It’s an appealing notion.
The next time North Korea flouts the international community with a missile or nuclear test, the U.S. military would flex its massive military muscle just enough to punish Kim Jong Un and send a strong message, but not enough to provoke him into a knee-jerk suicidal response.
It’s been dubbed “the bloody nose strategy,” and the Wall Street Journal reports that some Trump administration officials are quietly debating whether it would be possible to mount a limited military strike against North Korean sites without igniting an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
The idea would be to conduct a surgical strike against a North Korean facility “to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior,” reports the Journal. “The hope would be to make that point without inciting a full-bore reprisal by North Korea.”
It would be a major gamble, and there’s little appetite at the Pentagon for the risky strategy that could backfire, sparking a second Korean War and resulting in tens of thousands of casualties, according to officials who spoke to the Washington Examiner on the condition of anonymity.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has warned many times of the horrific nature of potential war with North Korea, is convinced that given enough time, and enough pressure, North Korea will crack.
One official described a recent meeting in which Mattis was examining a photograph of a North Korean “TEL,” short for Transporter Erector Launcher. Mattis pointed out that the mobile missile launcher, essentially a giant truck, was not built in North Korea.
“Everything they have, they get from someplace else,” the official quoted Mattis as saying. “They don’t grow rubber in North Korea. They are getting the tires from somewhere.”
His point, said the official, is that with tight enough sanctions, North Korea can be starved of the raw materials that it needs to continue on its nuclear path.
“Mattis is focused in diplomacy, and when he says diplomacy, he doesn’t mean talking to the North Koreans,” the official said. “He means working with China and other countries to maximize the pressure on the Kim regime.”
None of the officials who spoke to the Washington Examiner was aware of any serious consideration of conducting a limited strike against North Korea, although military officials acknowledged a wide range of military options are ready if the president requests them, including pre-emptive action if there is an imminent threat.
“There is a big problem with the so-called 'bloody nose' strategy. North Korea could give Seoul and Washington a bloody nose right back,” said Harry Kazianis, a Korea expert with the Center for the National Interest.
The big flaw in the strategy is there is no way for Kim to know if the strike is truly limited, and not the opening salvo in a war designed to topple him from power.
It’s that paranoid belief, that U.S. military exercises are really the rehearsal for an invasion of the North, that has motivated Kim to fixate on becoming a nuclear power, according to U.S. intelligence.
“Kim would be very hard-pressed to not only respond, but lash out with whatever weapons he has left,” Kazianis said. “That could mean a nuclear strike or Seoul, Tokyo or even potentially the U.S. homeland.”
The last time anyone seriously proposed a so-called “bloody nose” strike was in 2006, when former Defense Secretary William Perry and his protégé future former Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote an op-ed advocating taking out a North Korean Taepodong 2 missile as it was fueled on the launch pad.
“Such a strike could be seen by the North Korean leadership for what it is: a limited act of defense of the U.S. homeland against a gathering threat, and not an overall attack on North Korea," Perry and Carter wrote more than a decade ago.
“Would it truly retaliate against South Korea, which has been working hard to improve North-South relations, in response to a U.S. airstrike?” they asked. “Such a war would surely and swiftly end in the elimination of the North Korean regime. Pyongyang's leaders are bold, but they are not suicidal.”
But 2006 was a different time. North Korea had not yet acquired nuclear weapons nor could its rudimentary and unreliable missiles reach the United States.
Perry was also defense secretary in the early 1990s, the last time the U.S. seriously considered a pre-emptive strike on the North Korean nuclear reactor that provided fuel for future bombs.
Perry prepared an option for Tomahawk missiles and F-117 stealth fighters to take out the North Korean nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.
Asked last year on NPR if he would advocate such a preemptive strike today, Perry said no.
“Certainly a pre-emptive strike is not a good option,” Perry said in a July interview. “It was a credible threat in 1994 when we made that threat, but now with the North Korean nuclear capability it is not as credible.”