There are two kinetic proposals currently being floated in Washington’s top policy circles about what to do with North Korea.
The more extreme one, proposed independently by Ed Luttwak in Foreign Policy Magazine, is for the United States to “use well-aimed conventional weapons to deny nuclear weapons” to North Korea. The other proposal, supposedly under study by the Pentagon (with some support reportedly from the National Security Council), is to give North Korea a “bloody nose” by retaliating if it conducts another nuclear or missile test – by hitting the facility or facilities involved, perhaps also using conventional weapons.
But lurking also in Washington is a proposed policy shift that would authorize even the use of nuclear weapons in certain cases.
There isn’t any doubt that the United States has been jacking up the threat of a counter attack for some time through rather provocative military exercises with South Korea, the dispatch of strategic B-1 nuclear bombers and stealth aircraft including the F-35, and the deployment of multiple aircraft carrier task forces off the North Korean coast.
So far, at least, instead of any evidence that these actions have deterred North Korea, the North has stepped up its missile testing and related nuclear programs.
There is a tendency for intimidation policies to become self-fulfilling prophecies. While the United States and the United Nations agree that North Korea’s nuclear program is destabilizing and dangerous, outside of statements from the US, no other players in the international community are proposing the use of force as a solution.
Of course, that does not mean it is not in the US national interest to want to truncate North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs by using military means. But is it? Really?
In simplistic terms, “teaching North Korea a lesson” appears to be an appealing approach in light of the fact that all efforts at denuclearization have so far failed or backfired. But any military action will have a number of notable downsides and political and strategic consequences that are negative to American interests.
Foremost among them is the fact that North Korea does have a
large and (at least on paper) powerful military. While it does not have the most modern weapons, it is very well equipped with plenty of conventional ground attack weapons that are dug in and can be used to smash up South Korea.
No one knows what the fighting quality of North Korea’s Army is, or how it would perform these days in an environment with uncertain supplies, including food. But there is very little evidence of mass desertion or political upheaval in the North Korean military (although there have been a few well-publicized defections). Even figuring its share of problems, North Korea is capable of taking the fight to the South and possibly holding significant territory.
And South Korean President Moon Jae-in has made clear he wants to avoid military action.
China is unlikely to want to absent itself from the game and it may see the US action as an opening for it to repair relations with North Korea
Any American planning has to take into account the consequence
that the US might well drive South Korea into the arms of North Korea. One of the repercussions of a US airstrike on North Korea is its impact on the South Korea-US alliance; it could seriously damage, or even end, the alliance, representing a huge setback for America’s posture in Northeast Asia after 72 years.
There are also consequences regarding Russia and China. Russia won’t stand by and allow the US to bomb North Korea in a manner similar to US bombing campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Instead, one sees Russia shipping in modern military supplies to North Korea including air defense systems and modern offensive hardware including tanks, rockets, aircraft and command and control systems. Where in recent years Russia has not been much of an overt factor on the Korean peninsula, all that would almost certainly change as the Russians sought to exploit the situation.
China is a wild card given that there is strong circumstantial evidence that it actively worked to replace Kim Jong-un with his now deceased half-brother. But China sees the peninsula as geo-strategically vital, and is unlikely to absent itself from the game. It may see the US action as an opening for it to repair relations with North Korea, particularly if it can promote a deal reconciling North and South Korea.
Possibly the greatest effect of bombing North Korea (whether massively, or the “bloody-nose” alternative) would be to trigger the dormant unification process of North and South. That could lead to an emerging unitary country that will see the transfer of a lot of wealth northwards and a solidification of the role of the Kim dynasty. Possible end result: A single Korean nuclear power beholden to Russia and China, with the US cast aside for the foreseeable future.