SEOUL—The U.S. and South Korea are about to play war games again, and this time they’re going for the jugular.
For their first joint military exercises in five years, the Americans and South Koreans will refine what the military here calls a “kill chain” targeting the North’s missile and nuclear sites as well as bases needed for supply, refueling and their re-equipment.
Sources familiar with the US-South Korean military alliance say the games will culminate in a “beheading” exercise, where they play to break into the heart of North Korea’s command structure and eliminate the leader, Kim Jong Un. Although it’s only one game, he’s sure to take it personally, as he did in September 2017 when he ordered the North’s sixth, and most recent, nuclear test since that year’s war games.
“If you take the head of the military forces (which is Kim Jong Un), you theoretically break off the head of the snake.“
— David Maxwell, retired US Army Special Forces colonel
The US will not acknowledge—formally or officially—that beheading is on the agenda. Unofficially, however, that’s what the game is called, as those familiar with the upcoming drill and the drills five years ago told The Daily Beast.
Analysts have warned that the mere mention of the beheading infuriates Kim, already intimidated by the concept of a “killing chain”. Fearing assassination, wary of discontent among his own poverty-stricken people, he is said to have beefed up security.
One of Kim’s biggest fears is being caught out in the open in a drone strike similar to the one that killed the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri at his home in Kabul on Sunday and Iran’s most feared military commander, Lt. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Aware that he could very well be the primary target in any “preemptive strike”, Kim finds it difficult to find himself, moving only at night, in different vehicles, accompanied by dozens of bodyguards.
“Decapitation is a mission to capture or kill a high value target, e.g. manhunt,” 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 take the head of the military (which is Kim Jong-un), you theoretically break off the head of the snake.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup agreed last weekend to hold the drills for the first time since Donald Trump canceled them immediately after his summit with Kim in Singapore in June 2018 during which he said he “fell in love.” The exercises, which will begin this month, are called the Ulchi Freedom Shield, named after a seventh-century general who defeated Chinese invaders.
The decision by the Americans and South Koreans to tighten their bond by joining forces on land, air and sea fulfills promises by conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to improve strained relations. His predecessor, the leftist Moon Jae-in, reluctantly tolerated only computer-based exercises rather than actual live war games, which are considered essential to the alliance, because he wanted to pursue reconciliation with the North. Now U.S. and Korean forces will move beyond their theoretical exercises, known as CPX, to field training exercises (FTX), in a showdown that Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment said “could involve significant mobilization ». Some 50,000 South Korean and nearly 20,000 American troops joined the last such games five years later.
The “chain of destruction,” Panda said, is the first axis of South Korea’s “three-axis defense plan” that focuses on “intelligence and strike capabilities necessary to detect and prevent North Korean missile launches.” The second is “Korea’s Mass Punishment and Retaliation,” KMPR, culminating in the beheading in which special forces sniff out the target – one Kim Jong Un – in an intricately choreographed shock blow. The third is air and missile defense.
“The concept of the ‘kill chain’ came about about 10 years ago,” said Steve Tharpe, who made a career here first as an army officer and then as a civilian official in the US administration. “It includes detection and a pre-emptive strike if a major attack by North Korea is certain. The beheading of the leadership would be part of the KMPR.”
US and South Korean troops will play the war games at a time of rising tensions between the two Koreas. Kim vowed to “annihilate” South Korea in what he called “a serious warning to South Korea’s conservative government and warlords” in response to reports that the South was seriously considering a “preemptive strike” against its nuclear and missile facilities. North.
For the first time, Kim mentioned Yun by name, warning that his government could be “annihilated” by the North’s “nuclear deterrent”. The US, by “conducting large-scale joint exercises”, he said, is pushing relations “to the point of irreversible”.
Analysts are convinced North Korea is ready for its seventh nuclear test – its first since 2017 – as the Americans and South Koreans target Kim and his closest aides in another beheading game.
“Decapitation is similar to attacks on North Korea’s nuclear forces in that you have to identify the target, refine the position and identify the 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 with a drone or reconnaissance aircraft,” he said, but Seoul also decided to “establish a special forces brigade to help carry out this operation.”
That brigade, he said, “will obviously go into various locations in North Korea, possibly in North Korean uniforms, trying to find evidence of Kim’s presence or the presence of other regime leaders, refine that information, and then direct a attack on the target.” The attack “could be assisted by drones” or “simply involve shining a laser on the target, simulating providing guidance for a laser-guided bomb.”
“I personally think that the option of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea is a bad idea,” Steve Tharpe told the Daily Beast, “It would immediately lead to full-scale war — a repeat of full-scale war — Korean War: Part II.”
Another Korean war, he predicted, “would make the war in Ukraine pale in comparison, even if nuclear weapons were not used.” And “if nerve agents and nukes are used, we would probably see a higher death toll here than during the fighting from 1950 to 1953 — Korean War: Part I”
Tharp is convinced that the North Korean leadership does not want another all-out Korean war, knowing that “this will lead to their annihilation, no matter how many casualties they cause.” The danger, he said, “is a misjudgment of the situation that leads to unnecessary war.”
Credit the South Korean military, the Republic of Korea, with coining the term “kill chain” in the first place. “It’s a ROK idea of how to defend South Korea,” a representative at the headquarters of US Forces Korea and the United Nations Command told The Daily Beast. What it means, a South Korean military spokesman said, is: “When North Korea launches missiles, we will attack the North Korean missile system.”
Neither American nor South Korean officials, however, would talk about “beheading,” a colloquial term for the grand finale of the “killing chain” — and a word seen as escalating tensions.
“I would caution against saying publicly that the ‘beheading’ of the North Korean leadership can be a condition of any exercise,” said Evans Revere, a retired senior U.S. diplomat who has focused on North Korea issues for years. “The suggestion that the elimination of Kim Jong Un and his inner circle would be the goal of the alliance 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. “We don’t need to rub Pyongyang’s face in this harsh reality.”
The idea of re-killing Kim Jong Un by beheading his regime inevitably raises questions among those who would like to get rid of the man but wonder if killing him would solve all that much. No doubt there would be a power struggle, possibly including Kim Yo Jong’s younger sister, waiting in the wings, but then 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 decapitation may not achieve the goal of destroying the enemy.
Choi Jin-wook, President of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul, he saw the beheading as decisive for victory. “For a dictatorship like North Korea,” he told the Daily Beast, “it’s the best strategy to get rid of the dictator to win the war.”