Given the ongoing conference in Vancouver about North Korea, I note that Abraham M Denmark, formerly an Assistant Secretary of Defence for East Asia and now Director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center has written a very useful article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Myth of the Limited Strike on North Korea.”
Now, I have said before that “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.“
Mr Denmark says that “Faced with the rapid advance of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities, Americans have begun to debate the possibility of a limited, preventive U.S. strike against North Korea—one that could deter the regime from further testing while avoiding a full-blown war. One possibility is a so-called bloody nose strike, which would involve destroying a North Korean missile launch site (bloodying the regime’s nose, as it were) 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 … [and] … The goal of a limited strike would be fairly straightforward: demonstrate to Pyongyang that it cannot continue conducting tests without risking a U.S. response. Crucially, proponents of such a strike assume that the United States’ own massive conventional and nuclear capabilities could deter North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un from retaliating, as such an escalation would risk his own destruction. Advocates for a limited strike also tend to argue that, by assuring Pyongyang that the United States does not seek regime change but will never accept a nuclear North Korea, Washington can convince Kim that negotiations are the only viable way forward … [but, he says] … It is unlikely, however, that a strike would work as planned. It would have no guarantee of successfully destroying North Korean capabilities, and Kim may well feel compelled to respond to even a limited attack. Any strike would thus risk igniting a full-blown war on the Korean Peninsula that would endanger millions of lives and ultimately diminish U.S. power and influence in the Asia-Pacific.“
He then explains that a successful attack will need the element of surprise but he also explains why both strategic and tactical surprise will be very hard to achieve. Abraham Denmark also worries, as we all should, about potential retaliation. “To avoid retaliation,” he say “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. Nuclear weapons are not only strategically important but fundamental to how the regime justifies its rule. From Pyongyang’s perspective, attacking North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles but sparing its leadership may be a distinction without a difference … [but] … Even if Pyongyang accepts U.S. assurances, it may choose to retaliate anyway. Kim may believe that retaliation would be necessary to preserve deterrence in the future, out of fear that failing to respond to a major strike would tell Washington that it can attack North Korea at will. In fact, research suggests that weaker states often feel the need to attack stronger states in order to demonstrate strength and resolve and to deter possible future attacks.” This is the dilemma America (and China) face when dealing with e.g. Iran and Pakistan, too … nuclear weapons give or promise them greater “consideration’ from their militarily mightier neighbours (Israel and India) and from the rest of the world, too. That’s what North Korea, arguably, wants.
Mr Denmark adds that “Even if the United States was able to carry out the strikes and prevent a massive North Korean response, however, it might not be able to successfully destroy all of Kim’s nuclear weapons and missiles. Indeed, the Pentagon recently told Congressthat eliminating all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons would require a ground invasion, probably owing to Pyongyang’s penchant for building military facilities underground, limiting the effectiveness of airstrikes. If the United States decides to attack North Korea without attempting to eliminate its ballistic missile and WMD capabilities, it would leave itself and its allies at Kim’s mercy. If, on the other hand, the United States is determined to keep going until North Korea has been completely denuclearized, it must consider the potential consequences of a full-scale invasion … [and] … A general war with North Korea would be devastating. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service estimated that between 30,000 and 300,000 people could die in the first days of fighting, even if Pyongyang refrained from using any weapons of mass destruction—an unlikely scenario. According to recently declassified U.S. government documents, moreover, in 1994 the Pentagon estimated that a war on the Korean Peninsula would kill or injure 52,000 American service people and over 490,000 South Korean troops in just three months of fighting. Those numbers have almost certainly gotten far worse in the intervening 24 years, given North Korea’s tremendous progress in developing weapons of mass destruction. Today, millions of lives could be threatened.” In my opinion a nuclear armed North Korea is preferable to a devastated South Korea … As I have in the past, I continue to suspect that China will, eventually, reign in nuclear armed North Korea.
There is a strategic dilemma: “If Washington initiates a conflict,” he warns “and Pyongyang escalates, Seoul and Tokyo may consider significantly curtailing (or even ending) their alliances with the United States, ejecting U.S. armed forces from their territory, and developing their own nuclear weapons. This would effectively end U.S. geopolitical dominance in the Asia-Pacific, creating a region riven with division and instability, with diminished U.S. power and influence and China poised to fill the void.“
The void, it seems to me, already exists. The USA is already being described as a “headless giant;” no one doubts its great power but fewer and fewer think that it has any sense of strategic direction. It appears that President trump runs a sort of “stream of consciousness” dialogue from the Oval Office while US officials officially ignore him unless or until some formal declarations are made. Who can blame key allies, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan and South Korea from curtailing their strategic cooperation with America? And who can blame China for moving into that void?
The near future looks pretty bleak to me …