The Ultimate Nightmare: Why Invading North Korea Is a Really Bad Idea
Earlier this month, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued for a US invasion of North Korea.
Thankfully, the general response has been quite negative (here, here and here). Invading North Korea is a terrible idea, and it is worth laying out why in some detail. I do not intend this as a particular shot against Gobry – I do not know him personally – but rather against this general idea, as it does come up now and then.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration came close to launching a massive air campaign against the North (well-discussed here). Then in the first term of President George W Bush, regime change was the watchword and North Korea was on the “axis of evil.” If the Iraq invasion had worked out, it appears other states were on the Bush hit list. Neoconservatives (neocons) love to loathe North Korea.
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I should note, however, that in my seven years working in Korea on Korean security issues, I have never heard a reputable Korean analyst argue for preemptive attack in an op-ed, at a conference, on TV, and so on. Nor have any of my hundreds of students over the years argued for this. This is a Western debate that has little resonance with the people who would mostly carry the costs – already a big problem for Gobry's argument.
1. Moral Revulsion Is Not Enough:
Gobry, and President Bush who placed North Korea on the axis of evil, both share an admirably strong moral revulsion towards North Korea which motivates their hawkishness.
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Certainly that revulsion is warranted. There is little dispute that North Korea is the worst country on earth, although perhaps the emerging ISIS 'state' is giving it a run for its money. The moral argument against North Korea became clear as early as the 1950s, when Kim Il-sung solidified control of the North and turned it into a cult of personality so servile and vicious scholars began using the neologism “Kimilsungism” to describe it.
But there are of course many nasty, awful dictatorships. Perhaps none as awful as North Korea, but certainly huge numbers of people have suffered in many other states, both powerful and weak. Mao's China comes to mind, as does Cambodia under Pol Pot, or Zimbabwe and Syria-ISIS today.
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For a brief moment under George W Bush, after his second inaugural address, it looked as if “promoting freedom around the world” might actually become US foreign policy, thereby justifying widespread global military pre-emption. But that was always wildly impractical, and the American public rejected it immediately. And if there is anything we have learned from regime change in places like Iraq and Libya it is that the unintended consequences and bloodletting can be extreme.
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2. South Koreans really, really don't want to invade North Korea:
Much of the Western debate on North Korea assumes that South Korea will simply go along with whatever decisions emerge from Washington.
I thought the same before I moved to Korea. Like many, I figured that the ROK was a democratic ally standing “shoulder to shoulder” with the US for freedom, democracy, and so on. But South Korean foreign policy is far more realist. I have been arguing for a long time that South Koreans are not neocons and that they really don't want to up-end the status quo if it is likely to be costly.
Polls have shown for years that South Koreans fear the cost of unification, increasingly don't see North Koreans as a fellow people (for whom they should make a huge sacrifice), and don't think North Korea is a huge threat. The polls also show they dislike Japan almost as much as, if not more than, North Korea, they dislike conscription, and worry a lot that the US might do something rash and provoke a war.