By now, you’ve probably heard about the bizarre statement coming out of North Korea in which Kim Jong-un bangs the drum of war. And now that Merriam-Webster has weighed in on what the hell “dotard” means, let’s talk about the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
The latest, and not-so-greatest, coming out of Pyongyang is a direct response to President Donald Trump’s first speech at the UN General Assembly earlier this week in which he vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatened the United States, or its allies. That, of course, is a direct response to North Korea continuing to threaten the US, including Guam, and shooting a missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
There is no doubt that we are in a strategic impasse and the two heads of state are exchanging bellicose rhetoric as if they were school yard rivals. Matching Kim Jong-un’s aggressive language may ease some frustrations in the short-run, but the emotionally-charged language makes little strategic sense.
So, why can’t we just bomb North Korea?
We can, but we shouldn’t. That’s because a preemptive strike on North Korea, like the one Marine Corps veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) floated Thursday, is the only scenario that guarantees Kim Jong-un will use nuclear weapons. The reason the Kim regime maintains a nuclear arsenal is to ensure they cannot be toppled by a conventional ground force.
So, if the US launches a first strike or ground invasion—kicking off a second Korean War— Kim Jong-un would perceive rightly that the US is seeking to overthrow his regime. And that would trigger the intentions for why he has nuclear weapons in the first place—to ensure regime survival.
Even if North Korea can’t reach the US mainland with a nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), they can launch short or medium range ballistic missiles in the region, targeting South Korea and Japan.
But let’s assume for a moment that North Korea can’t or won’t use nuclear weapons. They still have colossal conventional capabilities including up to 13,000 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul, a city of 10 million. This says nothing about the chemical and biological weapons the regime has. There is nothing Kim Jong-un won’t do to keep his hermit kingdom intact.
But isn’t Kim Jong-un an unhinged, crazy dictator? Certainly we would want to squash him like the bug he is now rather than letting him grow into a future nuclear monstrosity capable of striking the US…
Kim Jong-un certainly isn’t someone I would chat up at a cocktail party. We know he has murdered his own family, including his uncle. We know he continues to starve his country– other than the privileged few that get to live in Pyongyang. And we know he sent an imprisoned American college student, Otto Warmbier, back to the US in June only to have him succumb to unknown injuries just a few days later.
But none of that means that he is irrational, as acting rationally is to act in one’s self-interest. Despite the atrocious actions he has presided over, he is not driven to meet his own destruction. So, it is extremely unlikely that he would use nuclear weapons, except as a last resort if his regime is directly threatened.
Well, what if we’re not talking about a full-on War? What if we use our extremely advanced military and intelligence to perform a limited strike taking out North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capability?
First, for the US to know—without a shadow of a doubt—where all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites are located, the US would need to have extremely superb intelligence. Those in the intelligence community hardly ever deal in certainty; they deal in probability. I know, because I used to be one of them.
Unlike his aging and rusty, although functioning, artillery, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile programs have been rapidly advancing. There just simply isn’t any guarantee that the US, or its allies, could take out the full range of North Korean capabilities in a first strike.
North Korea would then have every incentive to deploy its nuclear and ballistic missiles against the US, its bases in the region, and its allies, to stymie further attacks.
This doesn’t mean the US should do nothing; a strong message to North Korea is needed. But the clearest message America should be sending right now is one of allied assurance, not of intensifying pomposity.