious of foreign influence has made North Korea what members of the CIA have termed 'an intelligence black hole,' with a number of former members of the CIA having attested to the fact that the agency, despite its vast capabilities, has often reenforced to rely heavily on rumours and hearsay - resulting in flawed intelligence reports which have seriously restricted the United States' ability to effectively make policy regarding the East Asian state. Iran by contrast not only retains relatively open borders, but the United States has performed several overflights over the country with reconnaissance aircraft and, according to reports from both sides, many agents on the ground capable of intelligence gathering. Extensive military facilities in neighbouring states including Iraq and Afghanistan have been key assets in this regard. 

Another key factor which makes Iran particularly vulnerable to U.S. military intervention is its location and its encirclement by American military facilities and those of its allies. Alongside British naval bases in Bahrain and U.S. aligned Arab states throughout the Persian Gulf, the United States itself retains a sizeable military presences in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the Gulf. Neutral Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan are unlikely to intervene in such a conflict and are ill equipped to do so, and the risk of a war expanding to these states remains slim. This considerably reduces the risks of waging such a war - with Iran no longer bordering a major U.S. adversary which could potentially intervene as it did in in the Soviet era. North Korea by contrast is bordered by two of the strongest military powers in the world and the United States' two most formidable 'great power adversaries,' Russia and China, which considerably increases the risks of military intervention against the country. Not only does Washington lack military facilities closely encircling North Korea as it has in Iran's case, but it also  faces the risk that Pyongyang's forces could receive considerable assistance in the event of war - including logistical and intelligence support. Worse still, both Russian and China have threatened to intervene direct in the even of a war with North Korea, and both notably made highly conspicuous displays of military force near the Korean Peninsula when tensions between Washington and Pyongyang peaked in 2017. This included the deployment of air defence assets near their Korean borders with coverage over much of North Korea, allowing them to potentially protect their neighbour from American air and missile attacks - complementing the country's own advanced multi layered air defence system and making an already difficult U.S. air campaign near impossible. 

Ultimately while military action against North Korea has not realistically been an option on the table for well over a decade, and today prospects for U.S. armed intervention have effectively been eliminated by the success of the country's deterrent program, a very real military option does exist for Iran. Tehran for its part, facing an increasingly belligerent America and considerable potential for further deterioration in its ties with the Western Bloc, may well benefit from observing the many factors which have been key to preserving North Korean security and where possible emulating them.

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