This week marks the beginning of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise, an annual wargame conducted by the U.S.-South Korean alliance. The exercise comes on the heels of North Korea backing off of its threat to launch long range ballistic missiles into the vicinity of the U.S. territory of Guam, a step in its inexorable campaign to marry its nuclear weapons and its long range ballistic missile programs, a marriage that has been deemed “unacceptable” by a number of decision makers, including President Trump. Others, including former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have advised that the United States must be prepared to accept a nuclear North Korea, as war to prevent it achieving its nuclear ICBM goals is “unimaginable.” This statement is incorrect. For military planners, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, such a pre-emptive military campaign is all too imaginable.
In all likelihood, it would begin with lightning swiftness with overwhelming attacks on key targets to include the thousands of emplaced artillery pieces that overlook the South Korean capital of Seoul, nuclear weapons storage facilities, nuclear launch vehicles and integrated air defense systems. These attacks would be conducted with near simultaneity utilizing the hundreds of Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles carried onboard U.S. Navy surface ships and submarines as well as precision strike weapons and MOABs dropped from stealth F-35, F-22 and B-2 attack aircraft. The latter, more precisely labeled the GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Blast weapon would be uniquely suited to attack North Korea’s much talked about intricate underground cave networks. The 20,000 lb. conventional weapon operates by first over-pressurizing the underground network and then sucking all of the air out of the area of the explosion. Many of the targets will not be destroyed.
While these attacks are ongoing, Japan based U.S. Navy ballistic missile defense cruisers and destroyers as well as ground based Theater High Altitude Aerial Defense systems will use their long range radars to identify and shoot down North Korean missiles as they launch. China will most likely be informed of these moves as well as the escalation of the United States nuclear readiness mere moments before they are initiated and politely asked to remain on the sidelines rather than climb the escalation ladder in support of their irresponsible junior partner. These moves will occur in the first few minutes of combat. Other efforts will follow in the days, weeks and months ahead.
There will be no effort to decapitate the North Korean leadership. The Kim family has turned their Stalinist-Communist state into a near religious cult of personality. It will take years to de-program the brainwashed small hermit kingdom, and it would be a mistake to think that simply removing Kim Jong Un and his ruling clique would result in peace.
To be clear, such a preemptive campaign will result in high numbers of casualties. Some have suggested over a million dead in Seoul alone, but this estimate, given the number of bomb shelters, seems high. Almost certainly the dead and wounded count in South Korea would run into the hundreds of thousands and the United States’ other ally in the region, Japan, with its capital of Tokyo having 35 million citizens within its surrounding areas, would also suffers high numbers of dead and wounded as well. It is these numbers that drive some to say that war would be unimaginable while others urge the United States to accept a nuclear North Korea rather than risk such devastation. However, there are other calculations to be made.
Should North Korea successfully merge its nuclear weapons and long range missile programs, the great cities of Asia and North American will henceforth be under threat of nuclear attack. If North Korea fired an atomic weapon at Seoul, over 300,000 would die instantly with up to a million dying later from radiation effects. Tokyo, Seattle and Los Angeles would suffer similar effects from nuclear-tipped rocket attacks. The bottom line is that expected casualties would be much higher in a future nuclear exchange with North Korea (make no mistake, a nuclear attack upon the United States would be met in kind) than in a pre-emptive conventional attack now.
“Why would anyone launch a nuclear attack?” some might say. After all, no one has used nuclear weapons since the U.S. attacks upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II and many nations have possessed these ultimate weapons of mass destruction for decades without using them. Why is it unacceptable for North Korea to have them as well?
It comes down to the basic question of whether North Korea can be trusted to act as a rational actor, the concept that all of nuclear strategic deterrence theory rests upon. A rational actor realizes that his use of nuclear weapons would result in similar weapons being used against himself in an act of mutually assured destruction, and so he abstains. If Kim Jong Un could be trusted to follow such predictable patterns, then perhaps his nation could possess nuclear weapons, but he cannot. He has assassinated his own brother, executed senior officials with a firing squad made up of artillery tubes, beat an American student to death and is unpredictable and demonstrates megalomaniacal tendencies. He has killed his rivals and the sycophantic lapdogs that remain have convinced him of his own genius and the achievability of his family’s state goal of re-uniting the Korean peninsula under Kim rule.
War is an ugly thing. Lives are precious, no matter their nationality, but war with North Korea is an all too real possibility. Military leaders and senior political decision makers are currently balancing casualty estimates for a conventional pre-emptive war with North Korea versus the projected death tolls in a future nuclear war with an irrational actor. After considering these factors, they will decide whether allowing a madman like Kim Jong Un to gain rocket propelled nuclear weapons is the real unacceptable scenario.
Dr. Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and Program Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A retired Captain of the United States Navy, Hendrix previously served as the Director of Naval History and Military Assistant to the Director of the Office of Net Assessment.
Image: Department of Energy