A US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber is flanked by fighter jets flying over South Korea. South Korean Defense Ministry handout via AFP

Robert Jervis, a professor of international politics at Columbia University, says the US shouldn’t assume that it can “prevail” by using military force against North Korea in either a limited or all-out war scenario.

“The fact that the US has much greater military and economic capability than North Korea does not mean that it can prevail,” Jervis wrote in a special report posted on 38 North on Wednesday.

He warned in his assessment for the specialist website on North Korean affairs that “it may be wrong” to simply attribute the failure of efforts so far to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program to a lack of American willingness to get tougher with the regime.

“We also have to consider the willingness of North Korea to pay a price and run risks in order to maintain its nuclear program, which it probably sees as critical both to the survival of the Kim Dynasty as well as the state,” Jervis noted.

Jervis also says the use of “limited” force, as in the case of a “bloody nose attack” currently being promoted by US hawks and full-scale war would produce “multiple uncertainties.”

“Unless force is aimed at totally disarming North Korea or overthrowing its regime, its initially limited application would be an instrument of pressure and bargaining,” Jervis said. “It would be designed to strengthen our hand and weaken North Korea’s. Although presumably, it would destroy some of the North’s military capabilities, it is coercion and bargaining because the US would be trying to influence Pyongyang’s decision on how to respond.”

But Jervis cautioned that “the war must be kept limited if the American victory is to be worth the gamble. The enemy gets more than a vote; he gets to decide.” He goes on say that gradual escalation after an initial use of limited military force would be a complicated equation.

Short of a quick knock-out blow — which seems unlikely — Washington faces the tricky task of cowing North Korea after a limited strike by threatening to do more, Jervis says.

“The US could try to reach this goal by threatening Pyongyang with a massive response if it does use force,” Jervis said. “But unless the North decides to capitulate, it could feel itself in a “use it or lose it” situation and believe that, unlike the Soviet Union, it would rather go down fighting. It could also calculate that at least some military response is needed to provide bargaining leverage.”

All this means the US has a very tough nut to crack in using force against Pyongyang. “Although unlimited wars are dreadful in their destructiveness, limited wars call for even more care in their conduct and planning,” Jervis concluded in his report. “Winston Churchill did not hesitate to use force when he concluded that this was necessary, but he understood that armed conflict, even with adversaries who have fewer material resources, requires extraordinary preparation and understanding.”

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