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A Blockade of North Korea Would Be Folly

James Stavridis proposes [1] the genuinely awful idea of a naval blockade of North Korea as the “best option”:

The real challenge, of course, would be political, not operational. While North Korea will strenuously resist, it does not have the long-range targeting ability or enough combatant vessels to realistically challenge a blockade. But objections from both Russia and China, who certainly have the ability to confront a U.S.-led effort, would be a big hurdle. They might choose, for example, to disregard the blockade, escort North Korean and third-party ships through it, or even actively oppose it by challenging U.S. ships at sea.

The biggest downside of a naval blockade would be the possibility of an at-sea confrontation between U.S. and allied warships and those of either China or Russia. While there is a small chance of escalation as a result of such a confrontation, it seems unlikely to significantly escalate.

Imposing a blockade on another country is an act of war, so it would be a dangerously aggressive move on our part. The blockade wouldn’t be respected by at least two of North Korea’s immediate neighbors, and unless the U.S. is actually prepared to risk armed clashes with other major powers by seizing ships flying their flags the blockade is not going to be effective. If China and Russia don’t want to go to war with the U.S. over North Korea as Stavridis says, the U.S. also won’t be willing to risk war with one or both or them to maintain the blockade. It’s a risky bluff that will almost certainly be called early on. Absent U.N. authorization (which will never be forthcoming), a blockade would have no real legal justification. Without U.N. approval, we would find that our “coalition of the willing” would include very few other states.


The more practical problem with the idea of a blockade is that it would require a massive commitment from the Pacific fleet when the same fleet is arguably already overtaxed and spread too thin. The multiple collisions and accidents that have plagued the Seventh Fleet in just the last year suggest that it is already being asked to do more than it can. Imposing a naval blockade would add an enormous, costly burden that the U.S. doesn’t need. Stavridis claims that a blockade “presents an opportunity to throw the North Koreans off their stride and pinch their economy,” but it looks to me like a dangerous waste of limited U.S. resources in pursuit of an unrealistic goal.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "A Blockade of North Korea Would Be Folly"

#1 Comment By Kevin O’Keeffe On September 14, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

A naval blockade would be an act of war. I really don’t see a naval blockade as making full-scale warfare with North Korea less likely, hence I do not support it. Cuba was 90 miles off our coast, so that was frankly rather different (and still amounted to one heck of a risk). I fervently hope we don’t have to go to war with North Korea…but we still may have to do exactly that. Let’s not do anything needlessly reckless in the interim.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 14, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

If i had an ally that was developing nuclear weapons, covering my southern region, at odds with a country I think should butt out of my regional affairs, I would not seriously curtail their defense development.

And the idea that I would engage in a blockade, or abide or support such an action would require more than what the us has put on the table thus far.

i guess it cannot be said too often —

it’s time to treat N. Korea as a member of the international community and by all means stop the childish name calling.

#3 Comment By DP On September 14, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

A blockade would be an act of war. It would invite escalation from North Korea.

The last thing we need in this situation is piecemeal escalation. I’m not in favor of war with North Korea, but if that’s what the U.S. decides to do, we need to have all our assets ready and attack in force. However bad that is, war when we’re not ready will be much worse.

Don’t commit acts of war unless you’re ready to wage war. Materially and psychologically.

#4 Comment By Frank Blangeard On September 15, 2017 @ 12:24 am

The United States claims that the Navy ensures ‘freedom of the navigation’. If the Navy were used to blockade North Korea that would make the real intent of the Navy presence in that area obvious to everyone. Instead of ‘freedom of navigation’ it would be ‘full spectrum dominance’.

#5 Comment By GregR On September 15, 2017 @ 12:30 am

Not to mention the entire idea is just plain stupid. Sure shipping by ships is economically the best bet, but the land boarder is 800 miles long and has multiple railway bridges. It wouldn’t be all that difficult to just up the cargo being carried by rail instead.

Or was the plan to send the brown water navy up the river dividing China and N Korea and blockade the rail lines as well?

#6 Comment By jk On April 26, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

I see these international rules don’t apply to the US but to thee (everyone else the US doesn’t like!).

Whatever happened to a blatant act of aggression being considered a war crime per the Nuremburg Principles?

Why is this Stavridis considered some respected commentator when he just spouts neocon, “US’s duty to police the commons so all can benefit line.”

Maybe the US Navy needs to stop subsidizing the security of large European and Chinese shipping firms.