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No, Donald Trump Isn’t Going to Nuke North Korea

Three days after offering to talk to North Korea without preconditions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed [1] course, insisting—as President Donald Trump has—that the North must first stop its nuclear threats. As he backs away from the table, it’s worth asking: are we now closer to war?

Trump speaks [2] of “fire and fury.” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster says [3] the North’s nuclear program is “the most destabilizing development in the post-World War II period.” John Brennan, the former CIA director, estimates the odds of war at 25 percent [4]. Senator Lindsey Graham says there’s a 30 percent [5] chance the U.S. will launch a nuclear first strike. The Council on Foreign Relations sees it as closer to 50 percent [6].

The idea that war with North Korea is a near-term inevitability has become the new normal for many. But should we take Trump, et al, at face value and conclude that war is coming? Or might we also reason that the threats are merely a blowhard throwing some Grade-A red meat to his base?

If one believes North Korea holds nuclear weapons simply as a deterrent [7], a defense against attack by the United States a la Iraq and Libya after they denuclearized, then there is no need for America to go to war because the North Koreans won’t use theirs unless we use ours first. It’s a classic example of what kept the Cold War from going full hot.

The history of North Korea, embodied in its national philosophy of juche [8], is about survival, keeping the regime alive. The Kim family has been remarkably good at doing just that since 1948. Unlike Cuba, they economically survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. They endured total war, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. They haven’t sought reunification by force with the South since 1950, even as stronger and weaker American presidents came and went.

There is no rational reason for North Korea to destroy itself through a pointless first use of nuclear weapons against the overwhelming power of the United States. If you were the general briefing Kim Jong-un on the risks versus gains of the offensive use of nukes, try and figure out how you’d pitch national suicide as a possible strategy. The weapons are defensive. North Korea can’t be the one that starts the war.

Over in Washington, the only way to conclude that Trump’s threats could be carried out is if you believe the North, in spite of everything you just read, would use its weapons offensively, i.e. to attack South Korea as part of an attempt at reunification. Only then would an American pre-emptive strike be justified as self-defense. And remember, as a consequence of that self-defense, potentially millions of Koreans, alongside hundreds of thousands of Japanese, as well as people in Guam and maybe even Hawaii, would die.

And the strike by America would need to come soon, before they get us first. Sound familiar? This was the rationale used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq—Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, we were told, and it would be fatal to wait for him to use them against us. “Who wants the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?” then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice warned [9] in 2002. “How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat?”

The trick was that it was almost certain the Bush administration knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction in 2002. And they definitely knew that during Desert Storm in 1991 Saddam did not use his chemical or biological weapons.

It is the latter point that’s worth exploring. Saddam didn’t use his WMD because the other side would have then had no choice but to retaliate in kind. In the case of Saddam, as with North Korea, the United States’ unquestionably greater firepower would have meant total destruction. The only way to win—to survive—was to not play the game.

That’s why the risk of an American first nuclear attack on North Korea is beyond disproportionate to any possible gain. In a “miracle strike” every U.S. weapon would need to land perfectly on top of every North Korean target, including deep under the living rock of the mountains that protect the most important nuclear sites. This best case scenario would still leave North Korea under a radioactive cloud, which, given predictable weather patterns, would spread to Seoul and Tokyo. This would trigger a humanitarian crisis unheard of in modern times. The Korean War offers a clear indication of how China would have to respond to an attack near its border, never mind a zombie apocalypse in the form of millions of starving North Koreans.

And even that best case scenario is fully theoretical, because, as any military planner will tell you, a “perfect” strike is impossible. Any American first-use scenario would include at least a handful of lucky shots by the North (imagine one of them landing in Los Angeles), plus the activation of sleeper cell special forces almost certainly already in place in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.

On top of the actual destruction, it’s unclear whether the global economic system would survive nuclear war, whether South Korea and Japan could remain American allies if Seoul and Tokyo were aglow, whether China would blithely continue to hold their American government debt and not purposefully trigger a crisis on Wall Street, or whether any president—especially one already hated by about half the country—could explain that a radioactive Los Angeles was the price of safety. And those thousands of American troops immolated on their bases in Korea and Japan? Sorry about that, hope that won’t negatively influence any votes in 2020.

If you were briefing the president, could you find the gain in that Strangelovian scenario to balance the risk? We’d certainly get more than our hair mussed up. You’d probably instead say what Rear Admiral Michael Dumont, the vice-director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, actually did say [10]“There are no good military options for North Korea. Invading North Korea could result in a catastrophic loss of lives for U.S. troops and U.S. civilians in South Korea. It could kill millions of South Koreans and put troops and civilians in Guam and Japan at risk.”

Boom.

To believe the U.S. is headed towards war requires also believing that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Say what you want about madmen [11], but leaders and politicians just don’t think that way.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well [12]: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War [13]: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "No, Donald Trump Isn’t Going to Nuke North Korea"

#1 Comment By Brian J. On December 20, 2017 @ 11:42 pm

One slight problem- there’s a madman backed by sycophants desperate to start a war to salvage his unpopular regime and force his people to respect his authority.

And Kim Jong Un’s no picnic either.

#2 Comment By Youknowho On December 21, 2017 @ 12:02 am

From your mouth to God’s ear.

#3 Comment By William Dalton On December 21, 2017 @ 12:21 am

I don’t believe the worry is that Trump will unleash a nuclear first strike upon North Korea. The fear is that he will launch a monumental strike with non-nuclear weapons in order to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons and that capability. But, just as in every other nation the U.S. has attacked prior to the anti-ISIS operation in Syria, this has meant regime change in the country attacked. It would certainly require that in North Korea. But once Kim’s regime faces destruction, his nuclear stockpile, whatever its capability will be unleashed. Even his conventional forces could not be stopped before they had wreaked great destruction upon South Korea, especially Seoul.

As long as Trump says any outcome that does not end with North Korea denuclearized is unacceptable, the prospect of war remains high – because that is not going to happen unless the USA goes to war against North Korea.

#4 Comment By Frank On December 21, 2017 @ 7:36 am

“To believe the U.S. is headed towards war requires also believing that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Say what you want about madmen, but leaders and politicians just don’t think that way.”

Has this author never heard of Mr. Trump?

#5 Comment By Mike Alexander On December 21, 2017 @ 8:39 am

Peter writes: Saddam didn’t use his WMD because the other side would have then had no choice but to retaliate in kind. In the case of Saddam, as with North Korea, the United States’ unquestionably greater firepower would have meant total destruction. The only way to win—to survive—was to not play the game.

But Saddam *didn’t* survive. As viewed by our enemies what reason is there to believe that post-911 America is a rational actor?

#6 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On December 21, 2017 @ 9:00 am

An excellent article I totally agree with. Only one observation: I still don’t see how less than a dozen of North Korean nuclear contraptions can have even a theoretical chance of breaching the American air defence. Too few and not even close to the technological level of things like SS-18.

#7 Comment By Michael Kenny On December 21, 2017 @ 9:43 am

Agreed. Trump bawls and blusters but then does nothing. Not just about North Korea.

#8 Comment By john On December 21, 2017 @ 11:41 am

Well we heard from the rational point of view, i wonder what Donald thinks? Not to mention Lindsay Graham, Mike (apocalypse is a good thing) Pence etc etc.

#9 Comment By One Guy On December 21, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

First we need to agree that nothing Trump says has any meaning whatsoever. He sometimes contradicts himself in the same speech.

I hope the author isn’t just whistling past the graveyard.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 21, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

” . . . North Korean nuclear contraptions can have even a theoretical chance of breaching the American air defence.”

I am unclear how many contraptions can reach the US. But I wouldn’t rely on systems touted as US air defense. The US has never conducted and unpredictable test and even when planned to a spec, the results have been much less than adequate.

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On December 21, 2017 @ 3:21 pm

What’s unquestioningly real is that all this hype is extremely profitable for war industries, which are now an outsized proportion of the outsourced and financialized economy. Kind of like the Cold War – enormous income streams for war preparations, without the intention that actual earth ending destruction ensues.

#12 Comment By Skeptic Dave On December 21, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

This is a really good piece and the best I have read to date……. It is exactly how I see it…. except…..
Today we hear that a land ‘exercise’ by the US on SK soil has not been ruled out. The first I even heard of it!
The trouble is the ball game changes if this actually happens.
If I were Kim…its likely I would think invasion is inevitable….. and I would strike first.
The fact is if a land exe3cise happens…. its not Kim that starts a war….its us.

#13 Comment By Youknowho On December 22, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

“To believe the U.S. is headed towards war requires also believing that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Say what you want about madmen, but leaders and politicians just don’t think that way.”

Yeah, leaders and politicians.

But we are talking about Donald Trump.