The Kim government’s recent activities – increasing missile testing, increasing the developmental process for assembling, fielding, and potentially deploying a nuclear weapon has most people concerned. As has the recent, official US statements in regard to these actions. At Foxtrot Alpha, Terrell Jermaine Starr makes an excellent argument for why there is no good military option for dealing with the Kim government’s recent actions. Starr specifically references an excellent post at Lawfare by Jacob Stokes and Alexander Sullivan. Stokes and Sullivan make very well thought out points- about how the US should engage with China in regard to this problem set.
And here’s where we get to the real problem and my real concern: we have precious few actual subject matter experts regarding North Korea. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this: the Kim family has kept North Korea essentially closed to everyone and everything outside of North Korea while at the same time heavily indoctrinating their own population. A population that is, by the measures we’re aware of, is incredibly impoverished. There are a few Americans that have gotten permission to spend extended periods in North Korea. Two of them have written books/parts of books about this, which are, of course, partially opposed to the other’s theses (h/t: The XX Committee). And there are also defectors to South Korea and other East Asian states. And, of course, the South Koreans have a significant portion of their Intelligence Community focused on their northern neighbor.
But, the real problem here is that we don’t have the ability to know about North Korea the way we do other places. Even when Iran and Cuba were under full US sanctions, we still had some Americans, as well as citizens of other countries traveling to them. Despite the sanctions both countries tried to be engaged with the rest of the world, albeit on their own terms As a result people did advanced academic/scholarly study of both countries, their politics, culture, religion, economics, etc. And because the leadership of each country had not tried to establish complete isolation from the outside world, subject matter expertise, from many different disciplines and approaches, and from many different people in different places developed.
This dearth of expertise – the lack of a significant number of professionals with deep subject matter expertise into the politics, culture, religion/spirituality, economics, kinship dynamics, etc – in regard to North Korea is a significant shortfall that the US, its allies, and partners will have to overcome in regard to adapting existing and developing new policies and strategies, and the contingency planning in regard to the Kim government’s actions. Moreover, this dearth of expertise is, right now, compounded by the new Administration’s falling behind in staffing the critical political appointments at our National Security departments, agencies, and offices. And the folks that are in place holding stopgap positions, and some who are in more permanent ones, do not exactly inspire confidence that they actually have the credentials, knowledge, skills, abilities, and expertise to help overcome this low information gap.
Trying to work through the North Korean problem set of the Kim family government is, itself, a wicked problem. This dearth of expertise comes at a particularly bad time for the US as we’ve moved into what Tom Nichols*, Professor of National Security Affairs at US Naval War College, calls the death of expertise. The Death of Expertise, is, in fact, the title of Nichol’s recent book. And we can see, in the North Korean problem set, the combination of both dearth and depth. For instance, should the US, its allies, and its partners, most likely working in conjunction with the People’s Republic of China, have to respond with military power to either a military provocation ordered by the Kim government or using all elements of National power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic/DIME) to a humanitarian crisis the lack of significant subject matter expertise in regard to North Korea combined with what seems to be key, senior officials’ within the new Administration antagonism towards expertise will make an effective response very difficult to almost impossible.
Lets just take one, technical military concern. And it would be a concern for both a military intervention and a whole of government approach, utilizing all elements of National power response, to a humanitarian crisis: setting the theater. Setting the theater is an Army doctrinal term defined in ADRP 4-0 as:
… all activities directed at establishing favorable conditions for conducting military operations in the theater, generally driven by the support requirements of specific operation plans and other requirements established in the geographic combatant commander’s (GCC) theater campaign plan. Setting the theater includes whole-of-government initiatives such as bilateral or multilateral diplomatic agreements to allow U.S. forces to have access to ports, terminals, airfields, and bases within the area of responsibility (AOR) to support future military contingency operations. Setting the joint operations area (JOA) includes activities such as theater opening, establishing port and terminal operations, conducting reception, staging, onward movement, and integration, force modernization and theater-specific training, and providing Army support to other Services and common-user logistics to Army, joint, and multinational forces operating in the JOA (FM 3-93).
After over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan we now know, though current doctrine does not reflect it, that there are some other important things to consider when setting the theater. Specifically the broadly defined socio-cultural* context of the host country population among whom we will be operating – regardless of type of operation. Given the dearth of expertise about North Korean society, culture, religion, politics – other than what little we know of the Kim family, their retainers, and their understanding of government and governance, economics, etc we have significant gaps in the contextual knowledge we need to properly set the theater. For instance, if Myers is correct that the Kim family and their retainers have heavily propagandized the North Korean population for going on four or five generations, then simply being concerned with where to put phase lines and base troops and establish MSRs and logistics routes and/or emplace artillery is going to be insufficient as we will be operating among a population that has been acculturated and socialized to despise and distrust everyone but their own government and people. No matter how good our planners and logisticians are, without subject matter experts with deep expertise into North Korea’s different socio-cultural components, any operation – military or humanitarian – to provide inputs on how North Koreans are going to respond as people, is going to be fraught with more danger than normally accompanies such operations. To use Clausewitzian terms: responding to provocation by the Kim government or to the humanitarian needs of the North Koreans themselves, will be a response plagued by significantly more fog and friction than we have ever encountered before. And that means developing effective strategies to respond to the Kim government’s actions is going to be very, very, very difficult.
* I have never met Professor Nichols. I did correspond with him once by email, to send him a report I had done in 2011 on a topic he’d just written a column on and managed to send him a corrupted file – as in the file name was right, the title on the first page was right, but something not germane (and largely not coherent) had been saved as the document. And I didn’t bother to open the file and check it before emailing it across as an attachment to an email introducing myself. 10/10, big win, would do it again!
** The only official doctrine/concept definition that we have of culture comes to us from CJCSI 1800.01E, the Officers Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP). The definition is also mirrored in the Enlisted Professional Military Education Policy (EPMEP). No two doctrinal publications within the Army have the same definition for culture, hence the need to defer to this default joint definition. This definition is:
An interconnected set of ideas; all the information passed on between generations through language, writing, mathematics, and behavior. The distinctive and deeply rooted beliefs, values, ideology, historic traditions, social forms, perceptual predispositions, and behavioral patterns of a group, organization, or society that is learned, evolves and adapts over time, and is transmitted to succeeding generations.