There Are Two Options When It Comes To North Korea, And Only One Of Them Makes Sense

On North Korea, there are two options, deterrence and war. And only one of those options makes sense.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

Nicolas Kristof is pessimistic about the North Korea situation:

President Trump is traveling in Asia this week, rallying countries to strengthen sanctions against North Korea. His past efforts at this have been quite successful, and during my recent visit to Pyongyang I saw signs that sanctions were biting.

But the goal appears doomed: Almost no expert believes that sanctions will force Kim Jong-un to give up his nuclear weapons or halt his missile program. That puts us on a collision course, for North Korea seems determined to develop a clear capacity to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons, while the White House hints that it would rather have a war than allow the North to become a nuclear threat.

“Our president has been really clear about this,” H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said on Fox News. “He is not going to permit this rogue regime, Kim Jong-un, to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon. And so he is willing to do anything necessary to prevent that from happening.”

The whispers in Washington are that “anything necessary” includes airstrikes on North Korea, such as a strike on a missile as it is being prepared for launch. When I asked North Korean officials what would happen in those circumstances, they answered unambiguously: war.


This may be a bluff, but, if not, war is coming, for almost every expert believes that North Korea will continue its testing.

Trump didn’t create the problem, and it’s real: We should fear North Korea’s gaining the capacity to destroy U.S. cities. Eerily, on my last visit, North Koreans repeatedly said that a nuclear war with the U.S. was not only survivable but winnable.

The U.S. must now choose among three awful options: 1) A “freeze for a freeze” deal, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to be pursuing; 2) Long-term deterrence, just as we have deterred North Korea for decades from using its chemical and biological weapons; 3) A conventional war that might escalate into a nuclear exchange.

Security experts overwhelmingly say the least terrible choice is the deal for a freeze on North Korean testing in exchange for reductions in sanctions or U.S.-South Korean military exercises, but at this point it’s not clear that either Washington or Pyongyang would agree to such an arrangement. Deterrence is next best, and war is the worst option. But that’s the option Trump seems headed toward.

North Korea may also inflame the situation with provocations at any time, such as firing a long-range missile into the sea near Guam, or conducting an atmospheric nuclear test that would send radioactive fallout drifting toward the United States. Trump may also shoot down a North Korean missile over international waters; that’s less provocative than a strike on North Korean territory, but I’d still expect a military response. And there’s a constant risk of miscalculations and incidents that spiral out of control.

Kristoff’s assessment is a grim one, but it’s one that appears to be becoming more common among foreign policy analysts here in the United States and other parts of the world. Leaving aside the issues raised by the fact that Donald Trump is President, the seeming intransigence of the Kim regime is apparent for anyone to see. Despite repeated warnings from the United States and China, both in public and in private, Kim Jong Un seems to be on the inevitable course of pursuing both more powerful thermonuclear weapons and a missile-based delivery system that is steadily proving to be able to deliver a payload further and more accurately with each test. We’re already at the point where the DPRK has missiles capable of reaching U.S. territories in the Pacific as well as Hawaii, Alaska, and a good portion of the western United States, not to mention closer potential targets in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and elsewhere in Asia. It won’t be much longer before they will also be able to reach the rest of the Continental United States and Europe. Neither the threat of an American attack nor threats by China to cut off the financial aid and markets that help keep the North Korean military awash in cash and the civilian population placated enough to avoid unrest. This follows the same pattern laid down by his Grandfather two decades ago when Kim’s grandfather began pursuing a nuclear weapons program and it’s unlikely to stop until either North Korea has the kind of nuclear arsenal that would make it feel secure, it agrees to abandon any further research, or the Kim regime is deposed. The first option is one that American Presidents and other world leaders have said is unacceptable, the second seems unlikely given the way that the regime has behaved for the past quarter century under three separate rules, and the third would either require a coup of some kind or a war.

As Kyle Mizokami notes at The National Interest, that final option would be a nightmare that would make Iraq and Afghanistan seem like a picnic by comparison:

The onset of war will trigger several races against time. The first and most important from the U.S. perspective is the neutralization of the Kim regime, its long-range missiles and chemical weapons. Next, although conventional victory is assured, South Korea and the United States must rapidly defeat the KPA in order to disrupt any effort to convert it into an insurgent force like Iraq’s Feyadeen Saddam. Third, both countries must quickly reach the cities to prevent a humanitarian disaster. As the capital rapidly falls into enemy hands, North Korea’s economy and food distribution system, already weak, will rapidly fold, leaving millions without food.

A ground war with North Korea would be an extremely complex operation with considerable military and civilian casualties on both sides. In fact, the ground war would be a mere slice of a multidomain conflict likely to involve missile attacks against Guam, Japan and South Korea, convoying, minesweeping, and other sea-based operations involving U.S., South Korean and Japanese naval forces, and even the readying of U.S. strategic forces. Unlike recent operations U.S. forces would face considerable risk in large numbers, operating against a numerically superior foe. Although American technological advantages, particularly in the areas of communications, mobility, and firepower would allow U.S. and South Korean forces to ultimately prevail, there would be little room for error.

While the United States and its South Korean ally, with probable support of some kind from nations such as Japan, Australia, and Great Britain, would most likely eventually succeed in a campaign against the DPRK, the price would be a far heavier one than anything the United States has seen since the Vietnam War or the original Korean War. For one thing, any invasion of the north would likely result in retaliation from North Korean forces on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone, which have the power unleash the power of tens of thousands of rockets and artillery pieces against not only any invading forces but also against the civilian population in Seoul and other major cities in South Korea and against American bases in both South Korea and in Japan. Additionally, the kind of amphibious invasion from the east and the west that Mizokami envisions would require coordination not dissimilar from the landing at Inchon at the start of the Korean War and the invasion of Normandy during World War Two, and that invasion would take place against a well-trained North Korean military that would have numerical superiority even notwithstanding what would likely be a sustained pre-invasion aerial campaign. It would, in other words, be a war unlike anything we’ve seen in fifty years:

A 2012 study by Roger Cavazos of the Nautilus Institute estimated there could be more than 2,800 fatalities in the initial volley. In total, Cavazos wrote, 64,000 people could be killed in the first day of any conflict. Another estimate recently given to U.S. lawmakers suggested that as many as 300,000 could die in the early days of a conflict, even if nuclear weapons are not used.

Many analysts have suggested it would be difficult and time-consuming to destroy these weapons if war broke out. ”When it comes to the artillery, there’s nothing we can do against the artillery directly to prevent bombardment of Seoul,” said Van Jackson, an expert on North Korean security issues at Victoria University in New Zealand.

All of this means, of course, that war is the last resort, and everyone seems to agree with that idea. Rationally, then, both sides should be willing to avoid war at any price, but as Dan Abrams notes, that’s what people thought about Saddam Hussein too: published a well-researched and thoughtful assessment of Kim Jong Un earlier this year with the headline: Kim Jong Un Is a Survivor, Not a Madman: North Korea’s behavior might seem irrational to outsiders, but the Kim regime is just taking logical actions to survive.

Looking back at how Hussein was characterized well before his defeat, arrest and death, I quickly found a 1991 Los Angeles Times article by a professor of psychology and long-time CIA analyst who presented a profile of Hussein to the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, Dr. Jerrold Post. It offers haunting similarities to the North Korean dictator.

“The violence and aggression that have marked Saddam Hussein’s career have led him to be characterized — mostly in the West — as a madman,” Post said in the article.

The next sentence is even more striking for showing similarities between the two dictators.

“In fact, there is no evidence that Saddam is suffering from a psychotic disorder,” Post said. “He is a shrewd and ruthless political calculator, by no means irrational, but dangerous to the extreme.”

“There is no evidence Saddam is constrained by conscience,” he continued. “He uses whatever force is necessary, and will, if he deems it expedient, go to extremes of violence, including the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Both killed scores of people, including friends and family members to keep a firm grip on power. Not because they were “crazy” per se, but in response to even a hint, no matter how far-fetched, of any potential threat to their control and power. Each invoked a variety of invented political and legal justifications to try to explain his barbarity.

And their lenses are similarly parochial and myopic: “He is surrounded by sycophants who are cowed by his reputation for brutality and afraid to criticize him,” Post said about Hussein in 1991.

Kim Jong Un is regularly characterized in a similar fashion.

In 2011, Scientific American, citing psychological studies, compared Saddam, Hitler and Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il and concluded that:

“Kim Jong-il had more in common with Saddam Hussein (their profiles had a correlation of .67) than with Hitler (their profiles had a correlation of .20). Indeed, both Jong-il and Hussein had sadistic personality disorder as their highest rated item, and their scores were nearly identical – more than three standard deviations above the population average.”

Sure, there are relevant distinctions between Kim Jong Un and Saddam Hussein in terms of everything from their upbringing to the warped forces driving them, but it’s the final paragraph of that 1991 article that frightens me most as it foreshadowed the future: “Intoxicated by the elixir of power and the acclaim of the Arab masses, Saddam will not yield. He is willing to shed the last drop of the Iraqi people’s blood in pursuit of his revolutionary destiny.”

Looking back more than a decade later, Post turned out to be spot on.

All of this goes a long way toward saying that the odds that diplomatic efforts to derail the North Korean nuclear program will be successful are somewhere between slim and none. At that same time, war would clearly be equally unacceptable unless we are willing to pay a price in lives and destruction unlike anything the world has seen in more than a half century. As Dave Majumdar notes in The National Interestthat leaves one only real acceptable option:

Most foreign policy analysts agree that a denuclearized Korean peninsula is not a realistic or achievable goal. A more realistic goal is a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile testing freeze, but that only works up to a point. If North Korea is close to perfecting an ICBM coupled with a miniaturized nuclear warhead, there is no incentive for Pyongyang to stop.

In the view of the Kim regime, only a nuclear arsenal—and one that can directly hit the U.S. mainland—is the only way Pyongyang can ensure the survival of its government. North Korea has learned the from the mistakes of Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya that was toppled with the assistance of American airpower in 2011, despite have received security guarantees in exchange for giving up its weapons of mass destruction.

“[Kim Jong-un] He’s not crazy. And there is some rationale backing his actions which are survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country, and he has watched I think what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability,” Director of National Intelligence Sen. Dan Coats said at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

“The lessons that we learned out of Libya giving up its nukes and Ukraine giving up its nukes is unfortunately if you had nukes, never give them up.”

Thus, short of military action—in this case a likely nuclear war—there is no denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. Essentially, the choice is binary—deterrence or war.

Given the choice, deterrence would obviously be the more rational strategy for the West, but that would require a major shift in current policy for the United States and its allies. In the end, though, it may be the only sane option left on the table.


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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. Tony W says:

    Obama managed it pretty well for his 8 years.

    Just a few months into “master negotiator” Trump’s administration and the whole thing is falling apart.

    Guess we know who the better executive is.

  2. Lit3Bolt says:

    If the US was smart, we’d carpet the North Korean peninsula with South Korean soap operas and subtitled Marvel comic movies.

    What’s funny is Kristof wrote this article before the Saudi crown prince started making waves. With such a weak and feckless Sec of State, the Trump Administration mired in indictments and scandal, the odds of little brushfire wars popping up are much more likely since everyone senses the United States is not really paying attention.

    I think the North Korea chatter is simply a smokescreen by the Trump administration to get Putin to “broker peace.”

  3. Scott says:

    What I’m worried is that we are on “The Road to Abilene”. Slowly, surely, we are going to convince ourselves that we have to do something. All based on false assumptions and paradigms. And that something we be wrong and deadly.

  4. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    One big problem is that Kim Jong-Un has a very solid argument why he should get and keep nuclear weapons: it helps keep his regime safe.

    Libya’s Kaddafi had a far more advanced nuclear program than anyone suspected. And, with the help of the British, we negotiated a deal where he surrendered the program in exchange for a pledge that we wouldn’t take him out. He trusted the Bush administration and turned it over.

    And then Obama and Hillary, seeing an opportunity to look tough, threw the US into the Libyan civil war on behalf of the rebels, and Kaddafi was captured and killed.

    We didn’t have to go after him. We could have just stood back and kept our word, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, they trashed that agreement. And now Libya’s an Islamist hellhole.

    So, why should Kim Jong-Un trust the US? Why the hell shouldn’t he worry about trusting us, then ending up just like Kaddafi, sodomized and tortured until he got a bullet in the head?

    But at least Hillary and Obama got to look tough, so there’s that.

  5. Mikey says:

    @Bob The Arqubusier: You were right on until the end when you forgot it was Bush (43) whose pooch screwing resulted in the Norks getting nukes to begin with.

    Still, not bad. Keep it up.

  6. Mister Bluster says:

    Seoul (CNN)President Donald Trump attempted to make an unannounced visit to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea, but had to turn back because of bad weather. He was aboard Marine One en route when they had to return, according to reporters traveling with him.

    Trump forced to abandon trip to DMZ due to weather
    SEOUL — President Donald Trump was forced to abandon a planned trip to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea on Wednesday due to inclement weather.
    Trump and his team and a small group of reporters began the trek to the DMZ in a group of helicopters, but turned back about 25 minutes into the journey because of low visibility.

    …agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!

  7. Moosebreath says:

    @Bob The Arqubusier:

    Good point (and one I have made before). Of course, the same applies to Iraq, who eliminated its program after Gulf War I, and then was invaded under Bush the Younger.

  8. Jen says:

    @Lit3Bolt: I am honestly more freaked out by what is happening in Saudi Arabia right now. Between the Ritz Carlton incarcerations and the statements from Iran and Lebanon, that honestly looks like a pot that is about to boil over. I am concerned. And the worst of it is that we’ve publicly and clearly taken sides–Kushner was in Saudi Arabia a week or so ago hanging out with the Crown Prince, and our Twitter-er in Chief has already tweeted his support. Normally when things are this unsettled, it’s policy to be a tad more circumspect in case things go south.

  9. HarvardLaw92 says:

    OT, but CNN just prospectively called the VA gubernatorial race for Northam. Murphy, of course, has already easily won in NJ. NYC is still voting.

    Looks like it might be a good night for Democrats

  10. gVOR08 says:

    Heard Trump’s speech to the South Korean parliament. Nice little gloss on the history of Korea. Somehow I suspect the Koreans already knew their own history. Trumpian I bet you didn’t know Lincoln was a Republican sort of thing. Did you know the US and Korean troops together retook Seoul? I failed to hear anything substantive. Anybody else?

    He started fifteen minutes late with an excuse they were still working on the speech. Sounds to me like cooler heads got something taken out at the last minute.

  11. Franklin says:

    @Jen: Donnie was just happy that one of his nemeses was imprisoned (some Saudi version of himself, can’t remember the name).

  12. Slugger says:

    The United States is the most influential power on Earth. How can this power be maintained? We can’t do it through science and scholarship because all of these university professors are liberals. We can’t do it through culture because the artists, writers, and thinkers are Hollywood tinged liberals. We are maintaining a military on every continent, but that will be neutralized by nuclear weapons. A puny economy like North Korea can produce nukes these days. Every other country above the size of Lichtenstein will have nukes unless we make the Norks back down. That is the box that America’s strategic leaders are in.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Slugger: The TPP was designed to maintain US influence in Asia. Oh well.

  14. JohnMcC says:

    @Slugger: Well, long ago in a galaxy far away there were these ‘alliances’ that wrapped whole regions on this particular planet into ‘common markets’ and ‘shared defense’ commitments. They even had little additions that guaranteed some kinds of human rights.

    There were some other things going on that seemed to help. And it seemed to mostly work pretty good, ya know?

    But you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

  15. mannning says:

    I am not sure that the SK government is solidly behind the US in challenging the NK. It is they that will suffer massive casualties in the first moments of any real conflict, mainly in Seoul. The only reason I believe would convince them to back us is that some part of the US military campaign has a killer capability for the NK artillery and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul and trigger ready. Besides EMP, which would disable electronics but not pre-aimed, massed, manually-fired artillery, what could the killer weapon be that we would use? I have no clue. I cannot believe that Trump would initiate a war knowing that his ally would instantly suffer such large casualties. What am I missing?

  16. mannning says:

    The only answer I can come up with to save Seoul and its people is to employ tactical nukes from above the border to up about 30 miles, in a preemptive strike. Even this is not certain to destroy the guns and rockets in their caves and covered revetments. So a second wave of tactical nukes would have to be launched, assuming that the NK artillery that survived would be run out to shoot inside of a few minutes. Still not certain of catching all of the guns.

  17. Mister Bluster says:

    @mannning:..I cannot believe that Trump would initiate a war knowing that his ally would instantly suffer such large casualties. What am I missing?

    What’s to stop him? He is a towering moral vacuum and dumber than a wooden fencepost.

  18. Moosebreath says:


    ” I have no clue. I cannot believe that Trump would initiate a war knowing that his ally would instantly suffer such large casualties. What am I missing?”

    That Trump is a narcissist to the point that South Korea’s casualties do not enter into his calculations.

  19. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:


    I cannot believe that Trump would initiate a war knowing that his ally would instantly suffer such large casualties. What am I missing?

    That Trump isn’t anywhere near as rational and thoughtful as you are. He operates on a purely visceral level.

  20. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @mannning: Additionally, Trump has no allies. He only has clients. Any good businessman will tell you that you owe little in the way of loyalty to clients–except in a fiduciary way if you are a lawyer.

  21. mannning says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The peanut gallery is totally convinced that Trump is an idiot, and just might initiate an undeclared war with the NK. I laugh at the idea that Trump is an idiot; I cry for everyone if I am wrong and he does try to do something like that.

    There is considerable difference between ignorance and stupidity; Trump is learning statecraft on the fly, and he has done some very good things to ratchet us back from the previous administration’s oppression. Diplomacy is not something you pick up very easily, especially on the fly, but I hope his latest travels have good results for us all. Warcraft today is even harder to master than diplomacy, in my opinion; there are so many moving parts, the stakes are disastrously high, and the win/lose calculations, including a tin pot dictator with a hostage Seoul, a large army, nukes, and missiles, are rather dubious at best, especially for Trump who has little background in military matters. But he does have a knack for bluffing, and some smart generals around him.