Although North Korea has openly defied the United Nations' weapons inspectors and has admitting having a secret nuclear weapons program, the Bush administration has made it clear it has no intention of subjecting the communist nation to the kind of military action it is considering against Iraq.
Critics have asked why war against North Korea is not an option for the United States. A Nightline "war game" — in which teams of experts took sides, one team playing the United States, the other North Korea — found that military action on the Korean peninsula could quickly escalate into a full-blown war, with North Korean shells and missiles inflicting massive damage on South Korea and the American troops there, possibly forcing the United States to respond with tactical nuclear weapons.
One of the experts predicted a "symphony of death," with hundreds of thousands or even millions of casualties.
Nightline asked two experts to represent the United States military: retired Lt. Gen. Terry Scott, who commanded the Army's 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea in the early 1990s; and Kurt Campbell, who managed the U.S. military's relationship with North and South Korea during the Clinton administration, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs.
Taking the role of the North Korean regime were two professors at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service: retired Col. Bill Taylor, one of the few Americans to have met with former North Korean President Kim Il-Sung; and Victor Cha, a specialist in Asian affairs who is also an independent consultant to the Department of Defense.
The war game was a simplified exercise intended to sketch out possible scenarios. It did not take into account numerous potentially important factors, including for instance the views of the United States' South Korean or Japanese allies.
U.S. Options: Pinpoint Attacks, Then All-Out War
Nightline first asked Scott and Campbell to present the best military options the United States could use against North Korea.
Campbell recommended moving "initial forces" into the region, then launching pinpoint attacks on specific targets — such as plants where North Korea could turn plutonium into nuclear weapons — and immediately turning to North Korea and the international community for a diplomatic resolution that would prevent further hostilities. The U.S. military, he said, should be prepared to respond if the North Koreans chose to escalate hostilities. "It's a high-risk strategy, but among a lot of bad options, it's probably the best military option," he said.
Gen. Scott was less confident of the possibility of a diplomatic solution. "I recommend you prepare for all-out war, because that is what you're probably going to get," he said. An all-out strike on North Korea would have the following priorities, he said:
1. Eliminating North Korean weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — nuclear, chemical and biological — so they could not be used in retaliation against U.S. and South Korea forces. 2. Doing as much damage as possible to North Korea's conventional military machine, especially its artillery, to reduce the damage it could do to the South Korean capital, Seoul, and the surrounding area. 3. "Decapitating" the regime by stopping North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il from communicating with his forces in the field (WMD and conventional).