Key Point: There is no viable preventive-war option for North Korea unless one is willing to absorb civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands or millions.
Last Friday National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster emphatically told reporters that despite what many have said to the contrary, “there is a military option” for North Korea. Tuesday afternoon at the United Nations, President Trump went even further, saying that if he felt certain conditions warranted it, then he would have no choice “but to totally destroy North Korea.” The president and his national security advisor, however, are wrong. Engaging in a “preventive war” with Pyongyang, as McMaster phrased it last month, would turn a tense situation into a catastrophic failure for America. There is no cost-effective military option and claiming there is only puts America’s security at risk.One doesn’t have to be a military expert to see why a so-called preventive military strike would not only fail to resolve the threat to U.S. personnel and U.S. allies, but worsen it. Two anecdotes and a brief assessment of North Korean capability exposes the futility of “preventive” war.
I fought alongside McMaster in February 1991 at Desert Storm’s Battle of 73 Easting. Prior to our ground assault, the U.S. Air Force and other coalition planes saturated the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait for an average of once every ten hours for forty-two days. Enemy tanks were the primary target. Iraqi armor had literally nowhere to hide in the open desert; their steel hulls were painfully clear from the skies and defenseless to air attacks.
Yet as we discovered when we closed with the enemy, more than 80 percent of the enemy’s tanks and other armored vehicles had survived the air attacks. An enemy that can’t hide or defend itself can still survive sustained bombardment under near-perfect attack conditions, even in open desert.
In September 2011, I was at a U.S. Forward Operating Base in the Kunar Province of eastern Afghanistan when the base came under attack by members of the Taliban. They were positioned on the side of a mountain with a commanding view on our base located below. U.S. soldiers returned fire with heavy machineguns and 105 millimeter artillery shells for about thirty minutes, yet they were unable to silence the attackers.
Finally, a U.S. fighter jet made a bombing run on the enemy location on the mountain and destroyed the dismounted troops in a massive explosion. The rugged mountains of Afghanistan provided Taliban fighters—with no additional protection—the ability to withstand U.S. heavy weapons and artillery shells. Only when a fighter jet entered the scene were they destroyed.
The implications are clear: if missiles and unimpeded air power are insufficient to destroy enemy armor out in the open after forty-two days, and if men clothed in mere robes can survive on the surface of a mountain against heavy weapons, then the tens of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces, their mobile missile launchers, and hidden nuclear-missile silos would be able to withstand even the most withering and sustained attack.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s likely response to a U.S. attack is not hard to figure out. In 1991 Saddam Hussein made a major strategic mistake by sitting idly by while U.S. missiles and bombs rained down on his helpless troops for over a month. Kim will certainly not make the same mistake. Instead, he will take one of several possible courses.
Kim will most likely launch a massive artillery strike of limited duration on the South Korean capital of Seoul, causing enormous damage and killing tens of thousands of South Korean citizens—and then stop his attack and warn that if the United States doesn’t cease its attack, then North Korea will obliterate the rest of Seoul, inflicting casualties in the hundreds of thousands. The most dangerous course of action for Kim would be to detonate a nuclear bomb on Seoul or launch a nuclear missile against Japan, killing millions—and then threatening to fire more if the U.S. does not cease-fire.
President Trump would then be faced with an unimaginable decision: continue the attack and see potentially millions more die, or give in to Kim’s demands and stop the attack. The interests of the United States would be gravely harmed no matter what choice Trump makes at that point.
In case anyone believes there is even a theoretical possibility that a massive U.S. strike could take out Kim’s ability to attack Seoul, let me put that to rest immediately. For decades, North Korea has known about the destructive power of U.S. planes and has therefore hidden a substantial number of its conventional artillery pieces into the sides of mountains. The artillery pieces can be rolled into firing positions and then returned for reloading.
There are likely a large number of missile silos in the mountains that are tucked away in locations that the United States may not be able to locate. I was stationed in South Korea in the mid-1990s and observed firsthand the formidable Korean mountains. I also spent some time in the South’s underground bunkers and know how virtually impregnable they are to external attack.
In addition to those unknown silo locations, North Korea also has many mobile launchers that will be hidden in underground storage facilities until it’s time to roll them out to fire. Its instructive to note that thousands of coalition planes were not able to prevent even the hapless Saddam Hussein from firing thirty-nine ballistic missiles from his mobile launchers during Desert Storm.
There is no viable preventive-war option for North Korea unless one is willing to absorb civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands or millions. The Trump administration can and should, however, communicate an unambiguous and certain promise that if North Korea were to attack any U.S. personnel, citizens, or allied nations—or if the administration discovers that North Korea was about to launch such an attack—then Kim’s forces will be met with a powerful and punitive strike out of all proportion to the attack. That is a credible and justifiable use of U.S. military power.
The objective must be to prevent war, secure the lives of American and allied citizens, and to keep sustained economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to eventually give up its nuclear weapons. Diplomatic engagement combined with a credible military deterrent has a reasonable chance of accomplishing that outcome. Launching a misnamed “preventive” strike will fail catastrophically.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1. This article first appeared in 2017 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.