The rumors of an April crisis on the Korean Peninsula are spreading like wildfire. Ominous hearsay of war on the Korean Peninsula are told and retold across social networks. They say North Korea will push ahead on its sixth nuclear test this month, and, in turn, America will commence a pre-emptive strike (or more accurately, a preventative strike), which will lead to war.
The much anticipated summit talk between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping yielded little, which is only further fueling suspicions. Trump is ramping up the stakes by openly proclaiming that all options are on the table, not excluding military actions, like a pre-emptive strike.
This certainly is not the first time a pre-emptive strike has been brought up. The Clinton administration seriously considered a surgical strike on the Yongbyon nuclear center during the first North Korean nuclear crisis, back in 1994. However, the Kim Young-sam administration was strongly opposed to the plan, foundering it in its planning stage. But now the time has changed, and so has the situation. The rumors of a potential crisis on the Korean Peninsula in April 2017 are not baseless.
First, North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities have grown larger and more sophisticated, to the point where they are incomparable to what they had in 1994. This can no longer be ignored. Another difference is that both America and North Korea have their own “leadership risks.” Both Trump and Kim Jong Un have the temperament of rugby ball that is unpredictable in its course. We cannot rule out the possibility of Kim Jong Un pushing forth North Korean nuclear tests and long-range missile provocations, and Trump responding by ordering a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, as he did in Syria. There’s the fact that the USS Carl Vinson – a U.S. aircraft carrier – was dispatched to the Korean Peninsula as soon as the U.S.-China summit talk was over. Vice President Mike Pence’s sudden visit to South Korea is not helping alleviate worries either.
Regardless, pre-emptive strikes remain an unrealistic option, according to military experts. First and foremost, there are now too many targets. Nuclear missile silos are spread all across North Korea, and many of them are hidden, making simultaneous strikes difficult. Launching an offensive against only the verified locations is likely to be ineffective and prone to side effects. The fact that most of the targets are near the China-North Korea border is no help either.
The possibility of an escalation to war is an even bigger problem. Even if North Korea were to only strike at the U.S. military base in South Korea in retaliation against a pre-emptive strike, collateral damage inflicted on South Korea would be unavoidable. An all-out war would be the most likely scenario. In such a case, we would risk a few hundred thousand casualties around Seoul due to North Korea’s long-range guns near the Demilitarized Zone.
In short, a pre-emptive strike against North Korea is a dangerous game that cannot be undertaken without preparing for an all-out war. It is impossible without ample and meticulous preparations. It obviously cannot happen without South Korea’s consent and close cooperation between the U.S. and South Korean militaries. Japan will need to be part of this conversation since it is within range of North Korean missiles, and China’s implied consent will be needed as well. Evacuating all foreign residents from South Korea would also be a big problem. None of these actions can be done quietly; a pre-emptive strike will be a de facto declaration of war.
The main argument for a pre-emptive strike is that we have to nip the threat in the bud, before North Korea can field an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of threatening the U.S. mainland. A pre-emptive strike is an irresponsible and reckless idea that asks us to risk a second Korean War to remove a potential threat to America.
America cannot force its concerns when South Korea will most likely be the biggest loser in this game. No government in South Korea will easily agree to such risks. In fact, it is likely Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster – who are considered more reasonable ex-military members of the Trump cabinet – will stand against it first.
In one way or another, the North Korean nuclear problem must be resolved. The most realistic path forward in the current situation would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear capability, de-escalating the tension in Korea by improving Seoul-Pyongyang/Washington-Pyongyang relations, and putting unification and denuclearization as the ultimate goal. The downside is that it legitimizes North Korea’s existing nuclear capability. Until the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is complete, a certain “balance of fear” needs to be maintained temporarily. One way of doing it would be to refield tactical nuclear weaponry in South Korea under the co-supervision and cooperation of the U.S. and South Korea.
The old saying, that peace is guaranteed by preparing for war, remains true. However, winning without fighting is still the best thing that can be achieved. We must stand firm and respond to North Korea’s provocation in kind, but it would be foolish to jump into the fire when we can clearly see the danger. A pre-emptive strike against North Korea is a bad move that will benefit no one. We must not fall for it.