Home/Daniel Larison/The Insanity of a ‘Limited’ Attack on North Korea

The Insanity of a ‘Limited’ Attack on North Korea

Luke O’Brien bats down the crazy notion of giving North Korea a “bloody nose”:

The allure of a punitive strike on North Korea is its seeming simplicity. North Korea continues its missile testing, or opts to detonate another nuclear device in a test shaft, and the United States fires a few missiles and fixes the problem. But this conclusion comes from a series of bad assumptions. We assume that the North Korean regime can detect with any realistic degree of confidence that a limited strike is in fact limited [bold mine-DL]. We assume that North Korea will only analyze the costs and benefits of retaliating based on the merits of a fleeting crisis. And we assume that Kim Jong Un’s power is limitless and that he has none of his own constituencies to placate in the hours and days after a strike.

The idea that the U.S. can give North Korea a “bloody nose” without provoking significant retaliation seems to be based on nothing more than wishful thinking. This administration in particular would have tremendous difficulty credibly signaling that it is carrying out only a limited attack and not launching the beginning of a war for regime change. Trump and McMaster have spent months insisting that Kim is irrational and cannot be deterred, and all top administration officials have said that denuclearization is the only acceptable outcome, so why would the North Korean leadership think that an attack on its territory was anything less than the beginning of an effort to destroy their regime? The U.S. is further hamstrung by the fact that it claimed to rule out regime change in Libya, but then proceeded to wage a war that toppled the regime. If the North Koreans really take Gaddafi’s downfall as an important cautionary tale of what happens to regimes that disarm (and many reports have said that they do), why would they believe American claims that regime change is not on the menu?

Even if the North Koreans believed that the attack was meant to be a limited one, it doesn’t follow that they wouldn’t exact a terrible price on South Korea anyway. Proponents of a “limited” strike would have us believe that an intensely paranoid and nationalistic regime would just absorb an attack from its main adversary and not respond in kind. This treats North Korea as if it were in the same position as Iraq in the 1990s or Syria last year when the U.S. opted to attack them with airstrikes, but that is a mistake. Unlike those regimes, North Korea has the means to strike back and inflict significant damage on the U.S. and its allies in a way that the others never could. Many Americans have become so accustomed to initiating hostilities against other governments without having to worry about retaliation that they have wrongly started assuming that the U.S. can attack heavily-armed adversaries with impunity.

Advocates of attacking North Korea err as badly as they do in part because they always fail to imagine what they would do if positions were reversed. If another government carried out a “limited” strike on U.S. military facilities in an attempt to compel our government to yield to its demands, we know very well that our government would respond with massive retaliation and would seek to inflict as much damage on the attacking state as possible. If our government believed that its very existence was potentially threatened by the attacking state, it would be even more likely to respond as forcefully as it could. Political leaders in any system would be under significant domestic pressure to retaliate against any attack on their territory, no matter how “limited” it was, and they would risk serious political costs if they did not do so. The pressure on Kim to use force in response would presumably be just as great and probably much greater.

O’Brien emphasizes these points later on with regard to Kim:

Chief among the problems with the limited strike option is that it assumes that the North is capable of discerning between a punch in the nose and a full-on pummeling — and that Kim could take the public humiliation of sitting on his hands throughout a limited U.S. strike and still cling to power. They can’t, and he wouldn’t. And North Korea isn’t the only case. In fact, studies of threats by larger powers against smaller ones show that most countries in North Korea’s position would retaliate with whatever means they have at their disposal.

It may seem counter-intuitive that a small, weaker state would respond in this way, but as O’Brien explains they also have to consider the implications of yielding to a demand made under duress or failing to respond to an attack:

The reason is simple: When confronted with the choice to resist against or acquiesce to a threat issued by a larger power, the smaller power isn’t merely considering that single interaction. It’s also considering what will happen further down the road based on the decision it makes. If it accedes to a coercive demand now, what happens when its adversary decides it wants to make more demands later? [bold mine-DL]

It is grimly amusing that proponents of attacking North Korea fail to appreciate that it would be North Korea’s fear of appeasing an aggressor informing its decision on how to respond to an attack. North Korea would retaliate against a “limited” attack even if it accepted that it was limited for fear that they might invite a larger attack later if they did not.

If the U.S. launched an illegal sneak attack on North Korea, it would likely trigger a major war, and it might even conceivably lead to a nuclear exchange. In return for giving North Korea a “bloody nose,” it is possible that hundreds of thousands could die and maybe even millions could be incinerated. Proponents of attacking other countries always minimize the risks and exaggerate the benefits of military action, and the costs are always much higher and the benefits are usually elusive. That would certainly be the case here. Any attack on North Korea would simply confirm them in their belief that they need their nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and they would make the U.S. and our allies pay a significant price for attacking them. The reality is that any attack on North Korea is an insane option, and it is a disturbing sign of how warped our foreign policy debates are that it is being seriously considered.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles