In a mid-October interview, an unnamed North Korean government official told CNN, “Before we can engage in diplomacy with the Trump administration, we want to send a clear message that the DPRK has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States.” This clear message, the official said, included two steps. First was the successful demonstration of an ICBM that could reach the East Coast of the United States. The second was an aboveground nuclear detonation.
The first step in North Korea’s “message” to Trump was apparently accomplished with the November 29 test of an ICBM (the Hwasong-15). That launch prompted National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster to warn that the risk of war was “increasing by the day.” Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “We’re getting close to a military conflict” and that “we’re running out of time” before a war may begin. (A week earlier, the senator had explained what he thought would trigger such a war.)
If the threshold for war is confirmation that North Korea has merely the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon––as opposed to an actual or imminent launch of such a weapon––then an aboveground test could trigger the war. Kim Jong-un, however, may calculate that demonstrating this capability is necessary to his survival.
North Korean officials believe that Saddam Hussein’s fatal weakness in 1991 and 2003 was not having a deterrent to stop U.S. invasion forces. Had Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapon at the time, both attacks could have been prevented by threatening to attack U.S. forces or America itself. Kim may reason, then, that he must conclusively demonstrate he has both a reliable missile and a functioning nuclear warhead to prevent any U.S. attack.
Were Trump to listen to hawkish advisors, however, and order a preventive military strike, it may goad Pyongyang into using one of its existing short- or intermediate-range nuclear weapons on U.S. territory or personnel abroad.
It is instructive to remember that in 1962, America’s most senior military leaders advised President Kennedy to launch a preventive military strike before Soviet long-range missiles became operational—but what they did not know at the time was that the USSR already had fully operational nuclear missiles that could have devastated any city in the southern United States.
Had Kennedy listened to the hawks then and approved the preventive strike, it may well have goaded Moscow into bringing nuclear war to the continental United States, destroying some American cities as retaliation. Today, U.S. intelligence agencies do not know how many operational nuclear missiles North Korea might already have. Were President Trump to listen to the hawks and launch preventive strikes, the nuclear catastrophe Kennedy avoided might now be levied on U.S. citizens. The stakes could not be higher––and a war that could impose catastrophic loss on the nation cannot be left to a single person to decide.
Congress is the only body empowered to declare war. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that Congress immediately begin debating the matter now, while there is still time to carefully consider which course of action to support.
Congress must decide the trigger for initiating military action against North Korea. Is it the mere possession of weapons, or should we only attack to forestall an imminent attack? Any cost-benefit analysis shows that deterrence works, so we should only use military force as a last resort.
Sen. Graham and his allies believe the cost of a preventive war is a price worth paying. As explained by Barry Posen in the New York Times:
“The detonation of even a small number of nuclear weapons in North Korea would produce hellish results. . . . The United States would make itself an international pariah for decades, if not centuries. It is entirely possible that the American military personnel would even resist the order to execute such an attack. For strategic, humanitarian and constitutional reasons, a first-strike nuclear option should not even be on the table (other than to forestall an imminent nuclear attack from North Korea).”
The possibility of a war against North Korea that could turn nuclear is so consequential that Congress dare not abdicate the decision to a single person. America must debate the two policy options available. On the one hand, there is deterrence and diplomacy, based on our overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority. On the other, preventive war, which would be catastrophic, cost hundreds of thousands of human lives, seriously damage the global economy and our own prosperity, and forever change geopolitics—just to remove a capability that will not credibly be used against South Korea, let alone the United States.
The people of this country deserve to hear the president make his case publicly and then to have their representatives openly debate the wisdom of such a course. Americans must be made aware of the risks they’re being asked to take on. The potential costs of nuclear war are too terrifying to be imposed on a people without their consent.
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.
Image: Army personnel and people gather at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang July 6, 2017 to celebrate the successful test-launch of intercontinental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14. in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 7, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS