A war with North Korea would be indescribably bad. Millions dead. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans killed in the first day. The worst humanitarian crisis in decades. A possible U.S.-China military standoff. A global economic crash. And now the possibility of a nuclear strike on an American city.
Those are some of the costs. Naturally, then, you’d want to know what the benefits would be: What could possibly make such a war worthwhile?
This is what this column is trying to answer. For the record, I’m not an amateur talking out of my ass. I worked for a geopolitical intel firm next to some of the country’s leading North Korea experts.
I’d Like a Fresh Kale Salad with Anthrax Dressing, Please
This is the fundamental question: Do we, the people of the United States, even know what the United States wants out of this war? I’d argue that no, contrary to what anyone says publicly, we actually have no idea why we would go to war. And, contrary to what you might hear or fear yourself, our military doesn’t want it. Contractors wouldn’t want it. And Trump doesn’t want it, which doesn’t matter because he’s not in charge here, anyway. So don’t fear a strike out of nowhere just because Trump says so. But more on that later.
The US’s stated goal for North Korea has always been nothing short of regime change. But there’s good reason to doubt that this demand is entirely true. If there’s a point where the cost of regime change to the United States dramatically outweighs the benefits to the United States, we wouldn’t want to go that far. So is there such a point?
Yes, and that point is war. Here’s why.
First, North Korea would undoubtedly lose this war, but it would be far from an easy victory for the US. North Korea has about 1.2 million active-duty soldiers and nearly 8 million others in reserve. It also has a vast amount of conventional artillery trained this moment on Seoul, and that firepower is capable of killing up to hundreds of thousands of civilians in the South Korean capital. In the first hours of fighting. Nonetheless, the US would ultimately win the war and topple the North Korean regime. This is good because, to understate it massively, they need to go. The Kim family has over the last 60 years made their country by all accounts into a living hell for most of their 25 million people: Random executions; torture; imprisonment; labor camps; famine; disease; a police state; primal alienation; information deprivation; universal brainwashing. One North Korean defector recounted a numbing story in which he ratted out his mother at a prison camp, leading to her execution. He didn’t know what it truly meant to have a “mother” until months after his escape, though, and the deluge of guilt made life nearly impossible.
So yes, North Korea needs to be fixed. But would a war turn North Korea into a capitalist paradise? No. It doesn’t take Henry Kissinger to see that a war wouldn’t solve any problems for the North Korean people. The nation would collapse into lawlessness literally within minutes of word of a US strike. Then for the next decade, everything would be much, much, much worse. Remember Iraq? Unimaginably worse than that.
Which leads me to a simple question for Sarah Huckabee Sanders: If the cost of a brutal war would be losing the very thing you fought the brutal war for, and would indeed make your problem worse, why would we want to fight that brutal war? Is it partly because this administration wants to achieve the short-term goal of “beating” Obama’s assassination of Osama Bin Laden by claiming a dictator’s head? And beyond Trump’s own turgidity, is this also for the purpose of domestic propaganda, so the administration can further consolidate the support of a politically vicious and fickle base that demands constant “winning”? And is that because this administration, far from being proud of its base, sees in its immaturity an existential threat it must dulcify daily?
Okay, war is over, regime is gone. North Korea is on fire. Its 25 million people are starving and murdering each other all across its 46,000 square miles. They’re trying to cross into China, but China has sealed the border with its troops to stop defectors with force. After all, who knows what they’re trying to smuggle across the border, up to and including nuclear material. Same problem at the south border, where troops from the US and South Korea control the border. (But what about the ports, big and small?) So North Korea is again effectively sealed off. And within the borders, no one is in charge. It’s a 46,000 square mile power vacuum. No one outside of North Korea fully understands the structure of its regional and local governments or military chain of command. On top of that, the North Korean people have literally no concept of the outside world. It’s uncertainty at its purist. Terror. Throughout the country gunfire is as common as car horns.
Simple question number two: Who would run the place?
Here are the possibilities: The United States; the United Nations; China; or any number of coalitions, such as US-South Korea, US-China, US-China-Russia, US-Japan-South Korea-China-UN, etc etc.
If anyone has any idea how this could possibly be administrated even without the extra hiccup of an anarchic scorched-earth death zone, please run for president.
Next: We’d fight a war in part because it would eliminate the threat of North Korea starting a nuclear war. I don’t have to paint a picture to set up simple question number three: Wouldn’t us starting a war also likely start a nuclear war?
Here’s another twist: North Korea seems to have developed missiles capable of striking the United States. We don’t know how accurate those missiles would be, and we don’t yet know if the NK military has achieved “miniaturization,” meaning developing a functional nuclear warhead at a size that could fit on a missile. We have reason to believe this has possibly already happened: A photo recently turned up of NK’s previous leader, KJU’s father Kim Jong-Il, next to what appears to be an atomic warhead. If this is a real warhead and not a mock-up, it would indicate the country had the ability to miniaturize a bomb over a decade ago. This isn’t good news.
Also note that North Korea’s 2017 ICBM launches took our intelligence community by surprise: We previously thought this technology was at least a year away. If their technology is that far ahead of our estimates, it’s more likely that they can not only reach us with a missile (an empty threat) but with an armed missile. If this is true, any American military action against North Korea risks a nuclear strike on the United States. The words “strategic strike” or “SEAL Team 6 assassination” sure seem perfect in our imagination, but those are just words. Truth is we can’t carry out any strike that doesn’t run a high risk of retaliation from North Korea, which could easily lead to nukes.
How about we just nuke the shit out of North Korea? Well, 25 million people live there. The aftermath would be intolerably tragic. Global markets would collapse. We’d lose all international relationships, including trade. Trump would more or less be Hitler, and we’d be basically thought of for decades as we think of Nazi Germany.
Next reason: We would go to war to make good on our commitment to defend our South Korean and Japanese allies, who have in return for our protection forfeited their own rights to militarization.
This leads to simple question number four: Wouldn’t war with North Korea—which experts estimate already has a possible 60 nuclear weapons—do the opposite of securing peace in the region, and instead jeopardize millions of innocent lives in Japan and South Korea, including dozens of thousands of people in Seoul in the first four hours?
Well, okay, technically yes, it would.
So does the US starting such a war sound like something South Korea and Japan would be terribly excited about, or would it do the opposite of our promise and make things worse for them?
Well, if you put it that way, it’d probably make things worse.
Follow-up: How would that reflect on our capacity to secure peace? Would anyone else get a bit nervous about being our ally, such as other countries we’re sworn to protect against nuclear aggressors? (cough NATO) Would our exercise of overwhelming military power reinforce the value of that power as a guarantor of peace or do the opposite and make it worse?
Another reason we want regime change so badly is that the North Korea threat happens to work to China’s benefit right now. North Korea is a proxy for China to restrict how much the US can project power in the region. If Kim Jong-un goes, China will have to confront the US directly. So if we want to work with China towards establishing a peaceful regional balance that favors the US, would a war help get us there?
This brings us to the next reason to take down North Korea: Nuclear proliferation. The first place the US would have to confront China would obviously be on the peninsula itself: Securing North Korea’s nukes. China wouldn’t trust the US or our regional allies to do this, and it wouldn’t trust us to wait until the UN could get in and figure out how to do its thing. In the medieval vacuum of this second Korean War, with chains of command broken, all governance gone, and all threat of consequences gone, every regional and local North Korean commander or political leader has every incentive to steal and smuggle all the military equipment it possibly can, including nuclear material. Also, we don’t even know where this stuff is.
So: Will war end the very real threat of nuclear proliferation, or will it make it worse?
It will make it worse.
War, unh, with North Korea: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.
But Trump Is Afraid of Mueller! Who Knows What He’ll Do!
Trump might well be afraid of the Mueller investigation, and he’s demonstrated a willingness to cook up scandals in hopes of slowing or ending it. He also fired James Comey. He’s an emotionally unstable, insecure autocrat with an anger problem—deficient of empathy—and who by nature wants to rule the U.S. by decree. When you think such a man has the nuclear codes and the (debatable) ability to go around Congress to order a unilateral strike, you’d be right to be terrified.
And though it’s technically true that Trump is empowered to order a military strike on North Korea any time he wants (we’re technically still at war, so Congress doesn’t have grounds to object), it’s not true in practice. Trump has in his Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis and National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, highly intelligent, experienced, and knowledgeable experts in military policy. They know as well as anyone what the costs of war will be. You can’t pay attention to anyone’s rhetoric here: Deterrence is the condition for peace, and deterrence only works if threats seem credible. Our rhetoric reinforces our credibility, and in that light we can see rhetoric as our primary weapon.
But if not rhetoric, what else do we have to go on?
Actions. Secretary Mattis made things crystal clear this summer when he bucked the chain of command and refused to carry out the order of his commander-in-chief to ban transgender people from serving in the military. This was a much bigger deal than the media has been covering, because it should reassure us all: If Mattis exercised insubordination at the trans ban, he isn’t going to allow Trump to execute a nuclear or any other strike on his own. This is true down the chain of command: Mattis distributed a department-wide memo when he stood up to Trump that, while not explicitly sanctioning insubordination, reminded people in the military that their primary duty is always ethical, and that they should “do the right thing.”
Also remember that when Trump tweeted “Talking is not the answer!” in response to military threats from North Korea, Mattis calmly and independently supplemented it, “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions. We always look for more. We’re never complacent.” And after Trump made his ridiculous “fire and fury,” threat, Rex Tillerson calmly and independently supplemented it by saying “Americans should sleep well,” and that the North Korean situation hadn’t changed.
Bottom line: The threat of U.S. military action in North Korea already seems empty, unless the powers that be are willing to make an irresponsibly risky bet. Given our history of intervention, I wouldn’t rule that out, but it seems most likely that we’ll have to live with a North Korea that gets what it wants: The regime’s right to exist; lifted sanctions; and international trade.
After all, North Korea doesn’t want war, either. If you don’t believe that, re-read this article.