The Trump administration mistakenly views a nuclear-armed Pyongyang as an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security interests in East Asia, and thus, Trump’s advisers are grasping at straws for a solution.
One of the proposals circulating in the news media is what administration officials are calling the “bloody nose option” — a one-off strike on a specific facility somewhere in North Korea that would get Kim Jong Un’s attention and frighten him into a negotiation on the country's nuclear weapons program. But like all ideas that seem too good to be true, this isolated attack scenario is a recipe for disaster. Far from driving Kim into the warm arms of diplomacy, punching him in the nose is likely to spark the very armed conflict U.S. military officials have been trying to prevent since the signing of the Korean War armistice 65 years ago.
For the “bloody nose option” to work without eliciting a catastrophe in the process, everything its proponents confidently assert would happen would need to occur in near-perfect harmony. But to assume everything would go according to plan would be to toss facts about Kim’s character and past actions aside and adopt a delusional premise bordering on insanity.
When Kim has been pushed into a corner in the past, either by the United States, South Korea, Japan, or the U.N. Security Council, the young leader has responded through doubling down on provocation, not searching for an exit-ramp or begging for de-escalation. If the latter were the case, the North Korean nuclear crisis would have been solved a long time ago. The problem, of course, is not solved; indeed, it’s continuing at a much more dangerous level due in part to Kim’s own internal decision-making. The man will not let an American military exercise or a belligerent tweet stand.
When the U.S. authorized a B-1B bomber flight over waters north of the Demilitarized Zone in September 2017, Pyongyang’s boots were not shaking. Kim’s media arm lashed out at the Trump administration in typical blustery language and called for revenge. Two months later, the North Koreans completed the most successful intercontinental ballistic missile test in their history. If Kim retaliated to an ordinary training exercise from the U.S. Air Force, it's an infinitely more likely possibility he would retaliate to an actual military strike on his territory.
Kim — a notoriously paranoid man intensely focused on preserving his own power from all threats, foreign and domestic — would need to be convinced that this was an isolated event rather than the beginning of a North Korean version of Operation Shock and Awe. And the Trump administration would have to be reasonably confident that the South Korean President Moon Jae-in — a man who sees it as his personal mission to prevent an armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula — wouldn’t retaliate by walking away from its defense alliance with the United States in protest.
The United States and North Korea, despite highly volatile relations, have stepped away from military confrontation at critical junctures in the past. Both understand that even a minor skirmish lasting several days is highly likely to claim the lives of thousands of civilians on the Korean Peninsula and possibly drag China into the conflict as well.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has called the prospect of a war on the Korean Peninsula “catastrophic,” while Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford described it as “horrific.” Because the U.S. intelligence community does not know where all of Pyongyang’s nuclear assets are — not to mention its missile silos, artillery systems, and command-and-control facilities — the U.S. would be walking into a military conflict partially blind.
Retired Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, a former Deputy Commander of U.S. Forces-Korea, has written to members of Congress that a successful U.S. military attack would require a full, complete, and accurate picture of Pyongyang’s entire nuclear, missile, and conventional military infrastructure — none of which the U.S. intelligence community is fortunate to possess. And the damage of even proportional retaliation from Kim on Seoul, a city of 25 million residents, would be enough to cause untold deaths of South Korean civilians, not to mention the tens of thousands of Americans who live and work in the area.
Proponents of a limited military strike would need to be 100 percent certain that the U.S. would indeed be getting Kim’s attention instead of Kim’s wrath.
Even if Washington was able to deliver a message to Pyongyang of its intention to refrain from a regime change campaign, Kim will not simply take America’s word for it. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi made that mistake when he traded away his own nuclear program for normalization with the United States. Kim has learned never to buy what Washington is selling.
Unless the U.S. is willing to base a military option on the untested assumption that Kim will respond the way we would like him to respond — a premise about as accurate as North Korea handing over their nuclear arsenal, no questions asked — even the most surgical use of military force against North Korea would lead to a war whose cost to human life the world has not witnessed since World War II.
This, however, does not mean that the United States is out of options. In fact, there is a tried-and-true policy that has worked on far larger adversaries with far more menacing nuclear arsenals: deterrence and containment.
A guaranteed destruction of civilization kept the United States and the Soviet Union — with tens of thousands of nuclear warheads between them — from nuclear Armageddon. Containment policy proved effective against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev and communist China under Mao Zedong — it will continue to hold against Pyongyang under Kim or any successor, a family that cares about nothing more than staying in power.
War is an inherently messy, complex, bloody, and unpredictable business. With so much at stake on the Korean Peninsula, those arguing for a limited strike on North Korea must think long and hard about how quickly things will go wrong after the first bombs are dropped. The bloody-nose option is so ridiculously naïve that, if executed, would go down in history as the most mindless foreign policy decision in America’s history.
Daniel DePetris (@DanDePetris) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a fellow at Defense Priorities. His opinions are his own.
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