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The Insanity Of Preemptive War Against North Korea

US North Korea Nuclear Missiles

Over at The New Yorker, Evan Osnos notes that the sentiment in Washington, even outside the Trump Administration, seems to be drifting toward war with North Korea:

Chalk it up to Trump fatigue or North Korea fatigue, or a combination of the two, but members of America’s political class—the “blob” of government officials, donors, and media types—have started to talk about war with Pyongyang as an increasingly likely prospect. Last week, I spoke to a former Cabinet secretary, a Democrat, who told me that if he were in the government today he would support attacking North Korea, in order to prevent it from launching a strike on America. This was not a vox-pop interview at the mall with a casual news consumer; it was a conversation with a seasoned American official who is inexpert on Asia but otherwise well informed and influential. It was a worrisome indicator not because the former secretary is privy to secret information—by his account, he is not—but, rather, because it reflects an emerging bout of groupthink that needs to be checked.

In another measure of the mood, the retired Admiral Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence who led the U.S. forces in the Pacific, wrote this week that if North Korea tests a nuclear missile in the Pacific Ocean, or conducts a nuclear test in the atmosphere—as it has threatened to do—the United States and its allies should launch a “massive . . . air and missile strike against all known DPRK nuclear test facilities and missile launching and support facilities.” In Washington, some analysts say that the White House is considering a version of that plan, betting that it would not escalate to an all-out war. Driving much of this discussion is the White House’s fundamental analytical position, which was summed in a briefing to reporters in Tokyo by a senior White House official, who said, “North Korea’s goal is not to simply acquire these horrific weapons to maintain the status quo . . . They are seeking these weapons to change the status quo. Their primary goal is to reunify the Korean Peninsula and these weapons are part of the plan.”

This belief—that if North Korea is allowed to retain its nuclear arsenal, it will seek to gain control of South Korea—has become an essential part of the White House’s thinking about the crisis, and it narrows its options, leaving the President and his advisers wary of any negotiation that might allow North Korea to retain some or all of its nuclear weapons. But the idea that North Korea’s “primary goal” is reunification is controversial. Some analysts believe that the regime’s goal may be more modest—merely its own survival—and that overstating its ambitions (and understating the potential value of a negotiated solution) is a mistake. In that telling, the White House runs the risk of reënacting the George W. Bush Administration’s march toward war in Iraq, when officials and pundits took to saying that war was not a choice but a grim necessity. To borrow a loaded phrase, some in Washington are edging toward the belief, so common in 2002 and early 2003, that it’s a matter of a preventive war now or a larger war later.

Daniel Larison reacts with alarm:

I would have thought that the insanity of starting a war with North Korea was obvious enough that there would be broad, bipartisan resistance to the mere suggestion of it, but Osnos’ report suggests that this is not the case. Attacking North Korea would be extremely costly for the U.S. and its allies, and could very well lead to the use of nuclear weapons that would claim millions of lives. It would also be a blatant violation of international law, and in the absence of Congressional authorization it would also be illegal under domestic law. On top of all that, there is no guarantee that attacking North Korea would “prevent” anything. It is more likely at this point that attacking North Korea would lead to North Korean attacks on American targets. There is no way to justify doing something that would cause all of that devastation.

The fact that Larison is correct and that Osnos’s unnamed former Democratic Cabinet official is wrong is something that ought to be self-evident to even the most casual of observers of what’s at stake in the current showdown with Pyongyang. First of all, the idea that even a limited military strike against North Korea would be unlikely to stay limited for very long. Even with reassurances from the United States, the Kim regime is not likely to see a limited strike as being, well, limited at all. Instead, it’s likely to view such an attack as a prelude to war and respond accordingly. Such responses would likely include retaliatory attacks on U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan as well as attacks on the civilian population in South Korea that would likely leave to tens of thousands of casualties at the very least, and quite possibly something quite worse. Additionally, if the leaders in North Korea really come to believe that their backs are up against the wall, they could well decide to go forward with the unthinkable and actually make use of their nuclear arsenal in some bizarre last-minute attempt to stave off defeat. Add to all of this the fact that, as Larison notes, such an attack would violate all of the norms of international law, as well as the Constitution, makes even the suggestion that the Trump Administration might be considering it, and that the political class might actually support that decision, seem nothing short of absolutely insane.

As I said last week, there are really only two sane options when it comes to North Korea, diplomacy and deterrence. The diplomatic option involves the twin strategies of trying to persuade China, and to some extent Russia, to put further pressure on the North Koreans to hold back on further nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development and trying to pursue some way of getting the North Koreans to a negotiating table that allows all sides to save face and not appear to be capitulating. While we cannot know what is going on behind the scenes, this strategy at least seems to make some sense, although the idea that it is likely to result in North Korea completely abandoning its nuclear weapons program and giving up the technology that it has developed are pretty slim. Barring some diplomatic solution, the only other option is adopting a strategy of deterrence not unlike what we’ve seen on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1952. Specifically, it should be made clear to North Korea that any use of nuclear weapons would be responded to with the use of overwhelming force in response, up to and including a retaliatory strike that would effectively destroy the regime itself. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan for a conflict in the unfortunate event that one should erupt notwithstanding our best efforts to avoid it, but it does mean that we should abandon the utterly insane idea of a pre-preemptive strike against North Korea that likely would spin out of control rapidly and result in a kind of conflict that we haven’t seen since disengaging from Vietnam. The fact that such a strike seems to be something that the powers-that-be in Washington are even briefly considering is, quite honestly, terrifying.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Not the IT Dept. says:

    For far too many Americans, war is something that happens on the other side of the world. We could finally find out that war can happen here, too.

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  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Hmmm; illegal, immoral, and insane?
    Then it appears that we can count on Cheeto-Dick to do it.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Mister Bluster says:

    Well if this goes down we at least ought to get to strap Trump’s fat ass and bone spurs and all the rest of Satan’s Agents
    to the first barrage.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. Merika says:

    Yea I don’t war but I also don’t want there to be a nuclear salvo. I think we should position all our available assets at their door. Then set an actual red line, we all know Kim will pass that line just because its there. That will allow us the justification and international backing to launch a crippling full scale “make shoick and awe look like fireworks” attack that will set DPRK back at least 70 years. Then naval and air blockade forever.

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  5. Mister Bluster says:

    @Merika:.. so you are conceding 10 million Koreans in Seoul and 127 million Japanese to vapor in the first hours of your crusade.
    Where do you live?

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  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Merika:

    1) WTF does station all our assets at their door mean? In the ocean? In South Korea? In Japan? To what end? For how long? What exactly would be the logic behind making still more of our forces vulnerable to attack?

    2) We all know Kim will pass that line just because its there is nonsense. There’s been a red line since we signed the armistice and none of the Kim’s have sent tanks across that red line.

    3) Can we cut the masturbatory shock and awe fantasies? How many effed-up, losing wars does it take for you to think about war with some maturity?

    4) It’s SOUTH KOREA, our ally, that is most in danger, most on the front lines. It’s those people who will die by the tens of thousands if North Korean artillery opens up. How about we ask them if THEY want a war?

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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Merika:
    Oh, and naval blockade is bullsh!t, look at a map. See how NK is in contact with protected Russian and Chinese territorial waters for thousands of miles? You also want a naval war with Russia and China?

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  8. PJ says:

    And for those lacking any kind of empathy and don’t care about the huge amount of lives that would be lost.

    Consider the impact that an attack on North Korea that would trigger attacks on South Korea and Japan would have on the economy…

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  9. David says:

    The two choices, in reality, are between war and nuclear proliferation in the West Pacific, and maybe beyond. North Korea views South Korean soft power as an existential threat, and they never abandoned their goal of reunification.

    Nuclear-tipped ICBMs erode deterrence such that either ROK will have to go nuclear to re-establish it, or North Korea will be empowered to act aggressively, either resulting in allied capitulation or mushroom clouds over American cities.

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  10. Matt Bernius says:

    It seems to me (and others) that every argument for war is based on the idea that North Korea is a suicidal regime. In other words that they would engage in activities that would intentionally result in their destruction (i.e. preemptively attacking the US).

    As Daniel Larison and other have pointed out, suicidal nation states do not exist. The reality is that the Kim regime knows that any preemptive attack on the US, South Korea or Japan would result in a nuclear strike on them.

    Given that the reason that they perused nuclear weapons in the first place was to protect their own government, intentionally killing themselves makes absolutely no sense. Nuclear weapons, at least for nation states, have always been preemptive weapons.

    Beyond that, the reality is that securing NK’s nuclear weapons requires an invasion. Given how well our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone, who honestly things we would get NK right?

    And that’s before we get to the entire issue of preemptively attacking and invading a country that’s located right next to China. Seriously, who in the HELL thinks that’s a good idea?

    The ship has sailed on preventing NK from getting nukes. The reality is that this is the world we have to live in. And honestly, does a Nuclear NK really destabilize the world more than a Nuclear Pakistan?

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  11. Matt says:

    @David: Where the hell are you getting that kool-aid from.

    My god it’s like the run up to the iraq war all over again MUSHROOM CLOUDS OVER OUR CITIES!!!!

    The ROK doesn’t need to go nuclear because their biggest ally is the USA which has MORE than enough nukes to level the whole fcking continent. Your claims are divorced from reality.

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  12. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    The fact that Larison is correct and that Osnos’s unnamed former Democratic Cabinet official is wrong is something that ought to be self-evident to even the most casual of observers of what’s at stake in the current showdown with Pyongyang.

    And yet, on this very thread we present Merika:

    Yea I don’t war but I also don’t want there to be a nuclear salvo. I think we should position all our available assets at their door. Then set an actual red line, we all know Kim will pass that line just because its there. That will allow us the justification and international backing to launch a crippling full scale “make shoick and awe look like fireworks” attack that will set DPRK back at least 70 years. Then naval and air blockade forever.

    The GOP, bringing eternal war to a doorstep near you soon!

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  13. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: And, apparently, David, too!

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @David:
    Oh, bullsh!t. Stalin didn’t use the bomb. Mao didn’t use the bomb. There’s no reason for us to assume Kim will. We will have given up none of our weaponry, we will be free to devastate North Korea should the need arise.

    The people being deterred by Kim’s nukes are us. That’s why we’re so worked up and why the Japanese and South Koreans are not. It’s absurd to talk about the Norks trying for reconciliation, South Korea could buy when with the change in their vending machines. That’s not in the cards, and again, if it were, don’t you think the South Koreans would be the ones screaming not the US?

    Just because we’ve got a baboon in the White House is no reason to lose our minds. A pre-emptive attack – as Doug pointed out – would be a crime against humanity, a war crime, and it could very easily become a tragedy on a scale we have not seen since 1945. Our prestige in the world is already falling like a rock, the last thing we need is Seoul burning.

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  15. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    “South Korea could buy when with the change in their vending machines.”

    Meh, maybe not. There aren’t really that many vending machines, and most of them sell little cups of coffee for 300 won (about 30 cents).

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  16. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @David:

    mushroom clouds over American cities.

    Where have I heard that before…oh yeah…another total clusterfuck brought upon us by the Republicanists.
    Your avatar appears to be a comic book hero. I suggest you go back to your comic books.

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  17. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @David:

    mushroom clouds over American cities.

    Where have I heard that before…oh yeah…another total clusterfvck brought upon us by the Republicanists.
    Your avatar appears to be a comic book hero. I suggest you go back to your comic books.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  18. gVOR08 says:

    We invaded Iraq ostensibly because they were in the early stages of developing nukes, even though it was knowable that they actually weren’t.

    Trump’s default defense is distraction. If Trump fires Mueller, and that only ramps up the investigations into Trump/Russia, Trump’s going to need a really big distraction. On the other hand, since Trump’s pissed off the entire intelligence community he may have trouble cooking the intelligence.

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  19. JKB says:

    So the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine is now out for Trump after Obama, Hillary and Powers used it for invading Libya?

    Of course, this is some nuts wet dream. In reality, China just sent NK a hard message about their siding with Trump. Inviting Trump to dine in the Forbidden City was a clear signal. Barring NK attacking US assets, the risk of war with NK is minimal. That China might take military action may be higher. Odds are, an early 2018 summit between Trump and NK with China/SK mediating.

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  20. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @JKB: I don’t recall “Responsibility to Protect” ever being held as a viable position in these here parts, so yes it’s out for Trump, too.

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  21. David says:

    @Matt: “The ROK doesn’t need to go nuclear because their biggest ally is the USA which has MORE than enough nukes to level the whole fcking continent. Your claims are divorced from reality.”

    Moronic. If you had read what I stated, it was that nuclear tipped-ICBMs serve the purpose of eroding deterrence, empowering North Korea to be more overtly militarily aggressive against our allies. If you want it spelled out for you, intervening on our allies behalf = getting nuked.

    Maybe if NK just directed some artillery fire from the border at Seoul, we could conduct a counter-battery strike without running the risk of nuclear escalation, but what if Kim Jong-un decides to fire some ballistic missiles from Pyongyang at targets in the South?

    Are we supposed to bomb Pyongyang, and not expect to eat several nukes in retaliation?

    This isn’t some fringe, unfounded theory about what Pyongyang’s intentions for these weapons are. The most recent high-level defector from the DPRK, a former diplomat to London named Thae Yong Ho had this to say at a Congressional testimony: “His strategy is, once he has the nuclear weapon and ICBM, he wants to make a deal with Americans by asking them to scale down military exercise in South Korea and pull American forces out of the Korean peninsula. If America does not accept his offer, he may continue to blackmail with another ICBM or something like that, to compel Washington to affect his – to accept his demands. He believes if American forces are out from the Korean peninsula, the next day, the foreign investment would follow the American forces, and the foreign investment out of South Korea, and then the elite and the companies of South Korea would follow. He thinks he can create a sort of massive flee in the South Korean system if he has this nuclear weapon. That is what the North Korean regime, like South Vietnam in 1974, we should remember, the army of South Vietnam was number four in military terms, but when America pulled its forces from South Vietnam, later, the foreign investment left. When foreign investments left South Vietnam, they left the ruling class. Within two years and South Vietnam, there was a huge trend of fleeing. Two years, all of a sudden, the huge military establishment of South Vietnam was forced to defend it system. The North Korean regime learned all this process. They want to follow the same with South Korea. That is why with ICBMs they want to change the current tide of struggle between North Korea and South Korea.”

    As a “White House official” summarized: “North Korea’s goal is not to simply acquire horrific weapons to maintain the status quo. They are seeking these weapons to change the status quo. Their primary goal is to reunify the Korean peninsula, and these weapons are part of the plan.”

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:
    Did I advocate for war? No, I didn’t. I just said that we need to recognize the strategic situation for what it’s evolving into, and take the necessary steps (allowing proliferation in the West Pacific) to deter North Korea and avoid having to sacrifice our cities.

    Take some steps to enhance your reading comprehension capabilities, friend.

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