Taking American Soldiers Hostage: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Mark my words, it won’t be long until an American soldier is taken hostage on a battlefield.

There are a lot of places this might happen, but let’s see how it might play out with one major threat: North Korea. There are at least three reasons the North Koreans are likely to snatch American soldiers during combat operations: significant tunnel infrastructure which enables surprise, past North Korean orientation towards kidnapping as an accepted practice in international relations, and the likely prospect that conventional military engagement will not bring success to the North Koreans.

First, geographically, the Korean Peninsula features man-made and complex terrain. Reportedly, the North Koreans have thousands of underground facilities, and the world has recent experience with war in such an environment: the “tunnel war” the Israelis waged against Hamas in the summer of 2014. Hamas used subterranean tactics to negate Israeli numerical and technological advantages – enabling tactical and operational surprise. Hamas was able to kidnap Israeli Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, which quickly, negatively impacted the Israeli campaign. The kidnapping became a strategic threat, and within hours the Israeli Army spokesman said the operation “now has three components, not two: it’s rockets, tunnels and an abduction.” Goldin’s sister, understandably, commented to the media, “If a captive soldier is left in Gaza, it’s a defeat.” Underground warfare allows weaker actors to take hostages, and this hostage taking throws a human wrench right into modern campaign machinery. North Korea has surely planned for this.

As with chemical and biological weapons, North Korea is comfortable with an activity the rest of the world finds unacceptable. News outlets have reported finding North Korean doctrinal publications on kidnapping for intelligence agencies; it’s highly likely their military has plans for the same.

Because they do it all the time to non-soldiers. Kidnapping is an accepted practice in North Korea. They’ve taken South Korean citizens ever since the war; they’ve took Japanese citizens in an official program during the 1970s; today, North Korea detains and “sentences” members of NGOs and foreign citizens regularly. As with chemical and biological weapons, North Korea is comfortable with an activity the rest of the world finds unacceptable. News outlets have reported finding North Korean doctrinal publications on kidnapping for intelligence agencies; it’s highly likely their military has plans for the same.

At war, North Korea faces conventional over-match. When faced with such poor options, actors have no choice but to reach for the only weapon they possess: that which is socially horrifying. In Iraq, insurgents put drills to children to incite sectarian conflict, used human shields, and blew up places of worship. In Afghanistan, we saw “insider” attacks, also known as “green on blue” threats. And ISIS, with no air force of its own, burned a downed pilot alive as a deterrent to the next pilot to climb in the cockpit. When war comes to the Korean Peninsula, the North Koreans will develop the same lines of effort. Chemical weapons are one option. But another recourse is to use American military values (“never leave a soldier behind”) against us. Socially horrifying and effective.

If hostage taking is so likely, then we’d better prepare some countermeasures (particularly as NPR’s Serial podcast on Bowe Bergdahl isn’t exactly painting the most flattering picture of our current personnel recovery system). The Israelis developed a tactical response: the “Hannibal Doctrine,” so named for the Carthaginian general who preferred death to capture – they essentially call for indirect fire on the abducted soldier’s last known position. That’s pretty bleak, and likely something Americans won’t accept. But the benefits of such a response might just outweigh the cost. As Mr. Spock once put it, “Sometimes the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

4 thoughts on “Taking American Soldiers Hostage: Coming Soon to a Theater Near You”

  1. This article lacks a purpose. I was lost at the attention grabber in the first sentence when it said, “it won’t be long until…”
    When is long? The second paragraph suggests “long” will be “during combat operations”, which implies conflict on the Korean peninsula is somewhat imminent. It’s not specific at all, which affords the author the right to an “I told you so”, even if it happens 10 years from now. TV financial advisors are famous for this type of vagueness, and the suckers who take their advice usually deserve what they sow.
    It goes on to say, “There are at least three reasons the North Koreans are likely to snatch American soldiers during combat operations.” But it lists the existence of UGFs and tunnels as reasons why an American might be abducted. While UGFs and tunnels probably make it easier to hide a captive, they are not in and of themselves reasons why anyone will be captured. At the risk of exceeding the classification of this domain, it would be more beneficial to the casual reader to lay out specific friendly vulnerabilities that could enable an enemy to abduct American Soldiers.

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    1. Concur. I would also add that the author does not attempt to spell out a strategic logic for North Korea abducting an American soldier. What would NK hope to achieve by such an act? It is one thing to kidnap NGOs, South Koreans, and Japanese citizens. It is another thing to conduct a cross border raid to grab an American soldier from South Korea (a la Hamas and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit).

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  2. This is new? Ever heard of the Pueblo Incident? Or for that matter the Iranian Hostage Incident? Or what Hezbollah has done with Israeli soldiers?

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