War on the Korean peninsula may or may not be growing more likely. But it sure feels like it is.
Leaders in North Korea and the United States are rattling sabers at each other and conducting military exercises in the region. The entire Senate is set to visit the White House Wednesday for a briefing on the North Korean threat. The U.N. Security Council ambassadors came to the White House Monday and the United States is convening a special U.N. Security Council meeting to talk options on North Korea on Friday.
Arizona Republican John McCain, chairman of Senate Armed Services, dined with President Donald Trump Monday night along with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and the three men talked about North Korea. McCain told reporters Tuesday a U.S. preemptive strike would be the last option Trump would consider.
But as North Korea edges closer to being able to threaten the United States with a missile, a preemptive U.S. strike will become more thinkable.
If it comes to war, it could be hell on Earth. Barring a fast surrender by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, even a purportedly limited, preemptive U.S. strike could lead to deaths in that region numbering as high as the hundreds of thousands, experts say.
The best of the other bad options for the United States and its allies include everything from re-upping previously unsuccessful diplomacy and tightening sanctions, on the one hand, to murdering Kim Jong Un, on the other.
It’s even possible that the status quo — that is: North Korea moving gradually closer to the day when it can field reliable intercontinental missiles tipped with nuclear warheads—may continue for a while without a U.S. response, despite the sound of war drums today.
But the combination of mercurial leaders in both Washington and Pyongyang, coupled with stepped-up military maneuvers on both sides, suggests conflict may be drawing nearer. And it may happen even if neither country really wants it to, due to miscalculation.
“If we start something or North Korea starts something, we are in an all-out war on the Korean peninsula,” says Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence official who is now an analyst with the Heritage Foundation, in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call.
Ahead of Wednesday’s unusual White House briefing for the Senate, North Korea’s military held live-fire drills Tuesday to commemorate the founding of its military. Of more concern is the prospect of additional North Korean missile and nuclear tests. They could come soon, if reports of satellite images of increased activity at testing sites, combined with North Korean leaders’ statements about intending to do more tests, are any indication.
Meanwhile, an American submarine specializing in firing cruise missiles and deploying commandos arrived in South Korea recently on what was called a routine port visit. Simultaneously, a pair of U.S. destroyers participated in exercises with the South Korean and Japanese navies. And a U.S. aircraft carrier and associated vessels were arriving on the peninsula.
Trump said Monday that the current situation is “unacceptable.”
Setting South Korea ‘On Fire’
North Korea’s regime has not yet successfully tested a missile with a range capable of hitting the United States, but some experts believe Pyongyang may already have such a capability, if not necessarily a reliable one.
Referring to North Korea attaining that capability, Trump tweeted in January: “It won’t happen!”
If North Korea stays on its current course, it’s a question of when, not if, it happens. Once it does, even if Kim Jong Un attains but never uses nuclear weapons, the threat of it will give him considerable sway on the global stage.
Avoiding that outcome is at the top of the U.S. national security agenda. The question, however, is how best to do it. It has been the question for years but it’s getting more pressing.
If the U.S. military were to conduct a preemptive strike in an attempt to nip the problem in the bud, the chances of success are not great, experts say.
If U.S. forces could find all of Pyongyang’s missiles — and that’s a big if — it would take enormous firepower to make sure they were all eradicated. There are not just rockets and intercontinental missiles — some of which can be hidden —but also hundreds of short- and medium- and intermediate-range missiles capable of hitting as far away as Japan or potentially U.S. troops on the Pacific island of Guam. Pyongyang is said to have some 1,000 missiles.
And North Korea still has about 10,000 artillery shells ready to fire from caves and other hiding places and capable of reaching South Korea’s capital, Seoul, within minutes.
Roughly 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea in range of Pyongyang’s arsenal, and at least 100,000 American civilians are estimated to live in Seoul alone.
North Korea “can literally set a considerable part of South Korea on fire,” said Sim Tack, an analyst with Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company, in a recent interview.
Then there are North Korea’s warplanes and its 1-million-man army.
If just some of North Korea’s means of delivery were to survive a U.S. first strike, the regime could still unleash great destruction with whatever part of the arsenal were to survive.
Pyongyang is said to have 2,500 tons of chemical weapons such as deadly sarin, which Syria’s military recently used. Just one ton of sarin can kill tens of thousands of people, according to RAND Corp.
North Korea may even have biological weapons, perhaps including small pox, according to past reports.
And it has perhaps 20 nuclear warheads today and will have about 100 in a few years, experts say. If it can’t yet send them to the United States, it can probably send one on a No Dong missile to Japan, according to Klingner of the Heritage Foundation.
In other words, unless Kim Jong Un capitulates quickly, a limited attack might not be effective, and an effective one would not be limited. Even U.S. cyber attacks would have consequences — either in cyberspace or on the ground, air or sea.
Then there’s the prospect of a strike to kill Kim Jong Un and hope that it sends a chilling message to his survivors in the regime. But the strike might not work. Even if it does work and certainly if it doesn't, it might trigger retaliation. Or it might precipitate a regime collapse and a humanitarian nightmare in North Korea even greater than the one that already exists in that country.
In short, all the military options are high risk. But preventing North Korea from reaching an intercontinental nuclear capability may be deemed an important enough goal to justify taking at least some of those risks.
“You have to take some risks sometimes if you want to stop something really bad from happening,” said Patrick Cronin, an analyst with the Center for New American Security.
Stumbling Into War
Even if both countries choose not to fight, it might happen anyway, with stepped-up military exercises and ramped-up rhetoric; with a demand for action from hardliners in both Pyongyang and Washington; and with mercurial leaders atop both nations.
Cronin said there are several possible scenarios for inadvertent escalation. North Korea could sink a ship, unleash a cyberattack, fire assault weapons into South Korea, launch artillery — or some combination of these.
It could also test a missile, whether an ICBM or shorter range, that hits a ship or plane or lands on or too close to Japan or South Korea, he said. Or North Korea could test an intercontinental missile in conjunction with other threatening actions or during a time of high tensions — then the test alone could be enough to tip the scales toward war, he said.
Michelle Lee, a spokeswoman for U.S. forces in South Korea, recently told CQ Roll Call that Kim Jong Un might trigger war by overplaying his hand.
“There is concern that the North Korean regime could miscalculate, believing that its increased capabilities provide it the capability to use military power below the threshold of major war, with its weapons of mass destruction serving to deter or limit South Korean and U.S. responses,” she said.
And if Kim Jong Un had to choose between peace and Armageddon, there's a chance he might choose the latter.
Kim might say, as his father, Kim Jong Il, reputedly said in 1993 when asked what he would do if he faced defeat by the United States: “I will be sure to destroy the Earth! What good is this Earth without North Korea?”