Why We Can't Attack North Korea

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. CC (some rights reserved) Zennie Abraham

There are no good options for North Korea—but a preventive strike is still the worst.

Nearly everyone can agree that North Korea is a problem. It is ruled by a brutal dictatorship that controls nearly every aspect of its citizens' lives, right down to the haircuts they're allowed to have. Its dictator, Kim Jong-un, has had hundreds of people killed, including members of his own family like his uncle and his entire family and his half-brother, to strengthen his hold on power. Worst of all, the regime threatens its neighbors with conventional and, increasingly, nuclear weapons. It is this last threat that has long vexed the United States and most alarms allies like Japan and even North Korea's neighbor-patron China. Broadly speaking, there are three options for dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons program. One of these is a preventive strike to destroy them before they can be properly weaponized. This post will show why this seemingly appealing option is unacceptable and why the US must not carry it out.

The three options for addressing North Korea's nuclear program are:

  1. Destroy the nuclear weapons and facilities before they can be used (prevention)
  2. Increase sanctions and other pressures on North Korea
  3. Accept that North Korea has nuclear weapons and work to bolster deterrence
Options two and three can, of course, be combined and that is essentially the approach the US has taken so far. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the US is now considering option one as well, however. As the linked Business Insider article suggests, option one is militarily feasible. North Korea's equipment is inferior and the US has the most powerful and capable military in the world. There's a good chance we could wipe out the nuclear facilities and, if we wanted to, topple the Kim regime. The risk North Korea would pose once it had nuclear weapons is high and the window for taking preventive action is closing. How would the world judge us if nuclear weapons were used in northeast Asia after we failed to stop North Korea from developing them? Doesn't the potential for catastrophic nuclear destruction mean we should be willing to take substantial risks to prevent that potential?

The problem with that line of reasoning is that we would be gambling not only with our own lives, but with those of South Koreans. Seoul, the capital of South Korea and home to around 10 million people, lies just 35 mi (56 km) from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas. North Korea has a lot of artillery pointed at Seoul and this is one of the main problems with plans to attack the North. Some estimates calculate that as many as 130,000 South Koreans would be killed within the first two hours of conflict with the North—even assuming no nuclear weapons were detonated—and plenty of North Koreans would likely die as well in South Korea and US counterattacks.

We cannot assume North Korea would avoid using nuclear weapons if attacked because the Kim regime would almost certainly fear it was about to be toppled and might decide to take as many of its own people, South Koreans, Americans, and whomever else was within reach, down with it. Given the damage radii of the nuclear weapons North Korea is believed to possess (10–30 kilotons), their detonation would likely primarily affect North Korea's own citizens. The North claims to have miniaturized its nukes to put on missiles and, if true, there is a possibility that a nuclear-tipped missile, stored somewhere unbeknownst to the US military, is launched, gets through South Korea's defenses, and detonates on South Korean territory—potentially killing hundreds of thousands more.

The risks don't end there. China has no reason to desire a nuclear-armed North Korea on its border, but it also has no reason to desire thousands of US troops on its border, something it fears would happen should the Korean Peninsula be reunified. It also fears streams of North Korean refugees flooding into its country should the Kim regime collapse. These fears mean it is entirely possible that China would hurry to North Korea's defense. By then, North Korea's nuclear weapons facilities would hopefully already have been destroyed. Perhaps China's presence would give the Kim regime comfort and even allow for de-escalation with (US) mission accomplished. Or perhaps Kim Jong-un's paranoia would get the better of him, or US or South Korean and Chinese troops would come into contact and the situation would escalate. There are plenty of additional risks and, once a war is started, it is no longer solely up to the initiator (i.e. the US) to determine its course.

Part of me thinks we should take the risk and eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat. But what would happen down the road if we did? The Kim regime (or some successor) would likely remain in power because the US would not want to have to occupy the country and build a state there, even with South Korea's help. Furthermore, China likely would not allow this, as we saw decades ago in the Korean war—when China's military was much weaker than it is today. With no regime change, there is every chance North Korea would try to develop nukes again, perhaps in sites better protected from US attack. Perhaps we could continue to take them out each time. Or perhaps China would now help North Korea prevent such a repeat. If it did not, maybe this would be a semi-permanent solution that would eventually convince North Korea of the futility of its nuclear program (and that the US was not interested in regime change, making nuclear weapons more of a liability than a benefit). Worth a try?

Whether it's worth it all comes down to South Korea. That country and its citizens would bear the brunt of any retaliation to a preventive action by the US. As long as South Koreans are unwilling to take such a risk, we have no right to place them in such grave danger. The world would see the US as the aggressor in a war that ended up killing, in all likelihood, hundreds of thousands of citizens of one of its closest allies (and this is the best-case, non-nuclear scenario). After that, South Korea's government, pressured by massive protests from angry and mourning citizens, might decide the alliance with the US made it less safe rather than safer—potentially setting it adrift into China's orbit. China might drop sanctions against North Korea and vow to protect it against future attacks. Japan and South Korea might decide nuclear weapons of their own would protect them better than a brash and uncontrollable US ally. US influence in the region would be severely curtailed, to the benefit of China and, ironically, North Korea. Worse, the US would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people it had sworn to protect—for uncertain gains.

What if the US doesn't attack and instead relies on deterrence? Is Kim Jong-un rational enough to be deterred? So far, North Korea has shown itself to be brash, paranoid, and fanatical, but not irrational. It occasionally attacks South Korea, but never to an extent that would start a war it knows it would lose. The Kim regime hopes to survive. It knows that a nuclear attack on the US or its allies could very well mean a nuclear attack and all-out war on it. It can therefore likely be deterred indefinitely.

What if this is wrong? What if North Korea detonates nuclear weapons after the US fails to stop it from having them? North Korea and Kim Jong-un and his regime would be to blame. The US has a responsibility to protect itself, its allies, and their citizens. Of the options available, only one would have the US directly initiating a chain of events that killed thousands of people for uncertain gains. We might one day regret not acting during the preventive window. More likely, we will not. If we strike North Korea first, however, we will almost certainly regret it because, while it brought uncertain gains, it would bring certain death and certain blood on our hands.


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