Lindsey Graham Says War With North Korea Would Be “Worth It.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham says war against North Korea would be worth it. Ignoring the fact that it would result in casualties unlike anything America has seen since the Vietnam War.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham thinks a war with North Korea would be “worth it”:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) this week said that a war with North Korea would be “worth it” in the long term.

Graham made the comments in an interview with CNN.

“All the damage that would come from a war would be worth it in terms of long-term stability and national security,” the senator told CNN.

Graham’s remark comes amid reports that the U.S. is prepared for the possibility of a military strike against North Korea.

Korean leaders are pushing diplomacy in the troubled region in the weeks following the Winter Olympics. South Korea’s president told President Trump in a phone call earlier this week that he is planning to send a special envoy to Pyongyang.

Graham has in the past repeated a warning that the U.S. is ”headed toward a war” with North Korea and praised Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric against the regime. He praised the Trump administration for drawing a hard line on North Korean aggression and also told CNN that he is “completely convinced” that Trump rejects a containment policy.

“They’ve drawn a red line here and it is to never let North Korea build a nuclear tipped missile to hit America,” he said.

The first thing that stands out about Graham’s remarks, though, is the fact that what he’s suggesting is something that would be a massive violation of international law. This is especially galling given the fact that Graham is himself an attorney who served as an officer in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General office for more than thirty years both on active duty and a member of the military reserves. As law professor Majorie Cohn explained in The Huffington Post, a preemptive war like the one Graham is suggesting would violate several international treaties:

A preemptive strike on North Korea would be illegal. It would violate the United Nations Charter, which forbids the use of military force unless conducted in self-defense or when approved by the Security Council.

“Self-defense” is a narrow exception to the Charter’s prohibition of the use of force. Countries may engage in individual or collective self-defense only in the face of an armed attack. There must exist “a necessity of self-defense, instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation,” under the well-established Caroline Case. In the case of North Korea, there has been no armed attack, and there is no imminent threat of one.

The charter specifies that non-forceful measures, including diplomacy, must be pursued in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

n Aug. 5, in response to North Korea’s recent test launches of two intercontinental ballistic missiles, the UN Security Council unanimously enacted a sanctions regime that would reduce North Korea’s annual export earnings by at least one-third, an estimated $1 billion. It would affect 90 percent of North Korea’s economy. Resolution 2371 targets North Korea’s primary exports, which include iron, iron ore, coal, lead, lead ore and seafood. It is also aimed at banks and joint ventures between North Korea and foreign corporations. The resolution imposes the toughest sanctions on North Korea to date.

The resolution does not, however, authorize the United States or any other country to use military force against North Korea. It ends by stating that the Security Council “decides to remain seized of the matter.” That means that the Council, and only the Council, has the authority to approve military action.

In addition to being illegal under international law, a war in North Korea would also pose significant problems under the United States Constitution unless the President managed to obtain a declaration of war or similar resolution authorizing military action from Congress beforehand. The Constitution is clear that only Congress has the authority to declare war, while leaving the manner in which any such war to be decided by the President and those working under him such as the Secretary of Defense and the military leadership. While the Preisdent’s role as Commander in Chief does appear to authorize him to act without pre-existing Congressional authorization, those situations are supposed to be limited. A preemptive war such as the one Graham is suggesting would clearly not fall into that category

The sheer arrogance and idiocy behind this comment from Graham cannot possibly be understated. As I’ve noted here several times in the past, a war on the Korean Peninsula would be unlike anything this nation or any of our allies have seen since young American men were being killed by the hundreds every day in Vietnam, or since the first Korean War itself which resulted in an estimated 2.7 million civilian casualties, just over 300,000 allied war dead (most of which were South Korean), more than 600,000 military deaths on the North Korean/Chinese side, plus roughly 800,000 wounded among the allied nations (again with the majority being South Korean) and a similar number wounded on the Communist side. (Sources here and here) This is a far cry from the wars that Americans have become used to since the post-Vietnam War such as the Persian Gulf War (341 Allied Killed In Action), the Afghan War (3,405 Allied KIA),  and even the Iraq War (4,809 Allied KIA). It’s also worth noting that a new war on the Korean Peninsula would play out in real time in the United States and around the world in a way that the first war, or indeed Vietnam or any of the other recent wars, have been thanks not only to cable news but also social media and the Internet. It would be difficult if not impossible for Americans to avoid seeing the consequences of such a war and how they would react to that is hard to predict at this point

In addition to being utterly illegal, a new war in Korea would most likely not last nearly as long as the first one did, that doesn’t mean that the toll it would inflict would not be horrible. As just one example of this, there’s the fact that the current population of Seoul and its immediate metropolitan area is roughly 9.86 million people, making it more populated than cities such as Tokyo and New York City. The nearby city of Inchon, the city of General Douglas MacArthur’s famous amphibious invasion that is credited with turning the tide of the Korean War when it helped to relieve a beleaguered South Korea, has a population of just under 2.9 million people. Both of these areas are well within the range of the tens of thousands of artillery pieces and rockets that North Korea has placed on its side of the Demilitarized Zone, as are a number of American military bases. Additionally, Japanese cities such as Toyko and Kyoto, and of course American bases in Japan, are well within the range of North Korean missiles that are most assuredly operational albeit likely to “only” carry conventional military casualties. In North Korea, the capital Pyongyang, which would be a prime target of American air power, is estimated to have a civilian population of just under 2.6 million people. Even in a short conflict, the potential for massive civilian casualties is something that can’t simply be swept aside.

For Graham to simply brush aside the potential losses that would likely unfold from a war on the Korean Peninsula is irresponsible, callous, and stupid. While it is true that the likely outcome of a war in Korea would be the downfall of the Kim regime, the price that would have to be paid to get there, particularly by civilians in the Republic of Korea or Japan, is hardly something that can be dismissed in the cavalier manner that Graham does is outrageous and stupid. It’s the same kind of attitude that led the United States to go to war in Iraq in 2003, which led to civilian casualties that are estimated to be well over 100,000 people and to continue to fight in Afghanistan despite the lack of a clear and coherent objective, leading to estimated civilian casualties numbering at least something more than 31,000 people. Graham’s apparent lack of concern for a similar bloodbath in Korea is a sign of just how insane his position actually is.

None of this is to say, of course, that military action is or ever should be entirely off the table. Obviously, there are circumstances under which such an option is something that might have to be considered regardless of the cost. For example, if the DPRK begins offensive action of some kind against South Korea, the United States, or Japan, it would be irresponsible and unwise for an American President to fail to respond. Even in that case, though, the goal ought to be to both limit civilian casualties and to try to limit the actual conflict as much as possible. That’s not what Graham is suggesting, though. He’s suggesting the same kind of preemptive war that former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton is advocating and, as I noted earlier this week, that idea is simply insane.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Congress, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. steve says:

    I think you underestimate the number of North Koreans killed. Remember the LeMay bombing campaign. Conservative estimates claim we killed 20% of North Koreans. It could easily have been 1/3 of them. The North Koreans will not have forgotten this so I wouldn’t expect them to give up w/o a real fight.


  2. Moosebreath says:

    Why does this line from Shrek come to mind?

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Lindsey Graham has an alpha male problem. He’s been content to play beta to John McCain’s alpha, but with McCain sick he’s moved his tongue to a new ass, a new alpha: Trump.

  4. Kathy says:

    Get all the chickenhawks weapons and let them fight the war by themselves.

  5. Raymond Smith says:

    No problem suit Sen. Lindsey Graham and drop him and all that agree with him in North Korea to show us all how easy it will be. I am sick and tired when the people that know there is no way they personally are going to be in danger, advocate for numerous others to go. Want to stop this crap make these people be the first wave to go in. I guarantee they will change their opinion real fast.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    And just to remind everyone, Sen Graham is a ‘good’ Republican. He’s supposed to NOT be a nutcase.

    I think that I replied here to some similar warmongering, bloodthirsty moral monster who advocated ‘not leaving a building standing in NKorea’ by pointing out (as steve does above) that if the USAF did in fact level every building and leave millions living in holes in the frozen NKorean ground, that it would be the 2d time the U.S. had done so. And boy! Didn’t they learn their lesson from that!

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    @Raymond Smith:..

    “Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out on themselves. Whoever survives the country wins. That would be much simpler and more than just this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting”
    ― Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

  8. PJ says:

    Have to do everything to make sure that they don’t lose the midterm election!

  9. de stijl says:

    Even “good” (i.e., not objectively insane) Rs like Graham have internalized this weird hegemonic concept that we, America, are the world’s ultimate bad-ass super-power and if you thwart us or sass us, “We will crush you! Grr!” Action movie geopolitics has infected some of us. Being dissed is now grounds for war, don’t you know?

    Lard that with the fact that North Koreans are not white and not Christian. Mass casualties become easier to stomach when they occur are outside of your moral circle of inclusiveness.

    If several hundred thousand or a million South Koreans also perish… well, they were going to just end up in the lake of fire anyway because they are non-believers. Accelerating the inevitable conclusion is no sin in God’s eyes.

    There is no likelihood that we can “disable” 10-15k artillery pieces and multiple launch systems “preemptively.” Plus, they have nukes (kinda, they can definitely produce a nuclear payload, and they can definitely launch a rocket, but it is unclear whether they can put a nuclear warhead on a launch system that can reliably deliver that payload on the intended target. But, they are getting better at that every month. In a few months to 2 years, North Korea will be a fully-fledged nuclear power.)

    Korean War 2.0 will produce massive civilian casualties unseen since WW2.

    What will prevent the moral monsters from launching a “preemptive strike” against North Korea instead of masturbatory fantasizing about it, is the fact that a Korean War 2.0 would crater the world’s economy. South Korea is a G20 world economic power (~7th in export and ~10th in import) and they are fully integrated into the global economies and financial / banking systems unlike Afghanistan or Iraq.

    Korean War 2.0 would make 2008 look like a small bubble market correction.

    A “preemptive strike” on North Korea will fail and will trigger enormous consequences. Graham, given his knowledge and position, knows this, and yet he still comes on CNN for an interview and pimps that premise. Why?

  10. Gustopher says:

    If you assume that the value of a Korean life is roughly zero, these calculations make perfect sense.

    It just requires not caring about other human lives, or deciding that they aren’t human, which Lindsey Graham may be quite adept at.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    We have not won a war since VJ-Day in 1945.

    We fought Korea to a draw, we lost Vietnam, we wasted money, lives and time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of our earlier wars, the Revolution was won by the French and we barely eked out a draw in 1812.

    If you actually want to look at wars we won, they were the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, both against vastly inferior forces. We barely showed up for WW1, and even when it comes to WW2, the part we won was against Japan. Against Germany we won only because of our brave allies, all of which suffered terribly while we managed to turn a profit by showing up late. Again.

    The myth of American military prowess survives in the face of all evidence. The endlessly-derided French have won a hell of a lot more wars than we have, and bigger wars to boot.

  12. al-ameda says:

    … and, Lindsay Graham is supposed to one of the few centrist adult Republicans around.

    Good to know that Graham is willing to up, as potential collateral damage, greater metro Seoul, with about 17M people and a lovely 30 miles from the N Korean border.

  13. Kathy says:

    @michael reynolds:

    We have not won a war since VJ-Day in 1945.

    I consider Gulf War I a victory, insofar as the objective was to liberate Kuwait (so to speak) and keep Saddam down.

    And don’t forget the great feats of arms at Grenada and Panama 🙂

  14. de stijl says:


    And don’t forget the great feats of arms at Grenada and Panama

    You’re going old school, back when military conflicts were “cute”

    Remember when we were supposed to be outraged to the point of invasion and overthrow of their government when Noreiga’s thugs were whacking political opponent’s with pieces of rebar? That was pitched as the causus belli when that same thing happened in ~1/3 of the member nations of the UN in the last 24 hours.

    The really bad thing about the “cute ” Grenada and Panama incursions was that it informed and inflamed the Bush 43 neo-cons. Wars were thought of and sold as easy, cheap, and “fun” (and a great way to get re-elected).

  15. PJ says:

    If there is a preemptively attack on North Korea, resulting in destabilizing the area and parts of Seoul destroyed (by North Korea), then the effects of Trump’s trade war will feel like a minor puff of air….

  16. Timothy Watson says:

    @michael reynolds: And the United States has never had the casualties in a war like every other country has. France lost more people in World War I than the United States has lost in every war, combined.

  17. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @al-ameda: @ Doug: A small correction from the 2018 World Population Report:

    Seoul, officially known as the Seoul Special City, is the largest metropolis and capital of South Korea. This megacity is the largest city proper in the developed world and the Seoul Capital Area is the second largest metropolitan in the world with more than 25.6 million people, which is half of all the residents in the country. The estimated population within the city limits for 2016 is 10.29 million.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    Graham’s remarks are arrant nonsense.

  19. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    That’s why I consider the Civil War, where we beat ourselves and set the South back by a semi-permanent 40 years, the Greatest American Victorious War.

    Sadly, the party whose Presidential election precipitated that war doesn’t feel that way these days…

    Pro Tip to Republicans and Republican-sympathizers: The sooner the GOP sheds its Southern identity, the longer it will thrive.

  20. Lit3Bolt says:

    I was talking with my brother the other night, and we all noticed something.

    North Korea has gone “quiet” since the Winter Olympics. When was the last time NK was “quiet?”

    Here’s what I think, but most of this is supposition and assumptions by an uniformed citizen, so YMMV. I think it’s gotten through to NK that Trump is really, truly, unpredictably “crazy” according to all Western sources. He doesn’t make sense from day to day. He makes policy decisions out of pique. There is a not insignificant risk that he could see a “good war” with NK as a way of salvaging his presidency. But also, from all indication from Western sources, Donald Trump is in deep legal doo-doo of his own making, a la Berlusconi or Bibi. So NK is going to let this insult slide, just like it will let further insults slide. Also, I think NK is for all intents and purposes a Russian and Chinese client state still and no act they take should be seen as anything resembling independence on their part. I also think Kim is being genuinely flattered by South Korea as a possible reconciliatory, which may give him an out from dictatorship (since few dictators die in their beds).

  21. de stijl says:


    So NK is going to let this insult slide, just like it will let further insults slide.

    All foreign governments have concluded that Trump is an outlier. He is presently welcomed because he is easily manipulable and relatively powerless even as President so they can score easy rhetorical points at home and maybe even some fleeting tangible benefits by currying favor, but they also know his tenure will be short and his downfall is all but assured. His lackeys will be jailed, and his party will be tarnished.

    They all know that his power will be for the most part be eliminated in November. They can read polls just like we can, and they employ very smart motherf*ckers to do just that and those reports have voracious readers. And they know Trump will be off the stage by 2020. They’re playing the angles now for any current benefit.

    Kim Jung Un nay not be the shiniest knife in the drawer, but assuredly the are very shiny knives in the North Korean government, and they know that if they can manufacture a nuclear weapon capable of being delivered accurately against American soil then their future existence is secured for now.

    We, as Americans, often really freak out when other nations act in their own self interest.

    NK will (and may already have) joined that club that says we have that special thunderbolt that we can use to destroy one or more of your population centers, so treat with us appropriately!

    North Korea was already essentially immune already because they have ~10-15k artillery pieces and rocket launchers pointed at Seoul, and a *very* big brother on their northern border that sometimes makes use of their gonzo NK little brother to sow discord and chaos in the region. (actually, the have two *very* big brothers on their northern border.)

    With deliverable nukes, they are “safe” in their eyes.

  22. al-Ameda says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    @al-ameda: @ Doug: A small correction from the 2018 World Population Report:

    Thanks, even more extensive than I thought.

  23. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    They all know that his power will be for the most part be eliminated in November. (…) And they know Trump will be off the stage by 2020. They’re playing the angles now for any current benefit.

    I wish I had their confidence in the American population.

  24. Ben Novick says:

    @steve: The flash point comes when our joint military exercises next month could be confronted by Kim’s generals, either by intention or through a misunderstanding. Then, whatever our positions, we will need to quickly negate Kim’s offensive capabilities. Sure would help if folks like Graham would realize his words are viewed as weapons and further the potential for a misunderstanding.