As a real estate mogul, one of Donald Trump’s key principles was: “protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself.” As president, this concept could serve Trump well, as his administration deals with North Korea.
Conventional wisdom is that the worst possible outcome, the downside, is a nuclear North Korea capable of striking America. North Korea is already considered a nuclear power and is believed to have 10 or more nuclear weapons. But what it does not have yet is long-range strike capability to attack the United States. Indeed, according to Admiral Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, North Korea’s “strategic capabilities are not yet an existential threat to the U.S.”
Nonetheless, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Director of Intelligence Dan Coats have deemed North Korea as “an urgent national security threat.”
Because they believe the regime would launch an unprovoked nuclear strike and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. So this is the downside the administration is trying to protect against. But how likely is that downside?
North Korea is often portrayed as an “aggressive” regime. It is certainly a country that acts in defiance of international norms, but it has not actually used military force against any other country since the end of the Korean War more than 60 years ago.
Kim Jong-un has issued swaggering threats and has the ability to unleash tremendous conventional military force, and maybe even nukes, against South Korea—but it hasn’t.
So why do we automatically assume North Korea would nuke America? Doing so would guarantee his utter destruction since the much larger U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal has the capability to respond with overwhelming and devastating force.
But isn’t Kim Jong-un irrational—even crazy? The same was said of both Stalin and Mao in their times. Yet both were deterred.
You would have to believe that Kim Jong-un is suicidal to believe he would attack America (or anyone) with nuclear weapons. The evidence is just the opposite. Like his father and his grandfather, he is more interested in surviving and perpetuating the Kim dynasty. So if North Korean nukes are more about survival and not about incinerating American cities, is there a different possible downside that we should be worried about and protect against?
Although the president has raised the specter of a “a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” a major conflict would be a major downside.
Analysts on all sides believe a full-scale conventional war would be devastating. In 1994, when President Bill Clinton contemplated the use of force against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Gary Luck—the then commander of U.S. Forces Korea—thought a conventional war with North Korea would likely result in 1 million dead and nearly $1 trillion of economic damage.
Worse yet, if the U.S. waged a pre-emptive war against North Korea, Kim Jong-un might feel he would have nothing to lose by using one of his nuclear weapons that we believe he already has.
The aftermath of a war must also be taken into account. We would face a massive nation-building effort that Koreans and the world would expect us to bear.
How do we protect against this downside?
First, we must acknowledge that North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons has more to do with survival than attacking America out of the blue—and that we can deter the latter. We need to understand that military threats are unlikely to change Kim Jong-un’s mind. It is much more likely to reinforce his belief he needs nuclear strike capability to ensure his regime’s survival.
Second, we must understand that the more we threaten the use of force, the more likely the possibility of a miscalculation that leads to war. So sending a carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson into waters off North Korea could do more harm than good. Indeed, Pyongyang’s reaction was to announce that it was ready for war. Also, continually threatening to use military force—and using an all sticks and no carrots approach—pushes Kim Jong-un into a corner and puts him in a “nothing to lose” situation if he feels he’s going to be attacked.
Third, we need to realize that even so-called limited strikes against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are not likely to be viewed as limited by Pyongyang—especially if tens or hundreds of targets are involved and there is collateral damage with civilian casualties. That Kim Jong-un would sit idly by after being attacked is fantasy. More likely, such strikes would generate a response that could easily escalate to a wider, larger, and more costly war.
Ultimately, it means understanding that the costs and risks of military action against North Korea outweigh the perceived benefits. In other words, cooler heads and realism need to prevail, which means reasoned analysis of possible policies and their second and third order consequences. Otherwise, we will continue to pursue dangerous policies that cost more in lives and dollars than predicted, drain our military, and weaken our security. Let's hope President Trump resists the repeatedly wrong advice from the status quo, left-right policy elite consensus in Washington.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.
This first appeared in RealClearDefense here.