Trump calls North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man,” which is reasonable. He also said Kim is “on a suicide mission” for stepping up efforts to arm the North with nuclear weapons, which is also a reasonable perception. But threatening total destruction of North Korea is a completely different matter. The United States has been threatening Kim with “regime change” and “decapitation” of its leader unless he stops his nuclear and missile provocations. But total destruction of the North covers 25 million North Korean people and the entire North Korean territory. Vowing to “totally destroy” a country in the United Nations even before a war breaks out is a violent threat that can never be justified.
Even if Trump’s irrational and inhumane remarks were highly calculated rhetoric to pressure Pyongyang, it is still a problem. Such remarks will only provoke Kim to hurry efforts to complete nuclear weapon and missile programs. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho simply dismissed Trump’s threat as “dog’s barks,” and that alone shows that Kim has no intention to give up his ambition to complete the nuclear and missile programs because of Trump’s verbal attacks.
After North Korea conducted two tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles — capable of threatening the U.S. mainland — in July and fired intermediate-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Guam and conducted its sixth nuclear test both in August and September, Washington is leaning heavily toward military options. On Sept. 18, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said there is a military option that won’t pose a grave threat to Seoul. That is impossible.
On Aug. 14, the New York Times published six scenarios for a war on the Korean Peninsula. Among the six simulations, none showed that Seoul and the capital region were safe. In one scenario, Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from destroyers in the East and West Seas and strategic bombers sent from Guam and the U.S. mainland were to remove the North’s nuclear missiles and facilities with a single strike to force Kim to give them up. But a single strike will never destroy all kinds of short, intermediate and long-range missiles in North Korea, as they are deployed in underground tunnels across the country.
South Korea, Japan and perhaps Guam will surely face retaliations. Defense Secretary Mattis and top military officers of South Korea and America must be honest. If they were not talking about a “grave threat” to Seoul, what level of threat do we have to endure?
There is another problem. If North Korea detects signs that the United States alone — or South Korean and U.S. combined forces — are moving their troops, arms systems and vessels to prepare for a preemptive strike, North Korea will likely launch a preemptive cyberattack to paralyze the war capabilities of South Korea and the United States.
“Kim may well have ordered his generals to fire all available weapons of mass destruction at the enemy if he is killed in a first strike — as did Saddam before the 1990-91 Gulf War. There is no reason to think that the North Korean military would fail to carry out such an order,” wrote Scott Sagan, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. That’s a very reasonable assumption.
Military options must remain a means to exert pressure. The purpose of military actions should never be the destruction of North Korea. The United States must not carry out military actions against the North without the South’s participation. Our weakness is that we have many things to lose, while North Korea has few things to lose. Those are the realities we must accept and that’s why peace matters most.
Trump must change his thinking that “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there,” and escape Khrushchev’s trap. But the chance is small. The UN Security Council Resolution 2375, adopted on Sept. 11, covers 70 percent of the necessary sanctions to pressure the North. China is the problem. We cannot be satisfied with the 30 percent short sanctions China supported. The United States must impose full-fledged secondary boycotts on China and pressure it to adopt an oil embargo against the North.
Maximum pressure and sanctions — and maximum deterrence — are the alternative to a preemptive strike on North Korea. Trump is abusing his power to sell advanced weapons to South Korea. The shadow of the military-industrial complex is seen behind him. But the only option left for us is purchasing advanced weapons from Uncle Sam in return for the U.S. strategic assets’ permanent deployment on the Korean Peninsula.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 22, Page 39
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.