Could North Koreans ever really invade America?

In the 1984 film Red Dawn, the Soviet army destroys Washington DC. Cuban spies, posing as immigrants, cross in from Mexico and disable America's strategic air command; Russian paratroopers occupy the town of Calumet, Colorado, and a group of patriotic high school students enact guerilla warfare against the invaders. While not plausible, it at least existed within the realm of possibility.

Fast forward to the 2012 Red Dawn remake, opening today: North Koreans, featuring shadowy assistance from Russians, paratroop in and invade Spokane, Washington. Assuming that North Korea actually wanted to invade the United States; would it have the ability to do so?

I spoke with several North Korean experts, who tried to wrap their head around the idea. "It is silly, ridiculously silly," says Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and the author of several books on North Korea. The country "has no ocean-going navy, and no air force capable of delivering troops on distances more than few hundred kilometers" nor does it have the logistics to support such an operation, he said.

"Boy where to begin," said David Wright, an arms control expert. He cited the difficulty the United States had sending troops across the Pacific to Japan during WW2. With what ships and planes would bankrupt North Korea send troops to the United States? And how would the dozens or hundreds of North Koreans manage to incapacitate the U.S. army for long enough to invade a city? Wright does not know.

Joe Bermudez Jr., a defense analyst and expert on the North Korean military, walked me through the steps as to how North Korea could possibly transport troops into the United States. Emphasizing that this estimate is "stretching fantasy as far as we could," Bermudez says that they could move a few hundred people to the United States. "That would really be about it," he said. He estimates North Korea has roughly 70 submarines of various classes; approximately 20, the Soviet Style Romeo Class submarines, which could host roughly at the most roughly 2 dozen soldiers each, potentially have the capability of reaching the United States. (Bermudez added that they could move more troops if they had assistance from the Chinese, or in Red Dawn's case, the Russians).

North Korea's missiles theoretically "have the basic capability to reach the United States with a basic warhead, but they haven't demonstrated that," Bermudez said, as he struggled to explain how North Korea could cross the Pacific and invade. North Koreans "could kill an awful lot" of South Koreans and Americans on the Korean peninsula, he said -- just not elsewhere.   

Lankov, in an e-mail, said that if the Germans made a movie about being crushed by Luxembourg, or Russians making a movie "about their country being crushed by the invading Georgian hordes, it would make a significantly more believable story line." Even Venezuelan troops taking over the United States would make for a much more probable film, he added.

Barry R. Posen, director of the MIT Security Studies Program, pointed to then Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Colin Powell's 1991 quote about how, as the Soviet Empire was collapsing, he is "running out of demons" against which to orient U.S. forces. Islamist terrorists are too asymmetrical an enemy in popular imagination to function as an invading force, and the Chinese are "frenemies"-the original version of the Red Dawn remake featured invading Chinese, but the studio feared this would alienate Chinese moviegoers, so it digitally replaced all Chinese flags and imagery. "We are left with the zombies and the Borg (both simply ourselves) and for now, the North Koreans," says Posen. Lankov was less charitable. "I understand: it is an adventure and/or moral parable. Nonetheless, it is one of the most improbably story lines one can possibly invent."

Wright tried to imagine armed North Koreans invading. He thought of several ways they might make it across the border, one of them involving the soldiers passing through customs, and then stopped. "I don't even know how much it makes sense to try to figure this out," he said.


Will the Tel Aviv bus bombing trigger a Gaza invasion?

In an attack that could foreshadow even greater violence, a bomb exploded aboard a bus in central Tel Aviv today. Reports are still coming in, but at least 21 Israelis have been confirmed wounded in the bombing. The attack threatens to undermine the fragile negotiations underway in Cairo between Israel and Hamas to negotiate a ceasefire in the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.

In a surprise, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah Party, has reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack. Journalists in Gaza reported that mosque loudspeakers hailed the attack as a "victory from God," while others reported hearing celebratory gunfire in the attack's aftermath. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum praised the attack, describing it as a "natural result of Israel's aggression on the people of Gaza."

Hopes had been high that a ceasefire was imminent -- Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi even said flatly that violence would come to an end yesterday. The attack could undo that optimism, and pave the way for a far more bloody conflict.

However, the fact that there were no fatalities in the attack has led some to hope that it will not completely scuttle the ongoing negotiations in Cairo. "Look, nobody was killed," said Yossi Alpher, the former director of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.  "If [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] is looking for an excuse for a ground invasion, which I don't think he is, that could be an excuse for a ground invasion - but otherwise, I would like to believe that it won't tilt the balance in that way."

The attack was the first bus bombing in Tel Aviv since 2006, breaking the calm that the city had enjoyed in recent years. Early reports suggest that a man threw the bomb on the bus and then ran away; police are believed to have apprehended a man involved in the attack.

Meanwhile, negotiations continue apace in Cairo. Details of their progress are so far fairly sketchy - which actually may be a good sign, as diplomats tend to leak information to journalists when talks are stalled. While the Israelis will no doubt demand that that Hamas put an end to rocket attacks from Gaza as a result of a ceasefire, Hamas is likely to require that Israel also ease its economic blockade of the Strip.

That's a demand that Alpher, at least, thinks Netanyahu might not reject out of hand. While left-wing Israeli governments would be wary of de-legitimizing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which rules the West Bank and has been the Palestinians' official interlocutor in peace talks, Bibi's right-wing coalition might not be so concerned.

"[T]he Netanyahu government is actually probably more likely to do this, because whatever serious concessions we make with going to hurt the PLO," he said. "And since Netanyahu is not interested in negotiations with the PLO, he may be interested in weakening it. So paradoxically, perversely if you like, I think there is a chance we'll reach some sort of agreement."

It is still unclear whether the Tel Aviv bus bombing will be the final straw that triggers an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza. But in the absence of a ceasefire agreement, such attacks will continue to pile up - heightening the risk that one of them will do significant casualties. And that may force Netanyahu's hand, even if he did not want a ground invasion in the first place.

"Casualties will be heavy, and Israel has become casualty-conscious with regards to the IDF in a way that never existed before," said Alpher. "There will be the inevitable so-called ‘atrocities,' or accidental killings board. The international community - at least the Western world, which ahs been relatively tolerant thus far - will begin to condemn us. All of this might be a fair price to pay if there were a clear, strategic goal behind the operation. But if there isn't...then the government is going to have a problem with the public."

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