Before Fighting a Costly War With North Korea, a Strategic Reassessment
Before the United States gets involved in a potential war on the Korean peninsula, a critical question must first be answered: are there vital national security interests involved that are commensurate with the cost of war? The short answer: no.
While we do not approve of how Kim Jong-un behaves, for him to be a threat, North Korea must have both the capability and intent to threaten our homeland. Right now, North Korean has neither as it pertains to the United States, nor does it have the intent, as it pertains to our allies. However, Trump and his most senior officials have threatened to attack North Korea if they conduct a nuclear test. North Korea fired back stating that its “revolutionary forces are combat-ready to sink a U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.”
The unspoken fear among those now threatening military strikes against North Korea is that if we do not act now, American cities on the West Coast would soon be in danger of destruction. If North Korea develops the capability to successfully mate a nuclear device with a missile that can hit the U.S., the thinking goes, Kim may attack. But even if Pyongyang were to successfully build such a device – no sure bet – what logic would there be for him to use it?
The United States is reported to have 6,800 nuclear weapons and could, therefore, vaporize their country several times over, while North Korea would likely not get more than one shot. What possible reason would Kim Jong-un have to take actions that would not accomplish his objectives but guaranteed to result in his destruction? It can be argued that part of the reason Kim is so desperate to get operational nuclear weapons is that he saw how the U.S. deposed of the regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and he observed the punitive strikes Trump recently made against Syria.
None of those states are powerful enough to contest the U.S. on a conventional level, and thus all were powerless to stop our operations which resulted in the downfall of each regime. Kim knows his country likewise does not have the conventional ability to defeat the U.S.
He also recognizes that because China, Russia, and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, the U.S. does not threaten them conventionally. The only way Kim can guarantee the United States will not attack him is if he can put within us the fear of a nuclear counter-strike. In his mind, the greatest offense is defense.
As many have recently detailed, a war on the Korean peninsula – even a limited one – could kill hundreds of thousands – millions if it went nuclear – and result in a major humanitarian catastrophe. Such an outcome is not in America’s interests – especially if there is another, more effective way to guarantee our security.
From 1994 onwards, the focus of U.S. diplomacy has been getting North Korea to end its nuclear weapons’ program, ensuring U.S. security. But in working with North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and China, U.S. officials could begin by first lowering military tensions and enter into a period of confidence building. Once early levels of confidence have been established, negotiations would move into a second phase where the process of resolving difficult issues could begin.
Each party must recognize that no one is going to come out with everything they want, and giving in on some points will be required.
The focus has to remain locked on the ultimate strategic objective: American (and allied) security from the threat of a North Korean nuclear strike, and Pyongyang’s security from external attack. All other issues can be discussed and traded.
President Trump, the self-proclaimed proprietor of the art of the deal, must recognize that diplomacy is our only option. Any military action at this time would be unpredictable and could explode into an all-out war. Even if it were assumed the U.S. and South Korea would ultimately prevail, the cost would be staggering, and the geopolitical fallout between the U.S. and China could be far worse than what exists today, making future security environments even more perilous. What is needed, therefore, is a lowering of military tension and a rapid increase in diplomatic activity – while there is still time.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.