Early Sunday morning, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un ordered the test of the largest yield nuclear test in the country’s history. In response, President Donald Trump tweeted out a disparaging comment on the president of South Korea and warned that Kim “only understands one thing,” clearly implying military power. The situation on the Korean peninsula is now at the brink of major—and potentially nuclear—war. Only wise, sober and carefully calculated actions from the White House can avoid this destructive outcome; continuing with the military-first method of problem-solving will likely fail, spawning a war.
The president must put aside personal hubris and pride, and instead engage in serious statecraft. The United States dwarfs North Korea in every category: air power, sea power, ground forces, a powerful global economy and a modern nuclear arsenal that could obliterate the tiny ”Hermit Kingdom” a thousand times over. We should not be in reactionary mode, allowing Kim to keep the initiative and set the basis of the crisis.
Despite what many hawkish, so-called ”foreign-policy experts” say in Washington, time is on our side. We should act like the world-class global power we are, take control of the matter from Kim Jong-un, and reduce the tensions and threats to a tolerable steady-state.
Those advocating for a preventive military response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test represent a danger to U.S. security.
As a U.S. Army officer, I spent 1995 assigned to a small U.S. liaison team to the Second Republic of Korean Army (SROKA), headquarter in Taegu. I am very familiar with several likely war scenarios and the projected casualties for each, having conducted on-the-ground reconnaissance of much of South Korea, focusing on the area between Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone (marking the border between North and South Korea).
I have fought in high intensity, major conventional combat in the Middle East, and can say with high confidence that a war—even one with limited engagement and aims—would kill tens of thousands within days, potentially hundreds of thousands. But if a war were started now, it could quickly get out of anyone’s control and escalate into a nuclear exchange. The dead could quickly climb into the millions. Though North Korea doesn’t yet have the ability to strike the American mainland, any use of nuclear weapons that resulted from a U.S. attack could have profoundly negative consequences for American national security.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
A study of North Korea since 1953 shows a consistent, overriding, and all-consuming strategic imperative: regime survival. In 1950, then-dictator Kim Il-sung believed he had the ability to militarily conquer South Korea, which at the time was an impoverished country with poorly trained and equipped soldiers. Today, Kim Jong-un is under no such illusions, as the Republic of Korea commands 680,000 well trained troops with modern air, naval, land and missile forces.
Kim Jong-un and his generals would therefore be extremely unlikely to ever make a first-strike nuclear attack because of the absolute certainty that they would be subject to an obliterating retaliatory strike—as Secretary of Defense James Mattis threatened on Sunday . It is crucial for President Trump and his senior policymakers to understand why Kim Jong-un has pressed so hard for this capability and why he’s not going to willingly relinquish it.
An official in the Japanese Ministry of Defense whom I know, who was previously responsible for the North Korea portfolio in the ministry, confided to me recently that their intelligence confirms the fate of Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi weighs heavily on the North’s behavior.
In 2003 the Bush administration negotiated a deal with the Libyan dictator to give up his WMD and nuclear weapon’s program in exchange for the lifting of numerous sanctions. Qaddafi signed the agreement and by 2009 most of the program had been dismantled and withdrawn from the country. The Obama administration, however, ordered air strikes against the Qaddafi regime in March 2011 to the benefit of rebel forces.
Unburdened from any concern that the Libyan military could threaten U.S. aircraft or employ nuclear weapons, Obama’s air strikes knocked Qaddafi from power, and he was eventually brutally murdered in the streets by mobs of angry people. Kim Jong-un fears this above all, and predictably believes that if he were to negotiate away his nuclear weapons program, he would end up just like Qaddafi. We must not feed his fear by threatening—or using—military force in a preventive attack.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has speculated that Kim has upwards of sixty nuclear warheads . If Trump were to order a Syrian-style cruise missile attack in an attempt to set back their nuclear program, there are two negative outcomes likely, either of which would harm U.S. interests.
First, as should be kept in the forefront of the president’s mind, the cruise missile strike in Syria last April was in a flat desert where nothing could be hidden with only a few basic defenseive bunkers. Despite the fifty-nine missiles we fired, only minor damage was done and the airfield was operational within twenty-four hours . North Korea’s missile forces, in stark contrast, are scattered throughout the country, buried under mountains, and other parts are placed in deep and hardened tunnels.