The case for military optionsPresident Donald Trump clearly toned down his rhetoric about attacking North Korea while traveling across Asia in October. It appeared that the administration might be preparing for a longer-term strategy of containment and deterrence of the North; perhaps warnings from key Republican Senators about the need for Congressional authorization had an effect; or maybe the quiet messages from Shinzo Abe of Japan that his government’s support of keeping “all options on the table” for North Korea was not unequivocal. Whatever the cause, the bellicose warnings from the administration diminished.
Then in the wake of Pyongyang’s Nov. 29 Hwasong-15 missile test, the talk of a military strike returned. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned at the Reagan Defense Forum on December 3 that the United States is “in a race” to address the North Korean threat and stunned the media by stating that “the potential for war is increasing every day, but armed conflict is not the only solution.” Other unnamed senior administration officials have also warned that time is running out, prompting Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to make the alarming statement that the United States should begin preparing for non-combatant evacuation operations from the Korean peninsula.
This prompts two questions: why the return to the logic of imminent attack — and is the administration really prepared to use force against the North to prevent the testing and deployment of further ICBMs?
The main reason for the new alarm is that the capabilities of the Hwasong-15 missile surprised the experts. The solid-fueled, road mobile missile has the range to strike the continental United States and reportedly has a more powerful engine and nine-axle TEL (mobile transport erector launcher) that would allow the North to evade detection by deploying to heavily wooded areas. Pre-emptively striking the HS-15 would therefore be extremely difficult in a crisis. Within a year the North could be deploying more of these missiles while continuing to perfect the ability of warheads to survive re-entry into the atmosphere over the United States. The only options available after that would be massive retaliation, and some in the administration are concerned that this would not be enough to deter Kim Jong-un from using nuclear weapons to blackmail the United States.
However, while there is growing urgency to the North Korea threat, the advocates of a military strike have not been able to convince members of Congress that the risk of survivable North Korean ICBM deployments outweighs the risk associated with preventive war. That latter risk is enormous: the U.S. military would not be able to eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons capability without massive airstrikes — and perhaps not even then.
And the more significant the effort to destroy North Korean capabilities, the higher the probability that the North would retaliate with an arsenal that would lay waste to Northeast Asia and the many American citizens living there.
In fact, the administration has not actively sought to convince Congress of the logic of a preventive military option, which suggests there is no consensus within the administration about anything beyond the notion of (and perhaps planning for) keeping “all options on the table.”
There is a necessity for military options, to be sure. First, diplomacy with North Korea is unlikely to work without major pressure. The problem is that Kim Jong-un is unlikely to yield to pressure unless it is existential —meaning the risk of war and regime collapse — and that carries with it all the well-known risks for the United States described above.
Nevertheless, the best hope is diplomacy, and that will require a stronger military dimension. Second, the United States and the Republic of Korea must demonstrate a readiness to use force in order to deter the North from thinking that nuclear weapons will give Pyongyang the impunity to blackmail us with its own options of cyberattacks, terrorism or other provocations. Third, the United States must prepare a more aggressive set of options to defeat North Korean aggression using nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles.
There is one other possible military option. In order to maximize Pyongyang’s fear of being destroyed while minimizing the danger of major retaliation, the United States might look for a limited “warning” strike. Superficially, this might be attractive, but would it really be possible to make an accurate prediction about Pyongyang’s response? The idea that risk could be minimized is illusory. A more prudent variation of this option would be to maintain current rules of engagement (ROE) and to take kinetic action in response to North Korean military provocations against U.S. or ROK forces. This would be more consistent with international law and would be necessary to demonstrate that the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities will not allow blackmail and intimidation. The difference between these two variants is that the former is designed to produce a diplomatic result —which seems uncertain at best — while the latter is necessary to reinforce deterrence against North Korea escalation.
Ultimately, that is where the U.S.-ROK strategy has to focus: on shoring up deterrence against North Korean blackmail, provocation or use of force. The North Korean threat is clearly growing more serious, but time is not “running out” for deterrence and containment to work. Nor is time “running out” for a diplomatic resolution that was never likely to begin with. Time is ultimately on the side of the United States and Korea — powerful democracies that have weathered many serious threats in the past. It is North Korea that will eventually pass into the footnotes of history. The key is to ensure that this happens peacefully by reinforcing our strengths and not producing the kind of panic North Korea hopes to use for its own leverage.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.