Thinking the Unthinkable: Nuclear War With North Korea

Is the Trump administration prepping the American people – indeed, the world – for a war against North Korea? It certainly seems so. US President Donald Trump is constantly needling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, comparing the size of their respective “nuclear buttons,” while during a speech to the United Nations in September he promised to “totally destroy North Korea” if it was believed to be a threat to the United States

Trump’s generals – the only other people he seems to trust, outside of his immediate family – appear to be playing along. The head of the US Marine Corps told his troops that “there’s a war coming.” H R McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, also seems pumped up for conflict. According to recent articles, McMaster feels that traditional deterrence will not work on Kim, and that it is “almost impossible to overstate the threat from a nuclear-armed North Korea.”

In apparent response, the US military seems to be gradually yielding to the idea of war with North Korea. A recent New York Times article ominously suggested that the military is quietly preparing for “a last resort: war with North Korea.” US forces are practicing quick-reaction mobilizations and air-assault exercises, sending Special Operations forces to South Korea, and deploying additional bombers, including B-2s, to Guam.

The US military insists that it just wants to be prepared for any contingency. However, every day it seems more and more conceivable that a US-North Korean war could break out.

Suppose they gave a war …

Admittedly, there is a wide gap between conceiving a war with North Korea and actually undertaking one – and thank goodness for that. However, conceptualizations are often the first step toward action, and this raises two big concerns.

The first worry, of course, is that the Trump administration could simply talk itself into a war. Saber-rattling and mobilizations can have the effect of self-fulfilling prophecy. The more one talks about war, the more it seems inevitable. This sense of inevitability, of being destined to fight, was one of the more powerful factors in the outbreak of World War I. This fore-ordainment also helped spark the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq war.

More important, however, the Trump administration seems to have no idea how it should and could fight a war against North Korea. The United States has never engaged in an open and direct conflict with a nuclear-armed power. How does it fight such a war without setting off a nuclear response?

The unlikely ground invasion

In the first place, a ground invasion is probably out of the question. South Korea would never allow the US to use its territory as a launching pad for an attack on the North, and Seoul would certainly not join the US in such a foolhardy act.

Even if US forces could cross the heavily defended Demilitarized Zone, they would face a huge and obstinate opposing force; most of the North Korean military may consist of obsolete weaponry, but it has a tremendous advantage in numbers, and the North Koreans would be fighting on their territory for their country. And if they began to lose, what would stop them from resorting to nuclear weapons?

Moreover, such military action would play directly into Pyongyang’s hands. The North Koreans are already obsessed with the idea that the US wants to destroy them. A unilateral attack would only prove their fears are justified, and that might be sufficient to provoke a nuclear response.

In addition, unilateral US military action would almost certainly engender global opprobrium. China would be livid that the US was destabilizing regional security. The Western alliance would be perhaps irretrievably ruptured, both in Europe and in Northeast Asia.

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