The United States should resolve to avoid war with North Korea in 2018

South Korean protesters burn a mock-up of a North Korean missile. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

By Colin Kahl, the Steven C. Házy Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Previously, he was deputy assistant to the U.S. president and national security advisor to the vice president. This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

It’s the season for New Year’s resolutions. So here’s a good one: Let’s resolve not to have a massive war on the Korean Peninsula in 2018. Any such war could result in tens of thousands of deaths in the opening hours of hostilities, and potentially kill hundreds of thousands or even millions before the end of the conflict.

Unfortunately, like many New Year’s resolutions, this one may be difficult to keep. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a keen observer of foreign affairs who has become a confidante of President Donald Trump, recently put the odds of Trump authorizing a preventive strike against North Korea at three in 10. Graham may be overly optimistic. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are rapidly colliding with Trump’s recklessness to make the possibility of a second Korean war the single greatest threat to world peace in 2018.

The challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear program is not new. In the early 1990s, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that North Korea had separated sufficient weapons-grade plutonium for one or two nuclear bombs, and the country tested its first nuclear explosive device in 2006. According to media reports, the U.S. intelligence community currently assesses that North Korea possesses as many as five dozen nuclear weapons, and Kim Jong Un’s regime likely has the ability to deliver them against regional targets using its increasingly sophisticated arsenal of short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, when North Korea’s nuclear and missile program appeared to only threaten America’s Asian allies, then-candidate Trump seemed relatively sanguine about the danger. In fact, in an infamous interview with the New York Times, Trump appeared to suggest that South Korea and Japan should consider developing their own nuclear deterrents in order to fend for themselves instead of always turning to Uncle Sam. However, after being warned by President Barack Obama and receiving intelligence briefings on the growing direct threat to the United States emanating from Kim’s drive to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Trump changed his tune. On Jan. 2, he tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”

Yet, during the remainder of 2017, this is precisely what seemed to happen. North Korea conducted at least 20 missile tests this past year, including three missiles with intercontinental range. On Nov. 28, the North tested a Hwasong-15 ICBM capable of ranging the entire continental United States. Meanwhile, on Sept. 3, North Korea tested its largest nuclear weapon to date. The energy generated by the blast suggested that the device was at least 10-times greater than the nuclear bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. While it remains uncertain whether North Korea has yet perfected a survivable re-entry vehicle to reliably deliver a city-busting nuclear warhead via an ICBM, the rogue nation may pass that technological hurdle sometime in 2018.

The president has responded to North Korea’s apparent disregard for his Twitter red line with increasingly heated rhetoric and threats of war. Trump has taunted Kim, calling him “Little Rocket Man;” promised to rain down “fire and fury” and “totally destroy North Korea” if Pyongyang threatens the United States with nuclear weapons; and declared that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”

Although Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have attempted to be more measured, others on team Trump have bent over backwards in public and private to convey the willingness, and even the likelihood, of Trump initiating military action. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has been particularly vocal in this regard. The North Korean regime has been dissuaded from using its nuclear capabilities for more than a decade, and both the U.S. intelligence community and most outside experts believe Kim is sufficiently rational for the logic of mutually assured destruction to operate. But McMaster has repeatedly suggested otherwise, arguing that Kim is a leader of “unspeakable brutality” who is essentially undeterrable. (As Max Boot notes, the United States successfully deterred China and the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear attack during the Cold War “even when they were led by blood-thirsty lunatics such as Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin” — but that argument seems lost on McMaster.) On Dec. 19, McMaster told CBS News that Kim’s regime “has never met a weapon it didn’t use” and, consequently, the world “can’t tolerate” the risk of co-existing with a nuclear North Korea. Unless Pyongyang completely relinquishes its nuclear ambitions through diplomatic means, McMaster warns, the United States will have no choice but to address the threat militarily — a prospect that is growing as North Korea’s nuclear and missile progress marches on.

As we learned the hard way with Iraq, if a rogue regime is deemed undeterrable, and diplomatic compromise is seen as untenable, the allure of preventive war can quickly become irresistible. McMaster has taken the lead in making these arguments, but he is not alone. In October, Admiral Harry Harris, the top military officer in the Asia-Pacific, told an audience in Singapore that Kim was a “reckless dictator,” and he warned that “combining nuclear warheads with ballistic missiles in the hands of a volatile leader … is a recipe for disaster.” Harris made clear that he preferred a diplomatic solution, but emphasized that diplomacy had to be backed up with a “credible” military option. “Many people have thought about military options being unimaginable regarding North Korea. Folks, I must imagine the unimaginable. And what is unimaginable to me are North Korean nuclear-tipped missiles delivered in Los Angeles, in Honolulu, in Seoul, in Tokyo, in Sydney, in Singapore.”

At the very least, all of this posturing is aimed at bolstering coercive diplomacy. The target is not just Kim’s regime, but the international community, and China in particular. The Trump administration deserves credit for building on efforts during the Obama administration to isolate Pyongyang. Trump’s “madman” routine has probably helped motivate the United Nations Security Council to get behind increasingly punishing sanctions targeting the North, and it has encouraged Beijing to do more to implement them. As a result, the diplomatic and economic vice on Pyongyang is tightening.

Nevertheless, Trump’s maximum pressure campaign isn’t likely to achieve the president’s stated objectives. Kim sees nuclear weapons and the ability to target the U.S. mainland as his best way to ensure regime survival. It is simply inconceivable that he will accept full denuclearization at this point, no matter how much the pressure builds. Furthermore, while it is true that China has gotten much tougher on Kim’s regime, Beijing remains unlikely to completely blockade the North, fearing Pyongyang’s collapse more than its nuclear-tipped missiles. And even if China somehow decided to do so, it wouldn’t create an existential choice for Kim before North Korea’s nuclear and ICBM progress crossed technological thresholds the Trump administration deemed unacceptable. Indeed, the combination of unrelenting pressure and perceived abandonment by China may actually reinforce Kim’s belief that he must race across the nuclear ICBM goal line as his only remaining path to prevent U.S.-imposed regime change.

All of this means that, sometime in 2018, Trump’s threat to use force will likely be put to the test.

Given the difficulty the United States would have in confidently finding and destroying North Korea’s nuclear weapons and mobile ballistic missile launchers, as well as the North’s ability to level Seoul with its formidable artillery and rocket arsenal, would the president actually risk starting a preventive war if Kim fails to cry uncle?


Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.

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