Mutually assured destruction with North Korea is not a policy that the United States and its allies, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, should hedge its bets for the future. New debate is emerging among U.S. government officials, media and foreign-policy experts over a so-called “bloody-nose strategy.” This verbiage creates intense anxiety globally, regionally, and within the United States. It appears that someone, whether a member of the media or representative of the government, casually defined this action as a bloody-nose strategy. On the other hand, it does create a psychological impact of unpredictability that can favor negotiations and an overall strategy, if managed maturely and cautiously. What must remembered is that any deterrence or containment requires a credible military threat. So, with respect to North Korea, it must be asked, “Is the United States willing to accept a nuclear-capable North Korea that can assure the mutual destruction of the United States?”
The answer is no. A nuclear capable North Korea presents a grave threat to the strategic environment in Asia and the world. Based on the legacy of the Kim family and its survival, the continued expansion of Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program would likely lead to more aggressive or perilous thoughts, words, or actions. Such actions could entail weapons of mass destruction support to non-state actors hostile to the United States, or high stakes pursuit to unify the Korean Peninsula under the Kim regime. If Kim gains a mutually assured destruction capability against the United States, it is reasonable to expect such moves by the North Korean regime.
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A so-called bloody-nose strategy is inappropriate terminology. Using a sports analogy, boxers enter a ring to fight, and they normally use a jab to bloody the nose for follow-on combinations—with the goal of knocking out their opponent. This is why a bloody-nose strategy with respect to Korea is a dangerous approach, or option. For boxers, the fact that they have entered the ring means that they decided to wage a fight, or war. So, if the United States is going to consider a bloody-nose strategy, it must completely accept that the United States is going to war. The consequences of using a cavalier bloody-nose strategy is so catastrophic and horrific that a credible military threat of war should suffice with diplomacy and sanctions as the leading effort.
The United States and its friends and allies across the international community must remain committed to a denuclearization policy of North Korea, even if it takes decades. Sanctions, diplomacy and deterrence must be integrated into a comprehensive containment policy with the end state of denuclearization. The current rhetoric, however, makes the threat of war, and possibly nuclear confrontation, greater now than since the 1950s. As the United States moves forward, there are several risks that need better comprehension.
First, the bellicose tone emanating from both nations—politicians, media and think tanks—reflects seemingly equitable but actually asynchronous urgency that only becomes more dangerous if diplomacy cannot manage the actions and words among the region’s stakeholders. This situation has the actions and words of the United States and North Korea operating in two different spheres, which are drifting further apart. Imagine a simple Venn diagram with one circle representing each country’s words and actions. The farther apart they are, the higher the likelihood of the miscalculation by any stakeholder. And, it might be a miscalculation that one cannot walk back from, like a bloody-nose strategy. This so-called Venn diagram needs leadership to ensure the circles overlap. Such an overlap enables better understanding of each stakeholder’s interests, mitigation strategies, and the decision space they need to achieve progress towards denuclearization. If not, the United States could see itself on the outside looking in as, for example, China steps in to facilitate talks between the Koreas.
Second, any peace talks, or negotiations, cannot be limited to certain parties. The Northeast Asia region is vital, complex and changing rapidly. The region has one-fourth the world’s population, one-fifth the economic output, four of the six largest militaries, and four of the leading fourteen economies. Stability in this region is a global concern. In addition, deep-seated historical and cultural tensions continue to challenge the security architecture. Talks can be narrow in scope between limited parties, and material good can come out of their discussions. The Mutual Defense Treaty, however, between South Korea and the United States remains paramount. South Korea does have its own interests, but not necessarily at the expense of the treaty, the region and the United States. Any talks that are not transparent among all parties risks driving a wedge between allies.
Third, the media continues to focus on the bellicose rhetoric and presidents rather than the real threats that North Korea poses at a global scale. The nuclear aspirations of Kim Jong-un are a clear and present danger, but there are other threats of extraordinary magnitude that would have a high likelihood of catastrophic consequence if they were employed. North Korea possesses chemical and biological capability, engages in ballistic-missile technology proliferation, and interacts with other rogue states and non-state actors. These dangers should be brought to the forefront of discussion among leaders and the media to contribute to the public discussion—and the public’s understanding—about the nature of the rhetoric and psychological value in communicating a U.S. policy.
Fourth, the poorly worded bloody-nose option, which is preemptive or limited strikes, should remain on the table. Any deterrence and containment strategy must keep a credible military threat as an option. Without one, deterrence normally fails. A history of limited strikes or preemptive strikes, however, generally have not favored the United States. Some examples that have been successful in varying degrees have been the invasions of Grenada and Panama; air strikes against Saddam Hussein during violations of the no-fly zones in northern Iraq; and President Reagan’s air strike against Libya. These limited strikes were low risk with respect to casualties and long term commitment. But, outside of Grenada and Panama, credible arguments can be made that limited strikes have no sustainable effect. The situation in North Korea is absolutely different and Kim Jong-un will have a vote after any so-called bloody-nose option. And, in the case, it could mean war on a scope and scale of death and destruction not seen in generations.
Last, the U.S. politics and election cycles could lead the U.S. administration to pile pressure on North Korea and China in order to achieve success within the short term—the next three years in case of the national election. The situation is so complex and sensitive that a U.S. policy of denuclearization and its strategy must take a long term, over-the-horizon approach, and not a short term transactional one. Sanctions and other restrictive measures will not change behavior in the near term, but they must remain the leading effort at this time. This problem and its solutions represent a race against time, and the United States and its allies must come to grips with actions that also feed a long horizon approach. The risk of time is why the Venn diagram of words and actions must overlap to ensure trust, transparency, collaboration and collective responsibility.
The United States and the international community must come to grips with whether or not a nuclear-armed North Korea with a propensity for unpredictable and dangerous behavior is acceptable. A nuclear North Korea with a mutually assured destructive capability would mean that the United States and international regimes have failed at nuclear nonproliferation; instead, they have facilitated an increase of weapons of mass destruction, to include ballistic-missile technology, in the Middle East and among extremist organizations; and they have created political leverage for North Korea in the Asia-Pacific region. All of these failures would directly threaten U.S. interests, to include reunification under a North Korean regime. And, this bloody-nose strategy should only be an option if there is a verifiable, credible threat to the United States or that of its allies, particularly, South Korea or Japan. If it reaches such a point, the United States must be ready to go to war.
A containment policy provides the best way to maintain positional advantage and the ability to maneuver along all instruments of national and international power—diplomatic, information, military and economic. Such a policy could enable options through balanced approach where the United States and the international community can scale envisaged and, at best, agreed-upon responses up and down the spectrum of action. Fortunately, the U.S. diplomatic efforts and sanctions—as reinforced by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—continue to try to turn North Korea off this path. With respect to China, the United States must ensure a transparent mechanism to ensure avoidance of unintended collisions of interests. Lastly, both Koreas should maintain open channels of communication since such dialogue will generally be positive, but not at the expense or exclusion of the United States and other allies and stakeholders.