Hawks in the White HouseIt is absolutely premature to put the option of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea on the table. Nothing but a military option should be thrown away if there is even a slight chance that broken talks between the United States and North Korea can be repaired.
As of now, President Donald Trump clearly has no North Korea policy, so the long-standing military option at this critical moment makes no sense. In fact, it could do more harm than good to America’s roles in Northeast Asia and beyond, even though, from the U.S. perspective, the nuclear issue arguably is an opportunity to unite its allies against the Kim Jong-un regime, with the ultimate goal being regime change.
From the North Korean perspective, the nuclear issue is an opportunity to resist U.S. hegemony and its regime-change policy. The possession of nuclear weapons is a matter of national consensus and pride that enables the broken regime beset by shortages of practically everything, from food and medicine to clothes, to unite the people around its Juche ideology of self reliance and resistance to “imperialistic America.”
Furthermore, unlike states with nuclear weapons which generally leave ambiguity in their nuclear doctrines to prevent adversaries from capitalizing on gaps in their nuclear capabilities, North Korea is the first and only state which officially declared itself a nuclear-weapons state in its constitution.
On top of this, the removals of Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein have confirmed to the North Korean leadership that the inescapable goal of the United States is regime change. The North Korean power elites have their own grievances and reasons not to trust the Americans, and vice versa. It is thus fair to say that mistrust between the United States and North Korea has been a fundamental factor obstructing significant talks between the two states. The United States has sought to “neuter” North Korea with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in order to avoid proliferation in the region.
A few options have been discussed thus far, some of which have been used as a means to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. For instance, international communities have focused on behavior change through a combination of a diplomatic solutions and tough sanctions, and there have been a few half-baked plans of espionage and covert action to sabotage the nuclear program in North Korea. None of these options have worked despite a few decades of attempts. Unfortunately, North Korea has already become a “rationally presumptive nuclear-armed country.”
There is now one option seen by many as a last resort: pre-emptive strike. If Trump attempts one, the attack will likely bring about the fall of North Korea’s current regime, and the lack of an alternative government — pro-American or not — will cause the regime’s descent into tremendous chaos. Toward that end, a lot of hawkish pundits are said to view a near-term conventional war or blitzkrieg-like surgical strike on North Korea as clearly preferable to the long-term consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea. These hawks are implicitly encouraging the United States to destroy “locations of concern.”
This view appears to be understood well by the Trump administration, with Trump himself calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a “maniac” and promising to deal with him “very strongly” shortly after the regime’s missile launch in February. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during his quick stop without a formal dinner with his counterpart in Seoul, declared the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea over and in Tokyo threatened a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley is also among the hawks, asserting “all options” are on the table after North Korea fired four ballistic missiles into waters off Japan in March.
Given these hard-liners’ misperceptions about the North Korean regime, the rhetoric of “every option on the table” does not simply sound like a negotiating tactic or kind of psychological warfare. I fear that a bizarre Trump administration could do the job, unless North Korea stops its sixth nuclear test, which right now looks imminent. My concern is shared by some moderate academics and former high-ranking government officials who have been skeptical about the feasibility of military strikes against the regime.
U.S. policy experts believe that after decades of negotiations without results on denuclearization, heavy air operations by the United States are the only remaining viable way to stop, or at least slow down the pace of, North Korea’s nuclear program. They carefully point out that any air strikes should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to minimize the costs and risks. Their pieces of advice rule out the possibility, however, that other facilities could be disastrously bombed if North Korea were reckless enough to retaliate.
The policy recommendations are being assembled by Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and expected to reach the president’s desk within weeks. That said, on the one hand, White House decision makers believe that preventing North Korea from acquiring nuclear missiles must ultimately trump other concerns. On the other, China’s stance must be a key factor in deciding whether a military attack will be successful or not.
While Trump may delay his course of action to forge a “bipartisan pre-emptive plan” on the rogue state, he and his national security advisers may mistakenly judge that now is the time to hold secret talks at the highest levels of government to discuss a possible “North Korea without Kim Jong-un.” Republican lawmakers are calling the Trump administration to get tougher on the regime in Pyongyang. But a pre-emptive strike is basically unfeasible and unrealistic, even though the impulsive president has strong courage to do the dirty work. This is not to say that Trump’s coercive policies and threats against North Korea are a bluff. But it would, after all, be tantamount to a new version of “strategic patience.”
Very few South Koreans want to look to America to act. I believe in diplomatic solutions. Therefore, I strongly urge the Trump administration to form a bipartisan “North Korea study group” comprising high-ranking current and former government officials, senior military officers, nongovernmental organizations and academics in order to address the worsening conditions in North Korea.
*The author is vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation, a private nonprofit and nonpartisan policy advisory body based in Seoul.