Bombing North Korea in a Preventive War Is a Bad Idea

News Abroad
tags: North Korea, Preventive War, preemptive war

Michael H. Creswell is an associate professor of history at Florida State University and an adjunct professor in the U.S. Naval War College’s Fleet Seminar Program.

North Korean Propaganda

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Never content with being out of the news, North Korea once again commands the global spotlight. Undeterred by the international condemnation and the UN sanctions aimed at it in September 2016 for carrying out its fifth nuclear test in the past ten years, North Korea has upped the ante. On 3 September 2017, the highly secretive regime announced that it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded on to a long-range missile. This was Pyongyang’s most powerful weapon to date.

In response, the international outcry has been swift. But the strongest words have come from the United States. When asked if he was planning to attack North Korea, President Donald Trump obliquely responded, “We’ll see.” Then after a meeting of his national security team, Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, vowed that “Any threat to the United States or its territories - including Guam - or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.”

Other U.S. officials have also chimed in. While not ruling out a diplomatic solution, Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council on Monday that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, “is begging for war.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham employed even stronger language, stating that, “There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea itself. He’s not going to allow - President Trump - the ability of this madman [Kim Jong Un] to have a missile that could hit America.”

Of course these and other remarks could be seen as rhetorical chest thumping in an effort to portray the Trump administration as strong and perhaps persuade North Korea to back down. Previous U.S. administrations have also engaged in similar theatrics. But the two main antagonists in this instance, Trump and Kim, are known for being unpredictable, so it’s best not to dismiss the danger of a conflict out of hand. With that in mind, what would be the danger of a preventive war strike on a North Korean missile? In fact, there are a number of reasons why the United States should reject preventive war.

First, striking the missile before it is launched is fraught with peril. For starters, there is no guarantee the attack would succeed. Even the best-planned missions sometimes fail. But even if the attack were to succeed, it would not solve the problem. In fact, North Korea would probably hunker down and be even more difficult to deal with.

For one thing, even if in the unlikely event that the United States eliminated all of North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons, Pyongyang would likely retaliate, if not right away, then sometime down the line. Indeed, Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s enigmatic and bombastic young leader, would have no choice but to respond lest he lose the respect of those around him. 

Moreover, North Korea has several options it might use for retaliation. Note that North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces aimed at Seoul, South Korea. While an attack on the South Korean capital would surely unleash a devastating counter attack against the North, many thousands of South Koreans and Americans would perish in the meantime. This would be a horrifying event that would haunt the United States for decades. And if it did not attack Seoul, Pyongyang might strike elsewhere. If there is one thing that everyone agrees on about the North Koreans, it is how unpredictable they are. And if we think they are unpredictable now, just how much more unpredictable would they be in response to a U.S. attack?

There are other reasons for rejecting what would amount to preventive war. Contrary to the claims of some hawkish analysts, a preventive war strike would not guarantee that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons program. It is possible that an American attack will signal to North Korea that developing a second strike capability is the best path forward. Conflict with North Korea might also give Japan and South Korea incentives to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. When you live in a dangerous and volatile neighborhood, there is great pressure to be well armed, and an arms race in Asia would surely ratchet up the tensions in that region.

The hawkish proponents of a preventive war strike argue that allowing North Korea to proceed with more launches would embolden other countries, like Iran, to develop their own nuclear weapons in order to pressure neighboring countries. But on the other hand, Iran might draw a different lesson. Unlike North Korea, which openly flaunts its missile as if tempting the United States to attack, Iran might instead conclude that the best defense is to resume its nuclear weapons program. In fact, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, warned that, “In an hour and a day, Iran could return to a more advanced level than at the beginning of the negotiations.”

Even if this crisis passes peacefully, the Trump administration’s many threats will only strengthen Kim Jong-un domestically. Descended from the only leaders North Koreans have ever known--his father and grandfather--Kim Jong-un gained power on the strength of his bloodline, not his innate qualities. America’s talk of war could therefore ultimately benefit the untested 34-year old. Successfully steering the country through a military crisis with the United States would greatly burnish Kim’s leadership credentials and thus tighten his grip on power.

Conversely, a preventive war strike by the United States would likely diminish some of the international support that it currently enjoys over this issue. With few exceptions, no country wants to see North Korea continue to launch missiles and test nuclear weapons. The United States is thus in a strong position diplomatically. But a preventive war would risk forfeiting this support in favor of an attack that might ultimately be unnecessary.

An attack on North Korea would also make China furious. Granted, while China has condemned the North Koreans for stirring up trouble, Beijing has a deep-seated interest in protecting North Korea and keeping it as a buffer state. China is also North Korea’s biggest trade partner. Thus despite the general cooling of Chinese-North Korean relations due to Pyongyang’s unnecessary provocations, China would not stand for an American first strike on a North Korean missile test, no matter how bellicose Pyongyang’s rhetoric, and Beijing has explicitly said so.

At bottom, destroying a North Korean missile before it is launched is a bad idea. While it could potentially provide short-term relief, it might also jeopardize important diplomatic relations, cost many lives, and destabilize the region. The wiser course of action is for the Trump administration to seek talks with North Korea and get the Chinese involved on its side in order to reach a political settlement to a problem that will only get much worse if the United States goes for a preventive war. The record of rosy military scenarios painted by some hawkish analysts in recent years has been nothing to brag about.

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