It’s all about preparation
The author, a former editorial writer and director of the Institute for Military and Security Affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo, is a senior researcher of the institute.
With less than one month left before the March 9 presidential election, controversy heats up over the subject of preemptive attacks against North Korea after it fired various types of ballistic missiles, including hypersonic ones, in January. After opposition People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol insisted on a preemptive attack on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities through the Kill Chain, his rival Lee Jae-myung from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) denounced Yoon as a “warmonger.”
An exercise of self-defense can be divided into a preemptive attack and a preventive attack. The first is carried out at clear signs of an imminent enemy attack to avert massive damage whereas the second is conducted to remove the roots of future damage in advance. Therefore, a preemptive strike involving unavoidability is increasingly accepted in international law, while a preventive strike is not. Colin Gray, a professor of international politics at U.S. Army War College, argues that a preemptive attack can hardly be found to be wrong, but a preventive war requires justifications for the war and unequivocal intelligence to judge an enemy’s intention.
A preemptive strike is Israel’s Six Day War with Egypt and Syria in 1967. At that time, Egypt deployed troops to the Sinai Peninsula to help Syria and attempted to blockade the Straits of Tiran, a gateway to trade for Israel. Jordan and Iraq also joined forces to wage war against Israel.
Pushed into a corner, Israel felt a war imminent. Judging it could perish if it lost in the war, Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt on June 5. Israeli fighter jets flew over the desert at an ultralow altitude and destroyed 300 out of 450 military aircraft in Egypt, nearly wiping out the Egyptian Air Force. After the war ended with Israel occupying a buffer zone three times larger than Israel, the international community accepted the justification for the preemptive attack.
But such an attack is not easy to launch. During the first nuclear crisis involving North Korea in 1994, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry threatened to stop its nuclear programs at a risk of war and President Bill Clinton considered bombing the Yongbyon nuclear facilities near Pyongyang. Uncle Sam attempted to deploy two aircraft carriers and 33 warships to the waters off the coast of Wonsan on the East Sea to bomb the facility. But Clinton cancelled the plan after being briefed about the projected deaths of 1 million South Koreans if he had approved the attack.
Another case in point is the Iraq War in 2003. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address in the following year. After the Bush Doctrine on a war against terrorism helped blur the boundaries between preemptive attack and preventive attack, the United States invaded Iraq, but its legitimacy is still being questioned.
Operation Babylon — a surprise airstrike conducted by the Israeli Air Force on June 7, 1981 against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq — also constitutes an excessive preventive strike. Though the reactor was part of a nuclear plant, Israel bombed it to eliminate a future threat beforehand. The same can apply to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Can South Korea’s preemptive strike be justified at a peak of North Korea’s nuclear provocation? In January 2010, former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young threatened a preemptive strike at signs of North Korea preparing a nuclear attack due to “too big damage expected.” The Ministry of National Defense still maintains its “aggressive defense posture” at times of crisis.
On what occasions would North Korea fire a nuclear missile toward South Korea? If it does so in a peace time, it wants to get some gains or the upper hand in negotiations. Yet it would not fire missiles all at once. Before launching them, it would compel South Korea to accept its demands by creating extremely hostile atmosphere like the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
Or it could be tempted to use nuclear weapons during an actual war. According to a war scenario, North Korea sends submarines, dispatches special forces, and fires cannons and missiles intermittently before starting an all-out war. If it ratchets up the level of provocation, the defense ministry escalates the Defcon — the South Korea-U.S. joint defense-readiness condition — to Level 1, a state of war.
North Korea also can use tactical weapons to overcome its weakness in conventional combat with South Korea. If it does, our defense line can collapse rapidly with no time left for the U.S. nuclear umbrella to activate. Under such circumstances, South Korea can activate the Kill Chain and launch a preemptive strike at nuclear and missile facilities in the North.
In the South, presidential candidates are talking about a preemptive strike from different angles. Lee pointed out that “our preemptive attack in peace times is an act to break the peace.” His comment is not entirely wrong. But his rival Yoon from the PPP underscored the need for a “preemptive strike if North Korea attempts to launch a nuclear attack at times of crisis.”
Given the gravity of the issue, we must find feasible ways to minimize the ramifications of the North’s nuclear retaliation after we launched a preemptive strike — including augmenting our ability to detect ominous signs from North Korea in advance — instead of approaching the issue from divergent perspectives.