Since North Korea’s latest missile test, four powerful American voices have implied, in urgent terms, that a military strike to eliminate their nuclear and missile capabilities is a realistic option.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley professed that “if war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed,” and national security adviser H.R. McMaster warned that the chances of war were “increasing every day, which means that we are in a race, really, we are in a race to be able to solve this problem.”
The most alarming warning, however, came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., when he claimed the administration’s policy was to deny Pyongyang the ability to possess a deliverable weapon to the U.S. If that happens, Graham said it means war “is becoming more likely as their technology matures ... I think we're really running out of time.”
But time is not running out. An adversary merely possessing a military capability does not justify launching a war against them. North Korea can be effectively deterred from using their nuclear capabilities or any of the vast stockpiles of other weapons they’ve possessed for decades. The threat to America can be far better resolved via hard-nosed diplomacy backed up by our powerful deterrent, our overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority. It’s former President Ronald Reagan’s classic “peace through strength.”
It is critical to understand that the use of a preventive military strike against North Korea is effectively guaranteed to negatively impact American national security and the security of our allies. As Barry Posen explains in the New York Times, “Even if an American first strike knocked out North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, millions of South Korean civilians and American and South Korean soldiers would be vulnerable to retaliation with conventional or chemical weapons. Pyongyang could devastate Seoul and kill tens of thousands of people.”
Many advocates in support of preventive attacks acknowledge that millions would die if we were to strike North Korea but contend that the cost of waiting will mean even greater casualties to America later — or embolden North Korea to take provocative actions. Such assumptions are fundamentally and fatally flawed.
Exercising a military option will elicit an immediate and lethal response from North Korea. Employing a strategy of deterrence, however, will preserve American and allied lives in the near term, and give us the best chance for long-term security as well.
Sixty-seven years of observing three successive Kim regimes proves that North Korea desires, above all else, to preserve their hold on power. They are unequivocally not suicidal. That fact gives us enormous leverage to keep a lid on their mischief while we work toward a long-term solution that avoids a catastrophic war.
North Korea is a decaying and fragile state and it fears a regime-changing invasion by the U.S. above all. They know we have the capability to decapitate his regime and impose our will. It is from this fearful position that Kim has developed the ability to launch a retaliatory strike — but it is for that same reason that it is unlikely he would initiate an attack, knowing that such an action would unleash our far, far larger and more powerful arsenal. Their desire to avoid this certain doom can be used to our advantage.
Washington can continue to successfully deter Pyongyang by reinforcing their belief that any offensive use of their weapons will result in their near-instant destruction — but diplomatically assure them that if they do not attack, they have no need to fear an unprovoked U.S. attack.
As explained by Posen, “A combination of diplomacy to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and deterrence, based on the already impressive strength of South Korean and U.S. conventional and nuclear forces, is a wise alternative.”
Should North Korea ever act irrationally, ever use its weapons, then the U.S. would be justified in destroying the regime to protect U.S. and allied lives.
But doing so just to remove a capability unlikely to be used is too costly to consider.
Daniel L. Davis (@DanielLDavis1) is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments.
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