Seoul- The US and South Korea are going to play war games again and this time they are going for the throat.
For their first joint military exercise in five years, the Americans and South Koreans will polish what the military here calls a “kill chain” in which they target the North’s missile and nuclear sites, as well as the bases they need to supply, refuel and rearm.
Sources familiar with the US-South Korea military alliance say the game will culminate in a “decapitation” exercise where they will play to attack the heart of North Korea’s command structure and take out leader Kim Jong Un. Although it’s just one game, he’s sure to take it personally in September 2017 when he orders the North’s sixth, and most recent, nuclear test following that year’s war games.
“If you get the head of the military (which is Kim Jong Un), theoretically you’ll take out the head of the snake.“
– David Maxwell, retired US Army Special Forces colonel
The US will not admit—formally or officially—that beheadings are on the agenda. Unofficially, however, that’s the name of the game, as explained to The Daily Beast by those familiar with the upcoming exercise as well as five years ago.
Analysts warned that the mere mention of beheadings angered Kim, already horrified by the concept of a “kill chain”. Fearing assassination, wary of discontent among his own poverty-stricken people, he has tightened security.
One of Kim’s biggest fears comes from a drone strike that killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and Iran’s most feared military commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, at his home on Sunday. Aware that he could be the primary target in any “pre-emptive strike”, Kim makes himself extremely difficult to find, only moving around at night in different vehicles, accompanied by dozens of bodyguards.
“Decapitation is a mission to capture or kill a high-value target, e.g., manhunting,” David Maxwell, a retired US Army Special Forces colonel who participated in the annual games during his five tours in South Korea, told The Daily Beast. “If you get the head of the military (which is Kim Jong Un), theoretically you’ll take out the snake’s head.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup agreed late last week to hold the drills for the first time, after Donald Trump canceled them after a summit with Kim in Singapore in June 2018, during which he claimed They “fell. in love.” The exercises, which begin this month, are called Ulchi Freedom Shield, named after a seventh-century general who defeated Chinese invaders.
The decision by the Americans and South Koreans to strengthen their ties by joining forces on land, air and sea fulfills promises made by conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to mend strained relations. His predecessor, the left-leaning Moon Jae-in, reluctantly tolerated only computer-based exercises rather than actual war games, which are considered essential to the alliance, as he sought reconciliation with the North. Now the US and Korean forces will go beyond their theoretical command post exercises, known as CPX, to field training exercises (FTX), which Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment said “could involve significant mobilization.” About 50,000 South Korean and nearly 20,000 US troops participated in the five-year-old games.
The “kill chain,” Panda said, is the first axis of South Korea’s “three-axis defense plan” that “focuses on the intelligence and strike capabilities needed to detect and intercept North Korean missile launches.” The second is “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation,” KMPR, in which special forces are drawn to attention—one Kim Jong Un—in an intricately choreographed shock strike. Third is air and missile defense.
“The ‘kill chain’ concept emerged about 10 or so years ago,” said Steve Tharpe, who had a career here first as a military officer, then as a civilian officer in the U.S. command. “That includes detection and pre-emptive strikes if a major North Korean attack is certain. The beheading of the leadership will be part of KMPR.”
The US and South Korean militaries will play war games amid rising tensions between the two Koreas. Kim vowed to “destroy” South Korea in what he called a “serious warning to the conservative South Korean government and warmongers” that the South was seriously considering a “preemptive strike” against the North’s nuclear and missile facilities.
Kim mentioned Yun by name for the first time, warning that his government could be “wiped out” by the North’s “denuclearization”. He said the US was pushing relations to a “point of no return” with “massive joint exercises”.
Analysts believe North Korea is ready for its seventh nuclear test – its first since 2017 – as the Americans and South Koreans target Kim and his close aides in another beheading game.
“Beheadings are like strikes against North Korea’s nuclear weapons in that you have to find the target, refine the location and identify potential munitions that could be used against it,” said Bruce Bennett, a longtime Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation. “The first task could be done by drones or reconnaissance aircraft,” he said, but Seoul also “decided to create a brigade of special forces to help carry out this task.”
This brigade, he said, would “try to find evidence of Kim’s presence or other regime leaders at various locations in North Korea, probably in North Korean uniform, refine that information and then launch a direct attack on the target.” The attack “could be aided by drones” or “simply involve shining a laser at a target, simulating guidance for a laser-guided bomb.”
“I personally think the preemptive strike option against North Korea is a bad idea,” Steve Tharpe told The Daily Beast, “It would immediately lead to full-scale war—total war again—the Korean War: Part II.”
Another Korean war, he predicted, “would pale in comparison to the war in Ukraine even if nuclear weapons were not used.” And “If nerve agents and nuclear weapons were used, we would probably see a greater number of deaths here than in the fighting from 1950 to 1953—The Korean War: Part I”
Tharpe believes the North Korean leadership does not want another all-out Korean War knowing that “they will die no matter how many casualties they take.” The danger, he said, is “a misjudgment of the situation that leads to unnecessary war.”
Credit South Korea, the Republic of Korea Army, for introducing the term “kill chain” in the first place. “It is a ROK concept of how to defend South Korea,” a spokesman for the headquarters of US Forces Korea and the United Nations Command told The Daily Beast. What this means, a South Korean military spokesman said, is that “when North Korea fires missiles, we will attack North Korea’s missile systems.”
However, neither American nor South Korean spokesmen would talk about “decapitation”, an informal term for the grand finale of a “kill chain” – and a term seen as an escalation of tensions.
“I would be careful not to say publicly that the ‘beheading’ of the North Korean leadership could be the basis of any exercise,” said Evans Revere, a retired senior US diplomat who has focused on North Korea issues for years. “Suggesting that the goal of the alliance would be to eliminate Kim Jong Un and his inner circle would deeply anger the North Korean regime and require the strongest possible response from Pyongyang.”
North Korea “understands what the United States and the Republic of Korea are capable of and what they might try to do in the event of a conflict,” Revere said. “There is no need to rub Pyongyang’s face in this harsh reality.”
The idea of decapitating Kim Jong Un’s regime and rehearsing his assassination inevitably raises questions among those who would like to get rid of the man but wonder if killing him will save so much. There will undoubtedly be a power struggle, possibly with his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, waiting in the wings, but so what?
Colonel Maxwell compared the possible beheading to the killing of Osama bin Laden. “Does it work in practice or only in theory,” he asked, suggesting that cutting off the head would not achieve the objective of destroying the enemy.
Choi Jin-wook, President of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul, saw beheadings as crucial to victory. “For a dictatorship like North Korea,” he told The Daily Beast, “the best strategy to win a war is to get rid of the dictator.”