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.
Unless Trump ordered Desert Storm-style forty-two-day massive bombing campaign, anything smaller would represent a mere annoyance, resulting in no demonstrable set-back to his ability to retaliate. In this first scenario, Kim would retaliate, not primarily against U.S. forces, but launch a withering conventional artillery and rocket strike on select parts of Seoul, killing tens of thousands. He would then likely stop, warning that any further attack by the United States would result in a substantially larger attack—rocketing the casualties to shocking levels.
Moreover, Beijing has publicly stated that if North Korea were to start a war, China would not come to its aid. If, however, an external power started a war against North Korea, Beijing would then come to Pyongyang’s aid. Thus, use of a so-called “preventative war” against North Korea has the distinct possibility of equaling war with China—which is most assuredly not in America’s interest.
The second possible outcome of a U.S. strike would be catastrophic: Kim Jong-un launches one of his nuclear missiles on a comparatively smaller target than Seoul, killing perhaps 100,000 people (including thousands of Americans). Afterward, he threatens that if there is any more U.S. response, he will launch a second nuclear bomb on Seoul, possibly killing millions. Without extensive and precise intelligence support, there is almost no chance the United States could take out all nuclear launch facilities before Kim made good on his threat.
There is no reason to believe that a U.S. strike of any size would cause Kim to cower in his caves, promising to freeze his nuclear program. Given that the most probable response to a U.S. military strike is an attack on South Korea, President Trump must break with his bombastic proclivities and instead engage in serious regional diplomacy backed up by a powerful military deterrent.
If the United States detects an imminent North Korean nuclear launch, we reserve the right to launch a preemptive strike to take the missile out before blastoff. This would be moral and justified. This logic was effectively applied during the Cold War to deter the Soviet Union. It is still quietly in effect today against Russia and China, and it has served the interests of global peace. There is no reason to believe such deterrence won’t work just as effectively with North Korea.
The president should first establish the strategic objective of containing the threat of North Korean attack and the prevention of armed regional conflict. It is likely that absent a U.S. attack on North Korea, their corrupt and failing regime will collapse from within. We should let internal forces take their toll on Kim while protecting U.S. personnel, friends and allies in the region.
The United States could work cooperatively with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan to give assurances that so long as North Korea does not attack any of our allies, it will be safe from any U.S.-led attack. We have nothing to gain by attacking North Korea. At the same time, however, we would make plain that if the North engaged in (or mobilized for) an unprovoked attack on South Korea, Japan, or U.S. forces anywhere in the Pacific, they can expect a powerful response, commensurate with the attack.
We can make clear to China and Russia that our interests in the matter are stability and the preservation of economic and free trade between all nations of the region—which are also shared interests of Russia, China, and other nations in Asia-Pacific. We should not make an unprovoked attack into North Korea. In the event the North did attack, however, we would push for a joint response so that if a military answer was required, it wouldn’t be a unilateral U.S. attack, but a joint response by China, the United States, Russia and South Korea.
America stands to gain nothing from a military clash on or around the Korean Peninsula. It is in our interests to produce a powerful and clear deterrent, but one aimed at convincing Pyongyang not to use any of its military power in an offensive or provocative manner. U.S. vital national interests are best preserved through regional stability and the expansion of economic opportunity for American business. War would represent an abysmal failure of leadership and serve only to harm our interests.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.