Column: Violence will not solve North Korean threat

In his recent article on possible solutions to the current crisis on the Korean peninsula, Hayden Blakeney suggested that a first strike on North Korea would be a viable solution for dealing with the naked aggression of the Kim regime and its rapid expansion of its nuclear weapons program. 

While it is true that North Korea’s nuclear program, specifically its attempted development of ICBM’s, poses a significant threat to U.S. interests, the solution is not a first strike on North Korea. Such a solution suffers from a fundamental lack of understanding of the complexities of the Kim regime, of China’s potential involvement and of the nature of war itself.

To begin, let’s take a look at the motivation of Kim Jong-un. One argument frequently used against Kim is that the he is an irrational madman seeking nothing more than war with the U.S. This view, publicized time and time again by various leaders, pundits and writers, is fueled by various exaggerated stories and lacks a realistic conception of the Kim regime. Kim is no idiot, nor is he some sort of supervillain. Kim is a rational actor who understands that any war with the U.S. or a U.S. ally will result in the devastation of his country and his own death. 

This is the simple reason for North Korea’s nuclear program. As pointed out by comedian and “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver, Kim Jong-un is well aware of what happened to other leaders who scaled back their nuclear programs at the behest of the U.S. — leaders such as Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. To date, the U.S. has never attacked a nuclear armed nation and Kim knows that simply having a nuclear program that can threaten the U.S. will help prevent the fall of his regime to outside forces. 

Furthermore, the rhetoric and brinkmanship coming out of North Korea is nothing new. Since the armistice ended the Korean War, North Korea has repeatedly escalated tensions. Not in the name of starting a war, it seems, but rather to make clear that they will not easily succumb to U.S. and international pressure.

Chinese involvement with Korea is also a point of contention. For years, China has been the only significant backer of the Kim regime and one of the few outside connections to the “hermit kingdom.” While some view this as China simply propping up a brutal dictatorship, the Chinese position, while adapting to the current situation, is far more nuanced. Put simply, the Chinese abhor the idea of a U.S. ally on its border. Furthermore, the Chinese realize that any war with North Korea would likely result in millions of ill-fed and ideologically brainwashed refugees streaming across its border, destabilizing local areas. 

China has made it clear to North Korea in the latest round of United Nations sanctions that any act of aggression against the U.S. or U.S. allies will result in zero support from the Chinese. In that way, if North Korea engages in an offensive war (rather than a defensive one if the U.S. attacked first), they will be cut off by their main benefactor. This is just another point that brings home the rational actor idea of Kim Jong-un: An aggressive war would place North Korea’s only ostensible ally against it, and there is no way he’s unaware of that. 

So, at this point, we can safely assume that war will not be coming anytime soon to the Korean Peninsula. Kim clearly has far too much to lose if he engages in an offensive war: the loss of his only ally, his nation and his own life. Only an irrational madman — which he is not — would do so. However, what’s to stop the U.S. from pre-emptively attacking North Korea? 

For one, the Chinese. While they have made clear that Kim would lose their support in the case of a war started by the North, their stance on a defensive war is much less evident. At best, we could expect a souring of relations between the U.S. and China. In the worse case, a spiral of escalation with no clear end could occur. Neither are good options for the U.S., as China is our largest trading partner

Furthermore, as previously stated, Kim is a rational actor for whom survival is imperative. As such, he may use the totality of his arsenal if at war with the U.S. They are his only hope for a way out, as any war with the U.S. will most likely result in his death. By inflicting enough casualties on the attacking force, he may hope that the U.S. will view the war as a waste of “blood and treasure” and seek a political solution. This is extremely unlikely, but it would be his only viable option. This rules out the idea of “surgical strikes” against the nuclear program; they would only result in a wider war. 

Such an approach would utilize his nuclear arsenal, ranging from “dozens” to possibly “30-plus” bombs. Such munitions wouldn’t even need to be launched from the relatively untested “Hwasong-14” platform to be effective. Other smaller range rockets that threaten major U.S. bases in Japan and Korea may be utilized. Civilian targets in both countries would also be at risk. Another option would be ground detonations of these weapons along the U.S. path of advance into North Korea. Any of these scenarios would result in massive casualties. Of course the U.S. would retaliate, again resulting in a deadly spiral of escalation.

Other concerns lie in North Korea’s shadowy chemical and biological weapons programs. We can assume very little about these programs, but we can say that if they have what defectors claim they do, there will be massive, unimaginable casualties to both soldiers and civilians in any target area. 

Conventional North Korean arms should not be discounted either. As Mr. Blakeney pointed out in his article, some North Korean artillery can reach the outskirts of Seoul. Additionally, there are other populated areas along the DMZ that can be hit, as well as military installations and front line troops. In either situation, U.S. planners are not optimistic about the speed with which the U.S. and allies will be able to pick apart these artillery positions. They are, after all, well-protected, and combat resources that can engage them — namely aircraft — are limited compared to the sheer number of emplacements. 

In any case, a war with North Korea would be unspeakably bloody. Such a war would risk confrontation with China and would likely result in massive devastation throughout the Korean Peninsula. On top of this, Kim Jong-un seems unlikely to want war, as it would be the inevitable end of his nation and regime. 

Don’t get me wrong, Kim Jong-un is a brutal dictator who treats his own civilians worse than cattle. The man obviously has no place in the civilized world. But at what cost? 

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