Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin was a controversial choice to head the defense department. He had not yet been retired for seven years, as required for Cabinet appointment. Congress waived the provision, as it did for Jim Mattis, former President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief. Yet if legislators routinely ignore the law, why keep it on the books?
Moreover, Austin finished his career as head of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. Alas, his performance seemed indifferent, though the Obama administration did not make his task easy. The half-billion-dollar program intended to create an army of moderate, pro-Western insurgents to overthrow Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was an embarrassing bust. The United States essentially allied with the local al-Qaeda affiliate and other radicals who would have used their control of Syria against Americans.
Now the threat horizons facing Austin have broadened greatly. The Middle East was filled with wrecked states and pampered allies. He left the region in worse shape than he found it. The only good news was that nothing that happened in Syria, Libya, Yemen, or elsewhere in the region had much direct impact on America. This is why all the effort devoted to the Mideast was such a waste.
Now Austin must contend with more serious problems around the world. At least China and Russia, though serious powers, are responsible if antagonistic actors. Neither wants nor intends war against America. Both are essentially secure, able to deter any attempt at regime change by Washington.
Not so North Korea. The Kim dynasty is sui generis. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ David Maxwell told NK News: “Korea is not Iraq, and I always caution those who think their Iraq experience will translate to Korea.” Given the disastrous consequences of Iraq and America’s other Mideast “projects,” hopefully Austin has a better model in mind.
So far the secretary has said little about the issue. He sent out a Pentagon-wide memo a couple of weeks ago noting that “we will ensure that we remain fully ready to respond to and effectively deter nation-state threats emanating from Russia, Iran, and North Korea,” but that is a very diverse threesome. Austin went on to explain: “We will seek to impose cost where necessary, while using all of our tools to lower the risk of escalation with our adversaries and respond to challenges below the level of armed conflict. We will continue to maintain credible deterrence against advanced threats, and we will right-size our mission around the world in a transparent and principled manner.”
This is a standard boilerplate, especially useless when applied to Pyongyang. The basic problem for Austin is that U.S. policy there presumes offense, not defense. That is, American troops are not protecting this nation from attack. Rather, Washington is intervening against the North to defend the ROK. Although part of the mission is deterring the DPRK from attacking, the United States also is prepared to go on the offensive to roll back any North Korean advance and, almost certainly, overthrow the Kim (or other) regime and liberate the North.
Such a campaign presumes American military superiority. That enables intervention against the North in contingencies ranging from military provocations, such as the 1976 ax murder of two army officers in the DMZ, to full-scale invasion, 1950 redux. Under any imaginable circumstance, Washington will retain conventional superiority, despite Pyongyang’s ostentatious display of new weapons in last October’s military parade.
Washington will easily retain nuclear superiority as well. However, until now America’s advantage has been absolute, that is, the United States possessed a nuclear monopoly on the peninsula. That is almost certainly no longer the case. The DPRK likely possesses the ability to strike South Korea, Japan, and nearby U.S. territories, most notably Guam. Moreover, North Korea is developing ICBMs and SLBMs that could target Hawaii and the continental United States.
Of course, America’s vast arsenal ensures that North Korea will not sua sponte initiate a nuclear exchange—Kim Jong-un is not suicidal and has demonstrated no desire to die in a radioactive funeral pyre in Pyongyang. Indeed, the North never had any interest in attacking the United States. The ruling Kims simply wanted the United States to stay out of any new round in what amounts to a continuing Korean civil war.
However, even a small North Korean arsenal dramatically transforms the military balance. For the North’s objective is to deter, not win, if America is involved.
In a limited conflict, perhaps fighting that flared up after a provocation like the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, Pyongyang almost certainly would keep its nukes hidden and safe. The stakes would not be worth the risk of nuclear annihilation.
However, imagine an incident that triggered full-scale combat, in which the United States and ROK forces quickly gained a decisive advantage and drove north. What if Kim then sent a message: withdraw to ROK territory or nuclear-tipped missiles will target bases and cities in the ROK, Guam, and Japan, and America? And U.S. intelligence concluded that several, certainly, and a couple dozen, possibly, warheads would survive the atmospheric trip, avoid missile defenses, and work as planned, ensuring millions of casualties.
The president would have no choice but to comply with Pyongyang’s ultimatum. There is nothing at stake in the peninsula that would warrant risking American cities and civilians. Japanese and South Korean officials might feel the same way about threats against their territories. It would be irresponsible, even criminal, for Washington to proceed under those circumstances.
Indeed, such a possibility would call into question America’s underlying military commitment to Seoul. The North would be forced to react not to U.S. intentions, which it could ill assess, but capabilities. If another president issued a cavalcade of threats, set a policy of “fire and fury,” and ordered an American “armada” to sail up North Korea’s coast and bombers to overfly the peninsula, Kim might believe he faced preventive war and therefore must strike first. Indeed, any conflict begun with conventional arms could go nuclear if Kim believed that regime change was on the agenda.
With talk of a possible DPRK missile test in the offing, Kim might be preparing to press ahead and perfect one or more intercontinental designs. If he did, what should the United States do?
Military action, whatever Washington’s explanatory rhetoric, likely would look like an attempt at decapitation and trigger full-scale war. Sanctions so far have failed to disarm Pyongyang and there isn’t a lot more to penalize in North Korea. Indeed, the North has survived worse self-inflicted wounds—a deadly famine in the 1990s and almost complete isolation as a result of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
More importantly, what to do about the alliance? Would the United States really stay in South Korea if the result might be the destruction of American cities? Austin should consider the options that soon may face the United States. It would be better to prepare now rather than wait for a crisis.
Lloyd Austin made his name in the Middle East but found its problems to be largely intractable. Iran and ISIS are nothing compared to North Korea, however. After spending just a few months confronting North Korea—a more determined, better positioned, more resilient, and better-armed adversary in a more important region—Austin might wish he was back dealing with the Mideast. Unless he and his Biden administration colleagues look beyond the conventional wisdom in dealing with North Korea, when he leaves the E Ring the DPRK is likely to have many more nuclear weapons than when he started.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.