Thinking the Unthinkable: Central Europe at War With North Korea
A Slovakian Soldier guides a Boyevaya Mashina Pekhoty (BMP) Infantry Fighting Vehicle to the next phase of the decontamination process at Training Center Lest, Slovakia during Toxic Lance March 20, 2017.

Thinking the Unthinkable: Central Europe at War With North Korea


Taken at face value, the imaginary scenario underpinning this article seems a little far-fetched. While ties between Central Europe and North Korea have undoubtedly changed after the Cold War, the Hermit Kingdom hardly views the region with the same contempt as it does the United States. Indeed, the Czech Republic and Poland are among a handful of states that maintain full diplomatic missions in Pyongyang.

However, when Central Europe joined NATO, it de facto signed up to align with and support the same causes as the Alliance’s more established partners. In recent years, this has included North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric toward the West and improvements in its ballistic and nuclear capabilities. If the crises that regularly engulf the Korean Peninsula evolve into a full-blown conflict, Washington would naturally look to its existing alliance structures to mitigate potential threats.

So what kind of contribution could Central Europe make to a U.S.-led campaign against North Korea?

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A Matter of Credibility

Comments made by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg further underline the need for clarifying Central Europe’s potential role in an attack on North Korea’s armed forces and strategic assets. As he sees it, Pyongyang’s increasing belligerence requires “a global response and that of course includes NATO.” The worst-case scenario might be that North Korea launches a ballistic or nuclear attack against U.S. territory, prompting calls for the invoking of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. An attack on NATO’s most powerful actor would then become an attack on the Alliance’s Central European partners.

There are several reasons why Central Europe would most likely come under intense pressure to honor NATO’s request for full and unflinching support. The most obvious is that any type of military attack launched by Pyongyang against American territory would be a strategic gamechanger. Put simply, North Korea would be considered a credible threat to global security. NATO’s failure to reach a consensus over Article 5 would represent a further eroding of the Alliance’s credibility. This has been damaged in recent years by tensions in trans-Atlantic relations, Washington’s calls for greater military burden-sharing and divisions over the last Iraq War.

Nowadays, however, it is highly questionable whether NATO (let alone Central Europe) bears any game-changing potential when it comes to the neutralization of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic threat. NATO’s military engagement in Libya clearly proved how much the European allies depend on the United States when it comes to nonlethal capabilities (logistics, transportation, refueling) required for expeditionary engagements. And while NATO remains an Alliance capable of fulfilling its core tasks — with Central European partners finally stepping up to contribute — it is apparent from a more practical perspective that the North Korean challenge does not really fit into the framework of the Alliance’s potential missions and priorities.

The initial stages of a confrontation would require decisive kinetic action against the absolute majority (if not all) of North Korea’s missiles, nuclear facilities, and military bases with first- or second-strike capabilities. Should the “unthinkable” happen, Central Europe’s armed forces could prove to be an asset to the assistance-seeking United States in the post-attack phase of a potential conflict. Indeed, given the past experiences of the region’s armies with stabilization missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, there is a set of “softer” military capabilities that might be utilized in a post-conflict scenario — under the condition that the United States or NATO enforces a stabilization mission on the Korean Peninsula.

Slovakia, for example, possesses world-class specialized forces in demining and within the realm of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) protection. Both Hungary and Poland have proven expertise in border protection and surveillance activities that might be highly valuable under post-conflict scenarios. Utilizing its experience from the (inter alia) last rotation of the joint V4 EU Battlegroup, the Czech Republic could enhance NATO’s contribution by providing medical and logistical support to the United States. The bottom line is that while Central European armies offer hardly any potential for assisting the United States in the kinetic aspect of a possible military campaign, their “soft” and “light” military capabilities could meet U.S. expectations for greater burden-sharing among its allies.

Unexpected Benefits

Of course, the only way to effectively assess a Central European contribution to conflict on the Korean Peninsula is for the “unexpected” to happen. Under these circumstances, triggering the collective defense clause could result in greater cohesion among partners, as well as providing a much-needed boost to NATO’s global reputation — albeit at the second stage of the conflict. As things stand, the United States has established a capable and utilizable alliance structure across the Asia-Pacific region to counter North Korea’s belligerence. Incorporating more nuanced and distinctly Central European capabilities will not only supplement Washington’s efforts to bring North Korea into line, but also shows that NATO is able to shape the post-conflict environment.

True, it remains to be seen in which direction North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic ambitions will evolve, a scenario that will be complicated for the time being by the recent (and welcome) thaw in relations on the Peninsula. However, Pyongyang’s reputation for oscillating wildly between rapport and hostility means that there should be no room for complacency among any NATO member states. To this end, the final report of the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative highlights the need for clear thinking on the rapidly evolving nature of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities and their possible implications for both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters.

To date, the only time NATO has ever invoked Article 5 was in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. For the sake of the Alliance and global security, this should only change when (and if) all other options have been exhausted. The bottom line seems to be relatively clear. Unless there is a profound change in the nature or scope of the threat, NATO is not the primary answer to the overall North Korean challenge. That said, alliances have been caught unaware by “unthinkable” events in the not-too-distant past. Central Europe’s ability to contribute to worst case scenarios on the Korean Peninsula should not be downplayed.

Tomáš A. Nagy is a Research Fellow within the Defence and Security Programme at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute (GPI) which predominantly concentrates on challenges related to the changing European and global security environment.

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