See a related piece – Joe Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal, ‘No room for Partisanship on Iran’, LINK:


The Classic Hostage Standoff Redux?

In a hostage standoff, the good guys are held at bay during endless, usually pointless negotiations while the bad guys hold a large number of innocent people under threat of execution. The variations on this basic scheme are many, including every scenario the terrorists, thugs and move makers can come up with. Apparently, no one so far has noticed that the interconnected Korea and Iran nuclear threats are large scale hostage standoffs.

In the Korean and Iranian hostage situations, both of long duration, the bad guys are using their “negotiation” time to build and deploy weapons strong enough to drive off the good guys (or so they think). That prospect poses a danger that is worse than the loss of all the hostages; the weapons the bad guys are working on are atomic bombs and the missiles to deliver them. Assuming that the risk posed is not yet immediate, three successive American administrations (Clinton, Bush and Obama) have let (or are letting) the negotiations run on in spite of their apparent futility.


What/who are the hostage assets/victims, and what is the real risk to them?

South Korea. The City of Seoul (population 10 million) is a major Asian financial and industrial center in a peaceful, democratically governed country with a thriving trillion dollar economy. Seoul is within bombardment distance of the North Korean forces just north of the infamous Demilitarized Zone. The North Korean government maintains a large military force (about 1m soldiers) in spite of its gravely weakened economy.

Here are excerpts from sobering report from the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies (Website at ):

“Seoul, the South Korean capitol, lies within range of… [f]ive hundred 170mm Koksan guns and 200 multiple-launch rocket systems could hit Seoul with artillery shells and chemical weapons… between 500 and 600 Scud missiles that could strike targets throughout South Korea with conventional warheads or chemical weapons. … Seventy percent of North Korean army ground units are located within 100 miles of the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, positioned to undertake offensive ground operations. These units could fire up to 500,000 artillery rounds per hour against South Korean defenses for several hours. …Although the United States would likely win an all-out war, the damage to South Korea would be tremendous and U.S. forces would sustain large casualties. One U.S. military estimate suggested that U.S. and South Korean military forces might suffer 300,000-500,000 casualties within the first 90 days of fighting, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.[Citing – R. Jeffrey Smith, ‘North Korea Deal Urged by State Dept.,’ Washington Post, November 15, 1993, p. A15]”

Hostage Risk:

US Military planners are concerned that an American attack large enough and effective enough to wipe out North Korea’s nuclear threat would provoke retaliation. That action could include shelling Seoul and marketing any weapons-grade fissile materials to terrorists. I personally think that the huge casualty figures suggested by the 1993 Washington Post article cited in the quoted article are wrong because they underestimate the tactical effectiveness of American air assets to stop North Korean ground troop movements. But I’ve seen other, more credible, casualty estimates from a concentrated shell and missile barrage against Seoul. The low end is about 100,000 city casualties. So the hostage situation is real enough. That still leaves the question: What would the North Korean regime actually do if the US simply took out its missile and nuclear warhead facilities?


Iran (population 72m, second in the world for natural gas and oil reserves, with six metropolitan cities) is now the trouble-maker-in-chief for the whole Middle East region. The two leading terror-thug organizations (Hamas & Hezbollah) are effectively on the Iran payroll and nearby Syria, also a terror-harboring regime, is an Iran client-state. In recent years the the ruling Mullahs (whose council vets and controls political candidates in order to suppress Western-style liberalization) have begun to lose popularity with the country’s well educated (by Middle Eastern standards), young population. Some (but not all) experts hold out the prospect for eventual regime amelioration, even the emergence of something approaching West-friendly democratic governance.

But the regime has relentless pursued atomic bomb technology, having obtained invaluable early assistance from the infamous Dr. Kahn, Pakistan’s home-grown Dr. Strangelove. Korean nuclear scientists have also been employed, who were using the nuclear reactor facility in Syria to avoid detection until the IDF blew it up in November 2007. Reportedly it was a duplicate of the North Korean reactor at Yongbyon.

Hostage Risk

Some strategic planners are concerned that air strikes alone won’t be able to completely eliminate the suspected nuclear weapons facilities, let alone find them all. Forces on the ground sufficient to operate effectively in-country would probably approach the scale of a small invasion force, severely straining already stretched American military resources. This would almost certainly trigger several parallel reactions: (1) Immediate military pressure on Iraq, possibly reversing the progress there, (2) A step-up in terror activity by Hamas and Hezbollah, throughout the region, (3) Major disruptions in the regional oil supply, with potentially grave economic repercussions, especially now (4) a surge in anti-American patriotism among the Iranian population, strengthening the hand of the mullahs and indefinitely delaying and hope of regime amelioration.

As in Korea, the question, “What would Iran actually do?” remains open to speculation.


Korea and Iran are linked. The former holds a major city hostage and the prospect of inflicting WWII level casualties on an invader. The latter holds the stability of the vital Middle East hostage as well as roughly one third of the world’s gas and oil reserves. Each country is run by hostile regimes that no one in the neighborhood wants to have the nuclear trigger. This presents the classic, “Who will bell the cat?” scenario, but one in which no European or Asian country is prepared to lift a finger, much less provide a fighter jet wing or some Special Forces units.

Korea is properly considered a somewhat higher priority at the moment because of the second A-bomb test and its continuing missile program. Our European neighbors are contributing stronger rhetoric, but little else.

WIRED has covered recent Korean invasion war games in a piece linked here:

A pull quote from a 2003 analysis quoted in the WIRED piece is sobering:

“In 2003, retired Colonel John Collins ran through the possible moves and countermoves in a military standoff on the Korean peninsula — from blockades to full-out nuclear strikes. His conclusion: ‘Any of the U.S. options described above could trigger uncontrollable escalation that would create appalling casualties on both sides of the DMZ and promise a Pyrrhic victory at best. Unilateral actions by the United States without unqualified ROK [Republic of Korea] agreement and willing participation every step of the way would be immoral as well as ill- advised. Inaction while Kim Jong Il develops a robust nuclear arsenal and perhaps supplies nuclear weapons to U.S. enemies, unfortunately, would worsen any future confrontation.’”

As America and the rest of the world try to talk rogue states out of acquiring deliverable A-bombs, Iran continues to improve the sophistication and effectiveness of its weapons. An updated anti-cruise missile weapon, also described in a WIRED is an example. LINK: . Here’s the pull quote:

“Iran has started to mass-produce anew 40mm automatic cannon capable of shooting down cruise missiles

, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. The announcement, made on Sunday, said that the cannon, known as Fath (”Victory”), has a range of 12 kilometers and fires 300 rounds a minute. Is this an alarming new development, a piece of junk that won’t make any difference in an actual war – or a sign of something more subtle?”

The last WIRED article quoted suggests that the new anti-cruise missile weapon is not a game changer, but it is evidence that Iran is preparing a “layered’ missile defense. This suggests to me that Iran fully expects to be attacked, which suggests in turn that it has no intention of abandoning its plans to become the region’s new nuclear power.


So far these two rogue states (two of the three members of Bush’s Axis of Evil – the third member, Hussein’s Iraq having been removed) have only escalated their aggressive weapons programs in response to the new administration’s overtures. The truth about thugs, learned anew by each incoming administration, is that they tend to behave decently only after some blood has been drawn and they are quick to revert to type the moment they smell weakness.

Recall that Libya was hell bent on making A-bombs until the swift fall of the neighboring Iraqi regime changed hearts and minds at the very top. Muammar al-Gaddfi seemingly capitulated in 2003, after centrifuge shipment was interdicted, but soon resumed a clandestine nuclear weapons program. That program was “voluntarily” terminated in January 2004. Not coincidentally, US forces had deposed the Hussein regime in nearby Iraq in May of 2003. Muammar feared he would be next.

Reportedly, when news of the swift fall of Baghdad reached North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, he fled in fear to a secure location.

Both of these are examples of classic thug behavior and this suggests a two pronged, multi staged strategy.


Kim Jong-il has an Achilles heal: He is afraid of being personally harmed. The solution is obvious. While keeping a veneer of deniability (so the regional players, all of whom want this odious dude taken out are not constrained to condemn us), we do three things:

(1) Using a back channel that will allow us to pretend non-involvement, we directly threaten Kim and his immediate circle with severe bodily harm and death unless he firmly and irrevocable changes his course. We also promise personal rewards for cooperation. There will be a warning shot, just so that he knows our capabilities.

(2) While keeping powerful naval assets within range of the artillery north of the DMV and of Kim, himself, we pull back all American troops and military assets from Seoul to hardened locations out of range. We will pretend otherwise but the signal is that we are willing to sacrifice the hostages if necessary.

(3) We find a covert way to attack Kim personally, enough to draw blood, kill at least a few of his people and we pull it off opportunistically. How could this be done? There are experts. Consult them – I’m not one. But as a cinematic example, we might imagine an ultra high altitude drop of a precision guided “object” that would totally disintegrate and take out, say, about a 50 meter circle of real estate. To work psychologically, it just needs to be close to the target and deadly. Kim’s imagination will do the rest.

The advantage of this set of steps is that all of the other options are left open.

If, God forbid, we have to go forward, I’m afraid must we re-confront the Truman dilemma. What do we do when presented by a tradeoff between, say losing 150,000 American lives in a protracted battle or using a few low yield tactical nukes to clear artillery and missile emplacements north of the DMZ, and, inter alia, to wipe out all of the North Koran troops stationed there while, at the same time, we make short work of Kim’s missile emplacements and nuclear production facilities? I’m a Truman democrat. For me it’s a no brainer.

If we succeed in Korea using a simple strategy of trading North Korean lives for the hostages with ruthless efficiency, or by “secretly” intimidating Kim into a face-saving “diplomatic” solution, you can be sure that the lesson will not be lost on Iran. Korea needs to be brought to heel. If we succeed and time allows us for that to happen first, then taming Iran’s overheated nuclear-power ambitions will be far, far easier.


Iran presents a different tactical situation, in part because there is no single leader who is in full day-to-day control; moreover, the local ideology glorifies suicidal martyrdom.

So we convey a similar back-channel threat to the mullahs and the military leadership, bypassing the “elected” president. But his time, we promise not death but humiliation. And we don’t precede the planned series of events with a mere demonstration. The preferred method here is sabotage, followed by more sabotage, followed by more and more.

Again we preserve deniability, but this time it must be more than a mere veneer.

If we are good enough at the game, it might look like this: One by one, the ships of the Iranian navy begin to malfunction and sink. [Why the ships? A significant hostage factor is the temporary closure of the vital oil shipping artery, the Strait of Hormuz.] Of course, I concede that this is tricky. But we have submarine assets, aquatic robots and other high tech resources. There are experts. Again, I’m just a humble out-lawyer with a laptop. But trust me. We can do the sabotage.

Then one of Iran’s refineries fails. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Maybe an alphabetic progression of failure would send the message, say the refinery at Abadan; then Arak, Bandar Abbas, Isfahan, Tabriz, and finally Tehran. Of course, we generously offer technical assistance for repairs, provided the country comes clean on the scope and location of its nuclear weapons program, including the reactor that the IDF wants to take out and the secret locations of all stored fissile material Then electrical shortages take place. And so on…

If we are forced to proceed with overt military measures, we should accomplish the final overt destruction of the Iranian Navy and of the obvious missile emplacements and reactor sites within a few days. This would be followed by a grace period during which we would invite the Egyptians to do the invasion….


I was not thrilled with the President Bush’s approach to the Korean problem (though no one consulted me or shared covert Intel) and I have no particular reason to expect our current president will improve that situation with adroit diplomacy. Iran remains as intractable as ever to diplomacy and “soft power”.

I recommend a wonderful comic riff on this, by Andy Borowitz (LINK ).

It begins with “One day after North Korea launched a successful test of a nuclear weapon, President Obama said that the United States was prepared to respond to the threat with “the strongest possible adjectives.”

But sometime, fairly soon, we will run out of adjectives and will be forced to use verbs. POTUS will be forced to bell the cat or forever be condemned by history. Who wants to be remembered as the leader who blew the last best chance to prevent the nuclear exchange that destroyed Jerusalem and Teheran, Seoul and Pyongyang, and allowed the A-bombs to get in the hands of the terrorists who destroyed New York and Washington, DC?

Three presidents have kicked the can down the road. Sometime soon, POTUS will stub a toe….


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