Why a US military strike against North Korea would be disastrous

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Using nuclear weapons against North Korea is a terrible idea. More than 70 years after the first and only use of nuclear weapons in combat, it seems odd to have to put this in writing, but the past several weeks of heightened tensions with North Korea have made it a necessity.

As the crisis on the Korean peninsula deepens, voices calling for military action to halt North Korea’s nuclear programme have grown stronger and bolder. Last week, Kevin James, a research fellow from the London School of Economics, went a step further, writing that the administration should “nuke North Korea now: it’s the only option”. His argument is based on the assumption that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is an irrational actor, and that nuclear deterrence is a not an option.

This ignores a fundamental reality. The United States has been in a deterrence relationship with North Korea for decades.

Since the suspension of the Korean war in 1953, North Korea has held Seoul, the world’s fourth-largest metropolis, and home to roughly 25 million people, hostage. Pyongyang has thousands of artillery pieces trained on the South Korean capital, a mere 40km south of the border with North Korea. Shells fired from those batteries can reach their targets in roughly 45 seconds. That puts close to 35,000 US troops and 100,000 American civilians directly in harm’s way should a major conflict break out on the Korean peninsula.

To make matters worse, North Korea possesses one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world, and can deploy these toxins on an array of artillery shells and missiles. All of South Korea, Japan, and the vast majority of US military assets in the region are well within the range of these weapons. Within minutes of a US military strike, hundreds of these weapons would be launched at both civilian and military targets, inflicting devastating casualties, and causing significant delays in the arrival of American reinforcements to the Korean peninsula.

This grim reality does not take into account that North Korea has up to 60 nuclear weapons, and can deploy them on its short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles. It is less clear if North Korea can target the American mainland with a nuclear warhead using one of its newly tested intercontinental ballistic missiles, but this is somewhat of a moot point. If Pyongyang hasn’t perfected this capability, it will sooner or later; it is only a matter of time.

To think that the US can preemptively strike Pyongyang and decapitate its ability to retaliate is a fantasy.

According to Siegfried Hecker, the emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who spent decades building nuclear weapons for the US, “there is no conceivable way the United States could destroy all North Korean nuclear weapons. It is not possible to know where they all are. Even if a few could be located, it would be difficult to destroy them without causing them to detonate and create a mushroom cloud over the Korean peninsula”. That same logic applies to North Korea’s conventional and chemical weapons.

Any way you look at it, the end result is the same. Attempting to denuclearise the Korean peninsula by force would result in a level of carnage that the world has not seen since the second world war.

In 2005, the Pentagon estimated that the first 90 days of an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula would produce between 300,000 and 500,000 American and South Korean military casualties. That estimate was produced a year before North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

The good news is that Kim isn’t suicidal. His actions are consistent with his bottom line of solidifying power and ensuring the survival of his regime. North Korea’s determination to develop a credible nuclear deterrent at all costs is a case in point. The irony, of course, is that using his nuclear arsenal against the United States or its allies would lead to the total destruction of what Kim holds dearest. As General Colin Powell once put it, the US response would turn North Korea into a “charcoal briquette”. This is a fact that Kim is painfully aware of.

For almost 70 years, North Korea and the US have been locked in a Mexican stand-off that has kept an uneasy peace. The facts on the ground remain mostly unchanged – the only difference is that North Korea has added a nuclear dimension to the deterrence relationship. That is an unwelcome development, but in no way does it alter the reality that neither party can attack the other without inviting a devastating response.

The bad news is that deterrence will eventually fail. It is a system that requires absolute perfection, yet it is overseen by imperfect human beings who are prone to errors, miscalculations, and cause accidents. That happened on multiple occasions during the cold war, and humanity is lucky to have got out of that stand-off alive.

Unfortunately, deterrence with North Korea is the best option we have. Although it is far from perfect, deterrence buys the international community valuable time to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Realistic goals need to be established, such as freezing North Korea’s nuclear programme, and getting Pyongyang to agree to a moratorium on ballistic missile testing. That should be a realistic target, given that Kim has already achieved what he set out to do: developing a credible nuclear deterrent to keep the US at bay.

The alternatives are non-starters. That is a fact that even senior White House officials will admit. In a surprisingly candid interview earlier this month, Steve Bannon, the now ousted White House chief strategist, told a reporter that “there’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it … they got us”. That might well be the only thing he has ever been right about.

Will Saetren is a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies, where he specialises in nuclear weapons policy

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