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A War of Choice With North Korea is an Immensely Dumb Idea

If there is any common thread between the great U.S. foreign policy mistakes of the last several decades—the Vietnam War, the forever war in Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, and the Libya intervention—it is this: they were all wars of choice. We can intelligently debate the merits of them all, we can examine the ways they were conducted once combat operations began, but they were all started on the passionately articulated positions that they were vital to our national interests.

Hindsight tells us otherwise. We now know the hefty sacrifices in lives, treasure, and national confidence from those wars were historic mistakes that cry out to never be repeated. And yet the siren song of unnecessary conflict has made a carefully crafted comeback, at least if you listen to the rhetoric coming out of the White House these days. And this time, not only could trillions of dollars be lost on another war, but something even more financially costly could come to pass: the greatest nation building project our country will ever undertake [1]. To make matters worse, millions of people, including millions of Americans here in the homeland, could lose their lives.

I can only be talking about a war of choice with North Korea. As someone who has studied the issues of war and peace with the hermit kingdom for almost a decade, I speak with some experience. I have waged countless fictional wargames across the Korean Peninsula [2] and for years have worked and spoken with many past and present Pentagon and intelligence officials on this critical issue. Speaking for myself, the evidence overwhelmingly points to a disaster of unimagined scale and scope if the Trump administration decides to attack the portly pariah of Pyongyang. To be blunt, we run the risk of opening a Pandora’s box armed with a nuclear fuse.

Looking into the Abyss


While there are countless potential pathways to war—some sort of accidental missile mishap, North Korea deciding to strike preemptively, Seoul retaliating for an act of violence, or terrorism by Pyongyang—the most likely way a war could begin remains a unilateral U.S. strike to degrade or destroy North Korea’s nuclear and/or missile facilities.

There is ample evidence to suggest that such a strike is being seriously contemplated at the highest levels of the U.S. government. From comments by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster that North Korea is not deterrable [3] to what seems like almost daily hawkish remarks [4] by UN Security Council Ambassador Nikki Haley [5] and Director of the CIA Mike Pompeo [6] to White House ally John Bolton’s calls [7] in conservative media to consider the “military option, [8]” there beats an ever-present drum that sounds far too similar to what preceded past wars of choice [9].

A basic outline of how such a strike would be conducted is not hard to surmise. U.S. forces—under pressure from reports that say they have only a three-month window to attack [10] or face a North Korea able to strike the West Coast—begins assembling its forces. Ammunition, already being stockpiled on the island military outpost of Guam [11], begins growing exponentially. U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups, nuclear attack submarines, and conventionally armed ballistic missile nuclear submarines move into position off the Korean coast. B-1 Bombers as well as B-2, F-22, and F-35 stealth aircraft move into position across the region. The goal seems simple: attack North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal, research facilities, known locations of key scientists and personal—anything that helps Pyongyang develop, deploy, or advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

How Would North Korea Respond?


So-called experts who clamor for the military option seem to make their arguments in isolation, as if North Korea would simply take punishing U.S. air and naval strikes on the chin and accept defeat. Oh, no. Pyongyang, due to considerations of regime survival—its stated reason for having a nuclear weapons program in the first place [12]—would respond. Assuming Kim Jong-un does not launch his own preemptive attack after seeing the buildup of U.S. forces, Pyongyang would have many vectors on which to pursue a counterattack [13].

Lowest on the escalation ladder would be a massive artillery and missile strike on the 25 million metro residents of Seoul, one of the most widely cited reasons the Clinton administration in 1994 decided not to attack Kim Il-sung’s nascent nuclear program. While estimates vary on how deadly such a strike would be—we know Kim’s artillery is not in the best mechanical shape and its crews may lack top-tier training [14]—just several hits on downtown Seoul, destroying one more skyscrapers, would cause a mass panic on the scale of 9/11. Or consider five or six large buildings crashing to the ground—not a wild assumption considering North Korea has 11,000 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul as well as advanced missile batteries that fire their ordnance much further. That would provoke an international crisis like none we have seen since 2001. And with social media covering events in real time, the calls for retaliation on a global scale would be impossible to resist.

From here, things could get far worse. Pentagon officials have told me on several occasions that in a military conflict with North Korea our forces would not be able to locate all of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. So even after the most massive of strikes on North Korea, Kim would still be left with at least a small nuclear force. That would leave Seoul and Tokyo, with over 60 million people in their metro areas as well as countless U.S. bases in the region, open for potential annihilation.

Then there is the ultimate nightmare: a North Korean nuclear missile attack on the U.S. homeland. While the possibility seems remote at the moment thanks to North Korea still having challenges with the atmospheric reentry technology of its nuclear warheads, some reports offer evidence [15] that Kim could nonetheless hit the American homeland today in a crude fashion [16]. If so, and if U.S. missile defenses are unable to stop such an attack [17], we could see an American city become atomic ash [18], with millions of lives lost.

The Day After

To be clear, despite the above omens of what seems like near apocalyptic destruction, America and its allies would win any war against North Korea. What comes after, though, would be the real challenge: a reconstruction and nation building project like perhaps none in all human history.

For starters, North Korea’s 25 million people, or whatever is left of them if nuclear war befalls them, would now need to be cared for medically, economically, and psychologically after decades of brainwashing. Their nation would need to be rebuilt from scratch—that means ports, airports, roads, bridges, tunnels, water-treatment facilities, hospitals, telecommunications networks, and on and on.

Then there is the question of who would rule North Korea when the fighting was over, not to mention the thorny issue of eventual reunification with the south.

Another key matter will be what to do with the armed forces. We know from our experience in Iraq that entirely disbanding a beaten nation’s military is a big mistake, so what to do with all those idle hands?

What about Pyongyang’s elite? Would they be tried for war crimes or would a broad-based amnesty be needed [19] to keep the nation running while only those who committed the most heinous human rights violations would be sent to the Hague?

We also can’t forget about those weapons of mass destruction. Can allied forces find them all before they get sold or used in an insurgency?

And perhaps the most frightening question of all: what to do with the Kim family—yes, we seem to forget, but Kim Jong-un has a wife and children—were they to survive such a war?

An Alternative Path Forward

A war of our choosing against North Korea wouldn’t be anything like the conflicts of the recent past. All those wars had something in common: an enemy that had very little ability to fight back in a way could cause millions of casualties. Today, we face a North Korea that not only can kill millions but potentially target our own nation with nuclear weapons.

So if war is not the answer, what is? I would offer five very basic ideas that could form the basis of an alternative strategy and provide a way out of the current crisis.

Consistency in Messaging is Key. As someone who has worked in foreign policy communications, I would argue that what we say, how we say it, and how consistently we say it matters. It seems certain North Korea is poring over every White House statement, looking for signs of a potential attack or at least what America’s position is—which is very hard to figure out.

Case in point: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s bold offer to talk with the North Koreans on December 12 while speaking at a forum here in Washington, D.C. at the Atlantic Council. Tillerson said that America [20] was “ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk. And we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.” But, just as this White House has done now on several occasions, they seemed later to walk back the statement in a confusingly brief manner [21] that did not directly challenge Tillerson’s remarks but was worded with the clear intent of downplaying them. If I was Kim Jong-un, I was no doubt confused once again where North Korea policy is going—and who is calling the shots.

State our Goals Clearly. Once there is agreement that no one will go off the reservation with their talking points, a clearly defined message can then be articulated. Such a message should be simple: as Secretary of State Tillerson has pointed out [22], Washington should state that it does not seek regime change. This should be the foundation of any messaging to North Korea as it addresses their greatest fear. From there, the White House should make clear that they will not launch any attack on North Korea unless our allies, military bases, or homeland were attacked first, addressing Pyongyang’s other great concern and hopefully laying the foundation for an easing of tensions.

Offer Open-Ended Talks. The Trump team shouldn’t be afraid to ease tensions with North Korea. They should give Tillerson’s proposal a chance and offer to sit down with Kim’s representatives at any time, at any place, to discuss any issue, without preconditions. This puts the Trump administration in the diplomatic driver seat and once again allays any concerns about a near-term strike or move towards regime change against Kim.

Listen to Our Allies—and China. Throughout this process, Washington needs to take its allies’ and adversaries’ concerns seriously. To be fair, in a war with North Korea, Japan, South Korea, and even China would feel the brunt of the conflict and its aftermath far more than anyone else. We need to lead from the front on this critical issue, doing all we can to create the conditions for talks and an eventual settlement the region can live with. At the same time, our allies and even regional competitor’s concerns must be taken seriously. Not doing so, or ignoring their ideas if and when talks do occur, will only invite problems in the future.

If All Else Fails, Contain and Deter. The good news is that no matter what happens, the U.S. and its allies have a roadmap to deal with North Korea: it’s called containment followed by deterrence.

Washington knows what to do when a nation that has very different and very threatening national security goals builds nuclear weapons. Remember that Joseph Stalin, a butcher who killed millions of his own people, pursued and built nuclear weapons, while Mao Zedong—who, according to one estimate, is responsible for the deaths of as many as 45 million people in just one four-year span—also started a nuclear program. Clearly both were bigger existential threats to U.S. goals than today’s North Korea—a nation with an economy the size of Vermont that can’t even adequately feed its own people—yet neither was attacked by the U.S.

Sometimes, we must choose between bad options, and a war with North Korea—it must be made crystal clear—is a choice we would regret for generations. Thankfully, it is not a choice we must make.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. Previously, he served as editor of The Diplomat, a fellow at CSIS, and on the 2016 Ted Cruz foreign policy team.

54 Comments (Open | Close)

54 Comments To "A War of Choice With North Korea is an Immensely Dumb Idea"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 20, 2017 @ 12:13 pm

“I reiterate that your mentality as with that of some others is beyond the “Outer Limits” including Pluto. You and your ilk have absolutely no sense of reality, your analysis is faulty, your facts are wrong, and you make assumptions that no American president can afford to make. Contrary to your claims, Kim has made numerous comments to the effect that he would unilaterally wipe the US off the face of the Earth. In addition, it is a fact that Kim is the most erratic, irrational, and irresponsible “leader” of any country in the past 70 years having such weapons at his disposal.”

Laughing. Having been assessed as delusional, I am unclear whether to respond as such response must surely be considered irrational.

But I am going to walk with caution about the mental state of other states’ leaders. Having defended the accusations a bundle about the mental health of our own executive, by certified psychiatrists. I think an in person assessment is required for such diagnosis. But even if what you claim were accurate, the current leader of North Korea has not threatened a first strike against the US. He has however indicated what he would do if attacked. Just so you know, the state of North Korea has never ceased being in a state of war posture with the US (the west) since the Korean Conflict. Now from our perspective such a state might appear on its face irrational. But in consideration of the repeated attacks, both of a strategic and personal nature, by both men and women in positions of leadership North Korea’s posture might well be reasonable.

The US should remain in talks with other states, it’s a wise choice. I would suggest that said talks have prevented tensions from escalating into unnecessary conflict. But even said talks achieved nothing, unilateral action based on some soothsaying interpretation of Pres Kim’s mental state has to be rejected as a standard for legal action by one state against another – and practically it is unreliable.
A. On Russia Syria you are avoiding the contend. The position you take on North Korea is that demands why we would not attack Russia. Because whether they are sane or not, have the right to do what they are doing or have done or not based on the US polity they have actively and with force challenged US foreign policy. They have posed an active threat by their actions to the US by doing so. They have nuclear capability and pose an immediate threat to US ambitions. To prevent any future threat — we should attack them forwith. Now my comments are based on your initial posture which layed out the case for war. And if one spends some time reading commentary on Pres Putin by his fellow Russians and Europeans neighbors living in and outside of the US — Pres Putin is a sociopathic murderer, bent on advancing old Soviet ambitions. So if in fact, mental status is cause for war, it would seem based on your views, that we have allowed Pres Putin to run amock unchecked. The assessments for Pres Assad are just descriptive as those of Pres Putin, Pres Kim.

And most peculiar given your views, is your slights against neoconservative polity. They are right alongside your own. except they are atleast consistent. Syria and Russia are justified in their actions, but North Korea which has engaged in no warfare conflict since lobbing missiles into some disputed territory years ago — does not. They have not attempted to annex another state. They have moved to fight on behalf of ethnically aligned Koreans abiding in S. Korea. N. Korea is not in a shooting war with their own people
who are supported US special forces. Based on that, if both Syria and Russia are justified despite both leaders being just this side of maniacal by leaders in Europe, Russia and Syria — then no case exists for invading North Korea.
Now in my view you have compounded your policy with an internal conundrum — as you have attacked the groups most aligned with a strategic use of force to achieve political ends.

The problem with your advance is that they scenarios are not dissimilar. Worse for your case, Russia has surpassed the threshold for a need for military action:

1. irrational behavior based on experts in the US and Europe
2. Sociaopathic methods to achieve global strategic aims of superiority.
3. Have access to nuclear weapons and other WMD, Syria accused of using said weapons.
4. Russia has not accounted for all of the nuclear weapons in its stores — lost, some regions where tensions with Russia are high — Russia does not seem in control – placing others at risk — sounds cause to invade to me.
By the standard of real politik — the Us had better get real in advancing a military solution to the ambitions of Russia. And we had better do it now, before Russia gets to empowered, especially fueled by a form of capitalism. A real politic position was the argument made by the neocons. Contain Russia and disrupt their ambitions in very real terms — hence the Ukrainian revolution, Syria, Iran, Libya — keep the middle East at the very least unstable at the very least. Very practical. Just give the Ukrainians “heavy weapons systems” – practical. Enable them to wipe out the ethnic Russians challenging official government policy.

With each contention you make you compound your problem. US provocations to North Korea, not ok as to Russia and Syria. I think based on the the available information we can eschew crying foul about crossing the frame of the article by the comparisons cited.

B. The next arena of your response is just an extension of the previous complaint of false comparisons. But as we can see, based on the most aspect of communicative behaviors — actions speak louder than words.

1. Russia previous comments apply
2. China’s actions in the pacific have been more than provocative. They have fired upon the commercial vessels of a US ally with who we have a defensive treaty, that upon being attacked the US will come to her defense. the Philippines. Not only has china engaged in a shooting campaign against an ally. They are challenging the decisions by the UN which has cited China is in violation of UNCLOS. China actively supports North Korea via military and economic exchange. Real politick would demand that the US first remove the greatest threat in any move to deal with North Korea. By your analysis, that means first a full scale war against China, removing her from the equation.

Both China and North Korea demand that Japan make reparations for her war crimes on their states and people. And China has openly stated, “Asia is for Asians.” Her wargames and maneuvers as well as her overhaul of her military, to include building islands from which to base her airforce and extend her naval capabilities are in line with her intent to challenge western/US hegemony in the region. It is active, it is robust and it is unmistakable. I could be wrong. But I suspect that North Korea provides a substantial strategic buffer such that North Korean nuclear ambitions may serve as good cause to support — in lieu of Chinese long range ambitions.

Again another competitor who has adopted capitalist economic model which operates in conjunction with a communist system (a bed rock of communist thought — requires a continued revolutionary zeal). That revolution need not be overt. Hence the large volumes of Chinese and eastern Asian thought that have invaded out social science, including psychology and philosophy. I am always cautious referencing The Art of War, because it is often abused. However, you might want to take a look at its pages. By your standards, China is a serious threat. While far more benign, they have wisely made economic agreements with African states, which remains a bounty of natural resources. Real politic you say – strongly suggests the US take out China first.

3. excuse my laughter, but the gymnastics you attend to questioning the rights of states under threat to defend themselves is a tad convoluted. In short you claim that the states you reference had the right to defend themselves against US ambitions of making war on the, and in the same breath you claim the US has every right to crush any threat, even if that threat is predicated on US provocative behavior to make war on them.

We typically refer to such as analysis as circular. The only solution is for no state to engage in threatening war postures — but according to your scenario even contentions of self defense constitutes a threat and the US should act accordingly. Your real politic offers no end to war and can be justified by any state — the only barrier if whether they can effectively prevail in the conflict. Which brings us home — and explains why North Korea or others have nuclear weapons to deter — might makes right polity.

C. There’s little need commentary on why we should take out Pakistan and India. In fact their relationship in conjunction with the relations they have in the volatile regions in which they exists, in which there are several independent actors whose means are violent, may make them one of the most unstable nuclear regions on the planet – which by definition of nuclear potential makes them a threat to the US. We should take them out even before China, perhaps. And do so before they decide that they like the long term benefits of alliances with the same in any future conflict – real politic.

If I were a North Korean, Russian, Chinese or any other state reading your contentions, I would conclude that the US is a short term and long term threat and every action we take to buffer their ambitions is mandatory for our own survival. In the world of real politic — they should advance whatever offensive capabilities they have.

The one position I think you have essentially correct is that war is serious business and should we engage in it to further our political ends — we had better do so as to annihilate the opposition in full. Here you are a tad shy. I am not —

It might be a good idea to steer away from psychiatry aside from informational providers only — policy not so much.

Total war in my view is a prescription for total war and your analysis is far from a comprehensive reality to be considered. It ignores to many real politic scenarios.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 20, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

It is of course entirely possible that I live on the other side of the moon and would do well spending my time howling at it with longing so as to return.

Before taking on N. Korea, it might be wise to take on our pourus borders allowing people who we stole a good portion of the US from them.

That immediate threat should come first.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 20, 2017 @ 12:18 pm


Before taking on N. Korea, it might be wise to take on our porous borders allowing people who mistakenly and self servingly contend we stole a good portion of the US from them.

That immediate threat should come first.

#4 Comment By Ray On January 10, 2018 @ 10:02 pm

Oh what a crock of bull.No one wants war with North Korea.Yes all other courses must be explored but to totally stick your head in the sand is stupid and reckless. You want to repeat the same mistakes made in World War 2.Total appeasement on the presumption of what might happen or probably will happen but you are inviting disaster to just allow the current course of events to just happen.There is a difference between being totally hawkish and being stupid.