Three days after offering to talk to North Korea without preconditions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed 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 of “fire and fury.” National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster says 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. Senator Lindsey Graham says there’s a 30 percent chance the U.S. will launch a nuclear first strike. The Council on Foreign Relations sees it as closer to 50 percent.
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, 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, 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 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: “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.”
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.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell.