A False Choice on the Korean Peninsula
When we commanded troops in South Korea, we prepared year-round for a war we prayed would never come. Our role was to protect our allies and deter North Korean aggression in the hope that someday the situation would change and there could be peace on the Korean Peninsula or at least an end to the threat of nuclear war. We believe the coming summit between the U.S. and North Korea can and should be an important step towards this goal.
If our long-term goal is what the Trump administration calls “complete, irreversible, verifiable denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, then we must be honest about the costs of doing it by force. Last year, the Joint Chiefs told Congress that it would take a ground invasion to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The Pentagon estimates that in the first few days of a war, as many as 20,000 American troops would be killed – each day. The use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons is not only possible but likely. According to Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, “the brutality of this [would] be beyond the experience of any living soldier.” For this reason, the only good solution to the North Korean nuclear threat is a diplomatic one.
Achieving a diplomatic solution will not be quick or easy, but the June 12 summit constitutes an important step and shows how far we have already come. In the last several months the North Koreans froze missile and warhead tests, released American prisoners, and disabled or destroyed several nuclear testing facilities. The United States, in a show of good faith, modified military exercises that North Korea sees as a prelude to war and delayed new sanctions. As we all know, the fundamental nature of negotiations is that each side give something to reach a compromise, and so far this approach is paying dividends.
A successful summit next week should aim to cement this progress, including the crucial freeze on North Korean tests, and the modifications to U.S. exercises consistent with our security needs. It should also produce a commitment for future negotiations. Demanding more when the relationship between both nations is fragile after years of animosity will set unrealistic expectations and undercut diplomacy. We should all keep an open mind about the summit’s results, and not prejudge any outcome or say in advance what would be acceptable. As Nicholas Kristoff wrote last week in The New York Times, “half-steps toward peace are better than full strides toward war.”
In reality, the choice facing Trump is not between war and peace, but between diplomacy and deterrence. Kim Jong-un, like his Soviet predecessors, has had nuclear weapons for years and been deterred from using them by the threat of destruction and the prospect of a better future for his country. If Kim is ready to embrace that future, we should be ready to bargain and stay at the table as long as necessary. If this turns out to be less than what’s been promised or expected, the United States can keep waiting.
Lieutenant General John W. Morgan, III, (USA-Ret.) is the former Commanding General, 2nd Infantry Division, Republic of Korea, and Assistant Chief of Staff, C/J3, United Nations Command, Combined Forces Command, United States Forces Korea.
Lieutenant General Walter Gaskin, (USMC-Ret.) is the former Head of Ground Forces Branch, for Combined Forces Command C/J3, South Korea. In that role he was the liaison from U.S. Forces Korea to the American Embassy, and to the South Korean intelligence services. He is a Board Member of the American College of National Security Leaders.