Danger of a ‘bloody nose’I was somewhat cynical of a U.S. pre-emptive strike on North Korea despite all the fiery talk of blasting away by President Donald Trump. No matter how advanced the United States may be in its precision weapons, it cannot possibly wipe out all the underground facilities hidden throughout North Korea. If the United States missed even one, the entire U.S. mainland could be in danger of retaliation with nuclear-tipped missiles. I was confident that even a foolhardy man like Trump wouldn’t have the stomach to go through with that risk.
But my thoughts changed after hearing the latest theory that has been gaining ground in Washington. The rumor is that Trump’s administration is mulling a sneaky, precise and damaging kind of strike that delivers a “bloody nose” to demonstrate what potential consequences Pyongyang could face if it crosses the line. The hawks in Washington argue they can pull the campaign off without starting an all-out war with many human casualties on the Korean Peninsula.
These “bloody nose” strikes could possibly target architectural landmarks instead of military sites. Potential candidates are the spy ship USS Pueblo (which has been on display in waters off the cost of North Korea since its capture a half century ago), the Tadeong River Bridge outside Pyongyang, and North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s monument.
The United States’ shock-and-awe strategy has worked on Pyongyang before. Washington seriously studied attacking North Korea when two U.S. officers were murdered in daylight by North Korean soldiers. They were on a mission to trim a tree blocking a South Korean unit’s view near the Joint Security Area in 1976.
Instead of going for a full-scale attack, which could have triggered World War III, President Gerald Ford decided to show Pyongyang what the U.S. military was capable of. A fleet of 20 F-111 fighters flew across the Pacific, joined by 24 F-4 Phantom II jets and three B-52 bombers from Guam. The USS Midway carrying 65 aircrafts also promptly steamed into the East Sea.
On land, Operation Paul Bunyan had a team of military engineers, backed by 30-man security platoons, cut the tree down with chainsaws. South Korea’s special forces were also engaged in the operation to knock off three North Korean guard posts. President Moon Jae-in was among them. The biggest military assemblage ended with North Korea agreeing to finish the work of cutting down the poplar tree and issuing a statement of regret over the death of the two American officers. That was rare. North Korea isn’t known to apologize.
But there is no guarantee that the same strategy will work on a country now run by Kim Jong-un. Several conditions must be met in order for a “bloody nose” strike to succeed. First, the younger ruler must be as sensible as his grandfather. Second, North Korea must be intimidated by the United States’ actions. Third, Pyongyang cannot dare to strike back.
But, from what we know so far, Kim is not a person to be easily intimidated. He boasted to his people and the world that his regime has the nuclear deterrence to fend off any kind of attack from the United States. Even if it would be suicidal to strike back, Kim may not be able to afford to step back quietly.
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned the effectiveness of the “bloody nose” strategy when testifying to the Senate Committee on Armed Services on Jan. 30.
“Most North Korea analysts would tell you that Kim Jong-un would have to strike back,” he said.
It is also uncertain if Pyongyang will understand Washington’s real intention behind such a limited strike. It would most likely regard the bombing of the Taedong Bridge as the start of a full-scale war.
Even if North Korea restrains a counterattack to a barrage of artillery — as it did against Yeongpyeong Island in 2010 — it still poses a dilemma to the United States. Washington can hardly relaunch a massive counterattack on the North nor stop it. Therefore, a “bloody nose” strategy based on wishful thinking is highly risky.
To prevent a potential disaster, Seoul should dissuade the Trump administration from taking such a high-stakes gamble. It must give Trump the strong conviction that South Korea remains a reliable ally of the United States. If Seoul continues to kowtow to Pyongyang with blind hopes for improving inter-Korean relations — as it has been doing to bring North Koreans to the PyeongChang Olympics — it will only push Washington closer to the “bloody nose” option.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 6, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.