Why we won’t have a war with North Korea
This essay is in sole interest of anxiety reduction for my friends who believe we are at the precipice of imminent nuclear war, a pretty unpleasant train of thought in the midst of a cultural moment in which we already have plenty to panic about. I recognize that people tend to hew to their own biases about such things, but this is a logical argument that we can afford to largely relax about this one particular unpleasant scenario, at this one particular point in time. After being very alarmed myself initially I have come to believe the Korea war hype is just that — a hype-fest co-produced by Trump, Kim, and a willing media. This is why:
- Elective war with the potential to go nuclear is a very big deal. It isn't something you press a button and start, there are enormous logistical considerations, and pieces have to be moved around the global military chessboard in preparation and to cover contingencies. This hasn't been happening. If we were serious about war with NK, this would be happening.
- Seoul, a city of 10 million, would be devastated in the first minutes of any war with NK. If there was serious concern in Seoul that a war was imminent, many people in Seoul would be visiting that cousin in the countryside for a spell. This isn't happening in great numbers to my knowledge. These are the people (along with the soon to be vaporized NK population) with the most to lose. Regardless of their attitudes about the North, most South Koreans don't want outright war, its a literal nightmare scenario for them. The newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently issued a statement where he “vowed to prevent war at any cost” and forcefully rejected the notion that the US could act unilaterally without South Korea’s approval (technically our agreement with the South Koreans allows us to act unilaterally, but in practice war made directly against the wishes of the South Korean government would be very problematic).
- Some people talk about a “limited strike”. It is well understood by military planners that NK would likely interpret any US attack as an existential attack on the regime and respond in kind, so any war is likely to be full war, and we would have to prepare for such (see previous point about logistics).
- In case of war China could easily find itself with a smoking nuclear ruin on its border and a veritable avalanche of irradiated half starved zombie refugees from NK. Definitely not a feature from China’s perspective. The status quo may not be great, but China also doesn't want war on the peninsula.
- The North Korean military would lose in any war with the US. They know this. War with the US would be the end of the Kim dynasty and the end of the privileged class in NK which gets all the power and the money. They dont want to lose those things. In seventy years of Kims they have never shown a desire to be suicidal. Indeed, they have been very savvy regarding their own survival, using threat and bluster to improve their negotiating position. There is little incentive to start a war with us unless we start a war with them.
- We have no idea if they have found a way to sneak a sub with a bomb next to Hawaii or the west coast. Or have the wherewithal to stage a dirty bomb attack or some other Dr. Evil style mega terrorist scenario, which they certainly possess the raw capacity for. Do we really want to risk such horrific consequences to our own citizens in the absence of a true imminent threat of a first strike from NK? There is a reason we have yet to start a war with another nuclear armed military.
- Japan would be a potential collateral casualty of any war with NK, suffering anything from missile strikes to terrorist attacks to a nuke or EMP. They are in the neighborhood and a much easier target than the US. For this and other reasons they will not support an elective war, and as the third biggest economy in the world, any major damage to them would blow back hard to us.
- War with NK could easily trigger a worldwide depression, particularly in scenarios where it went nuclear, which considering that NK is known to actually posses nukes, relatively likely.
- The recent news reports about some leaked intelligence that NK may have miniaturized a bomb enough to put on a missile that can reach the continental US — appears to be essentially #fakenews. I am not going to go into the case for this here as it is fairly technical but my understanding is that there is not really any “new” intelligence suggesting they now have a missile sitting on a launch pad that can hit, say, Chicago. Any NK nuclear ICBM technology is still a good ways off (though the ability to hit the continental US with an EMP blast, for example, may be closer at hand as it is a simpler technical problem).
The media and both Trump and Kim together arguably have much to gain from the hyping of war. Its distracts, it garners attention, it burnishes Trump’s alleged reputation for “toughness” while accumulating chips for Kim to bargain away in potential future negotiations. There are many reasons for a Trump and a Kim to publicly bluster about with each other, and similarly for the world’s news cycle addicted media to beat the war drums in sync, while all parties involved take on few of the risks and negative consequences from the actual doing of it. Writing is not fighting; words aren’t the same as bullets, and tweets aren’t the same as missiles. It’s easy to be confused on that point in a world where all conflict seems to play out in the media, but those who have been on the receiving end of real bullets and missiles well understand the difference.
I know the argument against all this — Trump. Trump is so crazy/random and/or dumb he might start a nuclear war out of sheer stupidity or simply blunder his way into one. I initially believed this myself, but I have come to appreciate that in this case even extreme levels of cavalier blustering will still have to get filtered through the viewpoints of multiple layers of stakeholders to any conflict, each with the ability to exert substantial influence and political pressure. The incentives for war among these stakeholders are poor across the board, and the disincentives very strong. In theory, Trump is commander and chief and has absolute authority to order an attack. In practice, its considerably more complicated than that. There may be a different Trump owned war coming that is more beloved by his cabinet of Generals (Iran?), but it is not going to be North Korea.