Writing on the Wall: War with North Korea?

By Charles V. Peña

According to The Washington Post, the Trump administration’s pick to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea—Victor D. Cha, who served as the Asia director on the National Security Council (NSC) under President Bush—will not be put forward for nomination. Previously, however, U.S. officials formally informed South Korea that Cha would be nominated, which was positively received news in Seoul—hoping to have him confirmed in time for the Winter Olympics. The snafu? Apparently, Cha expressed concern about the NSC considering a preventive strike against North Korea, known as the “bloody nose” option.

If the reason for withdrawing Cha’s nomination is true, this is extremely alarming.

Most obviously, this may be the most telltale sign to date that President Trump is more than just engaging in a war of words with Kim Jong-un—he is serious about taking military action against North Korea.

The idea behind the bloody nose option is that the U.S. would signal its seriousness to use military force as a way to pressure Pyongyang to agree to denuclearization. The belief that Kim Jong-un wouldn’t retaliate is likely colored by the administration’s only data point: the April 2017 strike against a Syrian air base that was unanswered by the Assad regime.

It might not be as easy to do as the strike against Syria, but the U.S. could certainly conduct a limited military strike using aircraft and cruise missiles against an array of North Korean targets—presumably related to their nuclear or missile program. Being able to give Kim Jong-un a bloody nose isn’t the issue. The problem is that expecting him to do nothing in response is a high-risk gamble. If anything, history suggests we should expect just the opposite. Every time Pyongyang has felt like it was provoked or challenged, it has responded—most recently by conducting missile tests. But an actual military strike is not likely to result in another missile test—more likely a missile launch.

We believe that North Korea has long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability that can reach the continental United States. We also believe that North Korea has the ability to put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM. Whether they have an actual operational and reliable weapon system is an open question, but if Kim Jong-un did have such a capability he could certainly use it as a response to a U.S. attack. If he did, we would have to depend on the U.S. national missile defense system that has been tested with “mixed results.”

But even if the United States itself isn’t currently within range of North Korea’s weapons, the more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea are (as are the some 54,000 U.S. military personnel in Japan). We know North Korea has operational short- and medium-range missiles that can hit targets hit both countries. We also know that North Korea has more than 10,000 artillery tubes and more than 2,000 multiple rocket launchers that could strike both military and civilian targets.

So retaliation by North Korea could mean thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of civilian casualties—South Koreans, Japanese, and American citizens living in South Korea and Japan (several hundred thousand in both countries).

The logic of a bloody nose option is the calculated risk that Kim Jong-un would not use this capability knowing that the U.S. could escalate and inflict even greater damage.

However, such logic assumes that Kim Jong-un knows with absolute certainty that the attack is only a limited attack. But—especially given President Trump’s rhetoric—why would he believe that? Even if he knew that the attack was limited, how would he know or believe that it wasn’t just a precursor to an even larger follow-on attack? His incentive then would be to retaliate. And if he believed that such an attack meant that a larger war was inevitable, his incentive would be all-out retaliation to inflict as much damage as possible.

The fallacy of a bloody nose strike is that the U.S. can control the so-called escalation ladder. But such control is an illusion. We can’t control what Kim Jong-un will chose to do if we launched a bloody nose strike. That is his decision to make based on how he weighs risk and consequence, which may not be the same as us. And even if the consequence of retaliation is high, he might still chose to take action because his calculus is different. Indeed, he may feel he has nothing to lose.

It’s also important to consider what a bloody nose strike might look like. If the purpose is to signal our seriousness of halting North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the number of targets is likely in the hundreds. Several hundred bombs or missiles raining down on North Korea is not likely to be seen as very limited by the regime in Pyongyang or civilians who might be victims of collateral damage. And the targets wouldn’t necessarily be limited to North Korea’s weapons. According to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Paul J. Selva, “Remember, missile infrastructure is not just the missiles… If you’re the poor sergeant that has to go out and launch the missile, and I blow up your barracks, you’re not available to go do your job.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the U.S. would sit idly by if attacked in such a manner, so why would we think North Korea would? Such thinking defies logic.

Moreover, it the administration believes that a nuclear-armed North Korea can’t be deterred, why does it think North Korea would refrain from retaliating if we conducted a bloody nose strike? If Kim Jong-un is undeterrable that means he cannot be restrained taking an action we do not want him to take—regardless of our actions. But the bloody nose attack hinges on the assumption that he can be deterred from taking an action we do not want him to take—after we take action against him. If you believe the former, then the latter is not possible.

The reality is that a nuclear-armed North Korea can be—and currently is—deterred. Kim Jong-un knows that if he attacked the U.S., he would face the prospect of overwhelming retaliation and utter destruction and annihilation. Yet like his father and his father’s father, he is more interested in survival and perpetuating the Kim dynasty. And if Kim Jong-un’s largest fear is U.S.-imposed regime change—especially after the fate suffered by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya after giving up his nuclear aspirations—then nuclear weapons are likely seen by him as the only way to stave off regime change.

We deterred the former Soviet Union and China under the likes of Stalin and Mao, both of whom were considered crazy and irrational in their time, and we can deter North Korea under Kim Jong-un. Deterrence is the more prudent and rational course of action because there is no such thing as a limited military option or a “bloody nose” strike that doesn’t escalate in unpredictably lethal ways—including the use of chemical or biological agents that the regime is believed to possess. It would be the equivalent of Washington starting a war on the Korean Peninsula that would be catastrophic for U.S. security and prosperity.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.

This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report of February 2, 2018. Read more HERE.