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April 05, 2017


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What constitutes losing the war?

I can't imagine any reasonable endstate that would be considered a "loss".

Perhaps a loose nukes scenario? Or high US civilian losses in the Pacific?

I'm grasping here.

Excellent question. Noah Smith, who started this, admitted on Twitter that what he had in mind when he stated that the U.S. would lose was Chinese intervention. Why China would do intervene or why Chinese victory was assured he left unsaid.

Since he clearly doesn't really care about this topic, I won't bother to explain why those two assumptions are very dubious. There are some links above, which I am unfairly annoyed to realize that Noah did not click.

To answer your question, I define "victory" in domestic political terms. A war in which the U.S. attacked the DPRK, the DPRK responded proportionately, and the U.S. was then forced to back down and accept the status quo ante would be chalked up as a "loss" at home.

But, to your inevitable objection, Dave:

Even a political master with a full understanding of South Korean and American politics would have trouble pulling off the strategy I outlined. The real-world DPRK almost certainly can't. So I find the idea of the U.S. losing (in the political sense) a limited armed exchange on the peninsula unlikely in the extreme. A much more likely scenario is that everything spins out of control resulting in a horribly destructive war that we "win," but pyrrhically.

Still, the kind of political loss I described is possible, albeit unlikely.

What's not possible is a replay of Korean War 1, which is what Noah had in mind. If he shows real interest I'm happy to discuss why a replay is even less likely than my scenario.

But right now I'm assuming Noah was just making a sort of humblebrag based on the (likely true) assumption that most of his readers have forgotten that Korean War 1 really pit a U.S.-Commonwealth coalition against the People's Liberation Army and the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps of the Soviet Air Forces. See? I can out humblebrag anyone but an real military historian on the topic of the Korean War.

I kind of assumed that by a loss, he meant the pyrrhic victory in a horrible destructive war in which we win all the major battles, but the political outcome is still bad. That's more the norm than the exception for recent large US wars, isn't it?

It is, that's true. But my intuition is that the aftermath of a second Korean War would feel rather different. Both Koreas would be in ruins and the human cost would far outweigh any gains, but I don't think the United States will find itself facing an insurgency.

Absent a running drip-drip of casualties from a guerrilla conflict that we neither can nor need to win, I suspect the end of a second Korean War will feel like an old-fashioned victory no matter how pyrrhic the reality. After all, it wasn't like WW2 left Europe all that well off.

Not that victory helped George H.W. Bush any. Hell, it barely helped Harry Truman.

Once a few hundred civilians die, it is very hard politically to return to status quo ante bellum or anything like it. The DPRK's likely use of non-conventional offensive operations makes that problem worse in my opinion.

A U.S. military loss against the DPRK is highly unlikely. Unexpectedly high casualties and TF Smiths are plausible. Perhaps that constitutes a loss in Noah's mind?

I presume after a conclusion of hostilities that leaves South Korea in ruins there would be a massive emigration of Korean refugees to the US, that our alliance with Japan would be finished, and that the reunited Korea, despite our troop presence, would quickly become a Chinese satellite (sort of like Iraq became a satellite of Iran). Probably the next day the Republic of China would petition for immediate readmission to the PRC. Sounds like a loss to me.

Why would the alliance with Japan be finished?

I'm not certain why everyone assumes a successful ROK would automatically absorb the DPRK. There are a few other plausible possibilities. The democratic/patriotic forces pushing for reunification will run into strong countervailing economic, military and social considerations.

In addition I wouldn't assume the diplomatic situation post bellum. A lot of that will depend on the road to war and the conduct of China and Russia during the war.

I'd also say that how "ruined" the ROK is could vary greatly based on conditions during the war.

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