Over on the Twitter, Noah Smith wrote:
"We're going to lose to North Korea??", people who have obviously never read the history of the Korean War are asking me— Noah Smith (@Noahpinion) April 5, 2017
The context is a discussion of whether the Trump administration might use a war with the DPRK to prop up its sagging fortunes. I tend to think not. That said, it is possible that we might strike the North, setting off a war. Which would be horrible. But a defeat?
Since I do know a few things about the Korean War, I had to admit that I had no idea what he was talking about. It seemed like one of those annoying slatepitchy provocations.
North Korea can, at best, sustain an offensive for eight weeks. During that time, it would be trying to punch through the most-heavily defended line on Earth with outdated equipment and no air support. North Korea could and would devastate South Korea, not least through massive artillery barrages against occupied areas, but the country could not defeat the South. (See Robert Farley.)
So maybe he is averring that a counteroffensive into the North would be a slow and terrible thing? Maybe he was. And it would be. A good friend of mine from Fort Benning, Curtis Marmolejo, spent a long chunk of time patrolling the DMV. What kept him awake at night, more than the fear of a North Korean army barreling over the border, was the possibility that North Korea might collapse forcing him to go North. And if that scenario is bad, a contested invasion would be worse.
But it still would not be a defeat. It is hard to see how an all-out counteroffensive could end in anything other than regime change.
And while some people may find it fun to concoct scenarios of Chinese intervention, the PRC is not going to try to rescue a collapsing regime that just started a war with the ROK and USA.
But there is a way in which an attack on the North could amount to defeat. The North could respond to an American airstrike ... judiciously. Artillery barrages that avoid populated areas. SOF operations. A confrontation over the Yellow Sea blue crab fishery. Something else. And then after just enough time to establish that a war is indeed on, the North declares victory and sues for peace with Chinese support. The ROK government agrees, not wanting to see Seoul wrecked.
This would not be easy. It might not work, tactically or operationally. It certainly might not work strategically. (Worst case.) But it is a scenario that could be portrayed as a defeat for the United States.
Thing is, the above is not what Noah seemed to have in mind. It certainly has nothing to do with anything that actually happened in 1950-53. So again, Noah, please, what the hell did you have in mind??