How to Guarantee a War with North Korea
Moreover, the probable effect of the U.S. tripwire in Northeast Asia today is more unpredictable than the role of such units played during the Cold War. Hostile great powers, such as the Soviet Union or China, probably were deterred from launching a war of aggression against a U.S. ally, knowing that, given the crucial interests at stake, Washington might have little choice but to respond and even escalate the conflict. But the vulnerability of forward-deployed U.S. military units also inhibited American leaders from taking rash actions that might trigger a conflict.
The latter point is especially pertinent regarding the current situation in Korea. Although the Trump administration insists that all policy options, including the use of force, are on the table to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, launching a preventive war could doom thousands of tripwire personnel. Most of them are stationed near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. Even a brilliantly executed air and naval strike on North Korea would probably not be able to prevent a sizable counterstrike that would do the most damage in the area along the DMZ and in the Seoul metropolitan area, located barely 50 kilometers from that line. And if any portion of the U.S. blitzkrieg failed, the possibility exists that nuclear-armed North Korean missiles could land on American bases in both South Korea and Japan. A reasonable appreciation of the potential danger logically would inhibit even the bold Trump national security team from launching a preventive war.
Americans disagree sharply about policy toward North Korea. Hawks suspect that patient diplomacy is no longer feasible, since North Korea will soon have the capability to strike targets throughout the United States, and normal assumptions about deterrence may not work with that government. Some even openly advocate a preventive war. Doves and cautious realists believe that additional, and more flexible, diplomacy is essential, because a second Korean War would be horrific.
All factions, though, should recognize that keeping U.S. tripwire forces in East Asia no longer serves a logical or constructive purpose. They are hostages that limit Washington’s policy options, if officials conclude that neutralizing the North Korean threat warrants drastic action. At the same time, if an accident or miscalculation occurs on either side, those troops become the first victims in an extremely tragic war. No matter if they are hawks, doves, or cautious realists regarding North Korea, Americans should agree that it is time to remove the nuclear hostages.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 700 articles and policy studies on international affairs.