During his New Year’s Day speech, the North Korean leader said he was open to talks so that North Korean athletes could participate in the Winter Olympics, which open in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang next month. But Kim also warned that the entire United States was in the range of North Korean nuclear missiles and a nuclear button was always on his desk.
Seoul answered the North Korean talks overture by proposing high-level talks at a border village next week, and on Wednesday the two Koreas reopened a border hotline that had been closed since February 2016.Thus yesterday President Donald Trump agreed to suspend joint military drills with South Korea during next month's Winter Olympics following a phone call with his counterpart Moon Jae-in, according to officials in Seoul and the Pentagon. Moon also said in reference to the upcoming talks with N. Korea; "We are confident that this process will help to create an atmosphere of dialogue between the United States and North Korea to resolve the North Korean nuclear.
The limited strike strategy on or off the table?
While at the moment it is likely that the US is about to play down the possibility of conflict with nuclear-armed North Korea which, if so, is in stark contrast when on 21 Dec. U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller’s remarks to Marines in Norway in which Neller predicted “a big-ass fight” and said “I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming.”
It was interesting that this remark by a top US General came shortly after news broke that the US is preparing plans to deliver a “bloody nose” attack against North Korea to knock out its nuclear weapons program. The White House has “dramatically” ramped up its military plans amid fears that diplomacy won’t thwart North Korean Kim Jong Un from making good on his threats, sources told the UK’s Telegraph.
The latter would involve destroying a North Korean missile launch site in order to demonstrate the United States’ resolve. Some have gone even further, calling for “air and missile strike[s] against all known DPRK nuclear test facilities and missile launching and support facilities” in the event of a North Korean atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
We also knew that over the past year, the US military has been quietly ramping up its presence near the Korean Peninsula. The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe reported in October that the US military was deploying classified “strategic assets”, most likely meaning “submarines, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons or bombers,” per Lamothe, to the peninsula. And as I reported on 9 August the US Air Force issued a very clear statement in which it explicitly said that it was "ready to fight tonight," launching an attack of B-1 bombers if so ordered.
However, a successful preventive strike (bloodying the regime’s nose, as has been lately suggested) would require surprise, which will be difficult. Hence it seems unlikely to me that a strike would work as planned.
Another key aspect of any limited strike strategy would be to limit North Korean retaliation. Washington would have to convince Kim that, despite attacking his nuclear and missile infrastructure, it does not seek regime change. Yet North Korea is unlikely to take the United States at its word. For decades, a core element of North Korean state ideology has been that the United States is determined to invade and that nuclear weapons are necessary to prevent it.
To avoid retaliation, Washington would have to convince Pyongyang that U.S. objectives are limited and that it does not seek regime change or intend to invade. This despite the fact that, in the event of a preventive strike, the United States would have just killed hundreds if not thousands of North Koreans in an attempt to remove what Pyongyang sees as its only guarantee against an invasion. Consider, too, how closely the nuclear program is tied to the legitimacy of Kim and his regime.
This said while the claim is that destroying North Korean nuclear facilities would require many thousands of bombing sorties, the known, the probable, add up to less than three dozen installations, most of them quite small. Under no reasonable military plan would destroying those facilities demand thousands of airstrikes.
And S.Korean casualties could still be drastically reduced by a crash resilience program. This should involve clearing out and hardening with jacks, props, and steel beams the basements of buildings of all sizes; promptly stocking necessities in the 3,257 official shelters and sign-posting them more visible; and, of course, evacuating as many as possible beforehand. The United States, for its part, should consider adding vigorous counterbattery attacks to any airstrike on North Korea.
Nevertheless, as I pointed out before, a general war with North Korea would indeed be devastating.
Much of the rhetoric on North Korea coming out of the Trump administration, one could argue, mirrors that of the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Yet one important difference remains: the Trump administration, unlike the Bush administration, has yet to make the case for war to the American people or the international community. If the United States and North Korea are indeed coming closer to war every day, U.S. leaders have yet to explain why a war may be necessary, how military action will achieve U.S. goals, how they plan to limit casualties, why such incredible risks and sacrifices are necessary, and how they envision the conflict to end.
Also understanding where China really stands on North Korea is of crucial importance.
How do we know what China wants
Given the costs of a war on the Korean Peninsula, planners have long thought that China would do everything it could to avoid becoming entangled in a major conflagration involving South Korean and U.S. forces. If China did intervene, policymakers assumed that Beijing would limit its role to managing refugees close to the border or supporting the Kim regime from a distance through political, economic, and military aid. Either way, Washington believed that China’s role would not significantly impact U.S. operations.
This is no longer a safe assumption. Instead, Washington must recognize that China will intervene extensively and militarily on the peninsula if the United States seems poised to move its forces north. This is not to say that China will take preemptive action. Beijing will still attempt to keep both sides from leading everyone down the path to war. Moreover, if an ensuing conflict were limited to an exchange of missile and air strikes, China would most likely stay out. But if its attempts to deter the United States from escalating the crisis to a major war failed, Beijing would not hesitate to send considerable Chinese forces into North Korea to ensure its interests were taken into account during and after the war.
China’s likely strategic assertiveness in a Korean war would be driven largely by its concerns about the Kim regime’s nuclear arsenal, an interest that would compel Chinese forces to intervene early to gain control over North Korea’s nuclear facilities. In the words of Shen Zhihua, a Chinese expert on North Korea, “If a Korean nuclear bomb explodes, who’ll be the victim of the nuclear leakage and fallout? That would be China and South Korea. Japan is separated by a sea, and the United States is separated by the Pacific Ocean.”
China is well positioned to deal with the threat. Based on information from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S. nonprofit, if Chinese forces moved 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) across the border into North Korea, they would control territory containing all of the country’s highest-priority nuclear sites and two-thirds of its highest-priority missile sites. For Chinese leaders, the goal would be to avoid the spread of nuclear contamination, and they would hope that the presence of Chinese troops at these facilities would forestall a number of frightening scenarios: China could prevent accidents at the facilities; deter the United States, South Korea, or Japan from striking them; and block the North Koreans from using or sabotaging their weapons.
Beijing is also concerned that a reunified Korea might inherit the North’s nuclear capabilities. My Chinese interlocutors seemed convinced that South Korea wants nuclear weapons and that the United States supports those ambitions. They fear that if the Kim regime falls, the South Korean military will seize the North’s nuclear sites and material, with or without Washington’s blessing. Although this concern may seem far-fetched, the idea of going nuclear has gained popularity in Seoul. And the main opposition party has called for the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula—an option that the Trump administration has been reluctant to rule out.
Beyond nuclear concerns, China’s stance on North Korea has shifted as part of its more general geopolitical assertiveness under Xi. Unlike his predecessors, Xi is not shy about China’s great-power ambitions. In a three-and-a-half-hour speech he gave in October, he described China as “a strong country” or “a great country” 26 times. That is a far cry from the dictum that one of his predecessors, Deng Xiaoping, preferred: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Under Xi, China is increasingly playing the role of a major power, and he has pushed for military reforms to ensure that the PLA can fight and win future wars.
Chinese military intervention
Most importantly, a war on the Korean Peninsula would represent a litmus test of China’s regional competition with the United States. Indeed, Chinese concerns about Washington’s future influence best explain why China is unwilling to push North Korea to the degree that the Trump administration wants. China will not risk instability or war if the outcome could be a larger U.S. role in the region. Given this, China no longer feels comfortable sitting on the sidelines. As one PLA officer asked me, “Why should the United States be there but not us?” For this reason alone, Chinese scholars and military leaders argue, China will need to be involved in any contingency on the peninsula.
The bottom line, then, is that any Korean conflict involving large-scale U.S. military operations is likely to trigger a significant Chinese military intervention. That does not mean that the United States should try to deter China: such a response would almost certainly fail, and it would increase the chances of a direct military confrontation between Chinese and U.S. forces. Moves that could damage the relationship between Beijing and Washington would also impede contingency planning or coordination before and during a crisis, raising the risks of miscalculation.
Instead, it might be wise for the US to recognize that some forms of Chinese intervention would actually be beneficial to its interests, especially with regard to nonproliferation. First and foremost, U.S. officials should note that Chinese forces are likely to make it to North Korea’s nuclear sites long before U.S. forces, thanks to advantages in geography, force posture, manpower, and access to early warning indicators. That is a good thing, since it would reduce the likelihood that the collapsing regime in Pyongyang would use nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. China could also prove helpful by identifying nuclear sites (with the assistance of U.S. intelligence), then securing and accounting for the nuclear material at those sites, and finally inviting international experts in to dismantle the weapons. The United States, meanwhile, could lead multilateral efforts to intercept North Korean nuclear materials at sea, in the air, or traveling overland and to guarantee their accounting, safe storage, and disposal.
And it might be wise for Washington to take greater risks to improve coordination with China in peacetime. Granted, sharing intelligence with China and jointly planning and training for contingencies would seem unnatural since the United States is simultaneously engaged in a long-term strategic competition with China. The U.S. Defense Department considers China to be one of its top five global threats, along with Iran, North Korea, Russia, and extremist organizations. But strategic challenges and severe threats often bring together potential adversaries, and rightfully so. With North Korea out of the way, the United States would have more resources at its disposal to address other threats.
China, long opposed engaging in discussions with the US-China appears to be softening its position. In a September op-ed in the East Asia Forum, Jia Qingguo, a professor at Peking University, argued that China should cooperate with the United States and South Korea, especially on the question of North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal. In Jia’s words, “The omens of war on the Korean peninsula loom larger by the day. When war becomes a real possibility, China must be prepared. And, with this in mind, China must be more willing to consider talks with concerned countries on contingency plans.”
Of course, every strategy has its tradeoffs. Potentially worrisome would be the fact that Chinese intervention in North Korea would entail the loss of some U.S. influence on the peninsula. At a fundamental level, China would be acting not to assist the United States but to ensure that a reunified Korea would not include U.S. troops. But that may not be so bad, after all. In frank discussions, Chinese interlocutors have insinuated that Beijing may yet accede to a U.S. alliance with a reunified Korea. In that case, the end of a permanent U.S. military presence on the peninsula would be a reasonable price to pay to ensure that a second Korean war had the best possible outcome.
In the end, whether the "bloody nose" rhetoric is just a bluff remains to be seen, but the US is desperate to become relevant again in the Korean diplomatic process. Within the Trump administration, officials say, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remain focused on trying to get a broader diplomatic effort under way to rein in the North Korean nuclear program. Meanwhile, National security adviser H.R. McMaster is arguing more vocally, publicly and privately, that military options need to be considered.
McMaster also explained to Chris Wallace on Fox in December that Kim Jong Un’s quest to hold the U.S. mainland at nuclear risk with his ICBM program could well be to advance his goal of conquering South Korea. North Korea’s intentions, he said, “are to use that weapon for nuclear blackmail, and then, to, quote … ‘reunify’ the peninsula under the red banner … and to drive the States and our allies away from this peninsula that he would then try to dominate.”
The problem is that conventional wisdom on North Korea contradicts McMaster, holding that North Korea seeks nuclear weapons primarily to deter an American attack, nuclear or otherwise. (As John Nagl tells Friedman: “I see North Korea pursuing a defensive mechanism to preserve its regime.”) One reason for the popularity of this point of view—that, in a common formula, Kim “doesn’t want to be the next Saddam—is that it is reassuring. And if it is accurate, then absent an invasion of North Korea, Kim will have no reason to use his nuclear (or impressive conventional) arsenal against anyone.
McMaster could be wrong about Kim’s motives, even if they arguably best explain his ICBMs and fit the regime’s history and ideology. But it’s not surprising that he considers this possibility; what is surprising is how much of the American security community dismisses out of hand this explanation for Kim’s risky, costly missile program to target the U.S.
The failure to countenance this possibility could well reflect the historic tendency of liberal societies to discount existential threats simply because they are terrible: The arguments before 1914 that global integration ruled out an extended world war; the appeasement of the Axis powers in the 1930s; and the blinders toward Soviet aggression immediately after World War II.
Taking this possibility into account, as McMaster has, does not necessarily mean embracing preventive war. But it would justify far more risky Cold War-style military preparations, including redeployment of battlefield nukes in or near Korea, and encouraging the development of Japanese and South Korean long-range conventional strike capabilities or, in extremis, their own nuclear capabilities. The aim would be to affect both North Korean and Chinese calculations and introduce automaticity, an almost unstoppable escalation toward a nuclear exchange once any conflict begins, and thus credibility to deterrence.
Furthermore, such risky military preparations would allow Washington to balance them, without appearing to appease Pyongyang, with more realistic, compromise political goals that give North Korea (and China) diplomatic outs. These could include a "temporary” diplomatic solution that stops North Korean development of systems that can strike the U.S., but accepts in practice some nuclear capability, rather than the unrealistic maximalist U.S. position of no nuclear weapons.
As for the hopeful discussions to start in Seoul, for now, of course, there is no reason to start any kind of war with North Korea when nonmilitary options are working. A peaceful resolution to simmering tensions as the Olympics near is a possibility, even if it’s still a remote one. But thanks to the Olympics and the intra-Korean diplomatic opening, the next few months figure to be relatively calm.
Update 18 January: On 9 January, the leading US WSJ newspaper reported that U.S. officials are mulling the possibility of launching a military strike against North Korean targets without provoking war on the Korean Peninsula, the Wall Street Journal reports.
It's been dubbed the "bloody nose" strategy: "React to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior," per the Journal.
Similarly on 14 January in the New York Times titled: Military Quietly Prepares for a Last Resort: War With North Korea, stating that; "But unlike the very public buildup of forces in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the 2003 Iraq war, which sought to pressure President Saddam Hussein of Iraq into a diplomatic settlement, the Pentagon is seeking to avoid making public all its preparations for fear of inadvertently provoking a response by Mr. Kim, North Korea’s leader."
Also today, in a recent piece for The Atlantic, James Jeffrey defended McMaster’s logic for preventive war. Jeffrey argued that the national security adviser may possess a superior understanding of Kim’s aims. These aims, Jeffrey wrote, include the acquisition of a nuclear-tipped ICBM; the undermining of America’s security guarantees to its allies in the region; and, ultimately, the invasion and reclamation of the South. While using force against North Korea would be destructive, it may also be the “least bad” alternative to Kim’s eventual attempt at conquest, according to Jeffrey.
The danger is that Trump and his advisers might conclude that a nuclear North would be so reckless, and so likely to cause nuclear proliferation, that it is better to risk war on the Korean peninsula this year than a potential strike on an American city or South Korea in the next few years. Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first, but not through a preventive strike that could start a nuclear war.