What are the strategic options for dealing with North Korea?
- First, of course, is to maintain the status quo ~ America and North Korea continue the “bluster wars” in which President Trump and Kim Jong-un wave their missiles and nukes at one another ~ even though I think Kim is actually enjoying himself ~ and threaten ever increasing disaster;
- At the other end of the strategic spectrum we have a preemptive nuclear “take down” by the United States.
The problem with the first option is that it solves nothing: Kim will, eventually, make a serious mistake ~ because he is, very likely, insane ~ and the result will be an American retaliatory attack that will kill tens of millions, obliterate North Korea as a state, do HUGE damage to South Korea and parts of China, too, and threaten global peace and security for decades. It’s the worst possible choice.
The problem with the preemptive “take down” is that while the damage will be less it will still not address the underlying issue of North East Asia.
There are, of course, some “mid range” options:
- The Americans could launch a devastating, surprise, conventional attack that might “decapitate” the North Korean leadership, making a nuclear counterattack impossible, and, simultaneously, weaken the North Korean conventional military so much that the its inevitable counter-attack on Seoul will do minimal damage; or
- China might decide to stage a coup d’état and kill Kim and his henchmen and replace him with a Chinese puppet.
In my opinion the US military has the technical expertize and the resources to do a pretty good job of mounting a “decapitating” conventional strike, but, in order to avoid doing serious damage to South Korea the conventional strike must be damned close to perfect … something that is well beyond just doing “a pretty good job,” which is, on most days, the best one can expect of even the finest military forces.
I suspect that China has most of the most senior North Korean generals and officials on its payroll. My guess is that only a small minority are loyal to the Kim regime … but that’s just a guess. That, a Chinese coup that also “decapitates” the command and control of North Korea’s nuclear forces, is, I think, the least unsatisfactory outcome.
Another guess ~ the Chinese want two things in exchange for settling the North Korean problem:
- A reunified Korea under, generally, South Korean leadership; and
- The end of any significant American military presence on the Asian mainland.
I don’t think the Chinese will object to American military bases, even quite large ones, especially the so called “lily-pads,” in Japan and on islands in the Western Pacific and near the South China Seas ~ they, the Chinese, are, after all, doing the same thing. But Korea is, I believe, a special thorn in China’s side and I suspect the Chinese leadership will demand that the USA vacate South Korea as a condition of reunification and nuclear disarmament.
Secretary of Defence’s James Mattis’ recent statement seems to suggest that the US position has hardened and that any further (carefully defined) North Korean provocation ~ ““Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.”” ~ will result in a sudden, carefully planned (to degrade North Korea’s capacity to do damage to South Korea and to destroy the nuclear weapons and/or “decapitate” the C² system) conventional attack. The linked article, in Foreign Policy, says that “it seems clear that Mattis wants a peaceful solution as a primary objective, but is ready to strike North Korean nuclear and military installations if Pyongyang makes any further threat to the U.S. or its allies … [but] … Mattis was careful to leave a safety valve in the language he used. His statement leaves the Trump administration room to maneuver in the definition of the term “any threat”. Thus, such language could be interpreted by the administration to either include or exclude merely verbal threats, or indeed, any other type … [and another but] … Mattis’ use of the term “any threat” may have been designed to anticipate a justification to use force in self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which is understood to require an imminent threat of “armed attack” against which action can then be taken in self-defense, if that attack has not yet begun. Note that action taken under Article 51 does not require prior U.N. Security Council approval.“
Some commentators, like Professor Austin Bay, writing in the Observer, a New York City based online journal, have their own lists and theories. There are plenty of choices for the armchair strategists.
It is, of course, important to try to understand Kim Jong-un’s strategic aim. A very useful article in the Financial Times suggests that he might have one of two plausible aims:
- To defeat South Korea and reunify the peninsula under his rule; or
- To deter the USA (and South Korea) and, indeed, China from trying to topple his regime.
If Kim’s aim is, in fact, to reunite the two Koreas under his rule then both China and the USA have excellent reasons to take preemptive, offensive action: either a military strike or, better, a coup d’état. If, on the other hand, Kim is, honestly, on the strategic defensive, looking for a way to survive, then the argument for even further diplomatic action is best. But, writing in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman asks “If deterrence is his only concern, why is Mr Kim apparently going out of his way to provoke the US, Japan, even China?” It’s a good question. Mr Rachman outlines the uncertainties, mainly created by President Trump’s seemingly “off the cuff” reactions, created in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo when, one would hope, the world would be unified against Kim’s North Korea. It is hard enough to guess what Kim wants; it is harder when we are uncertian about what Trump might do.
A continuation of the current “bluster war” is, in my opinion, the least satisfactory choice because I fear it will lead to nuclear war; any military solution is fraught with dangers; renewed diplomacy might work, under one specific circumstance; but, all thing considered, a coup d’état is, in my personal opinion, the better choice, but the price may be too high for American policy makers.
I’m not suggesting that giving China what I suspect it wants is the best choice or even a right choice. I believe that in the current, 2017, strategic environment it is the least bad choice.