Military Action Is the Worst Option

This article appeared in The Korea Times on January 19, 2011.
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The Korean Peninsula has calmed, but likely only temporarily. North Korea has perfected a policy of brinkmanship. Pyongyang routinely creates a crisis to raise tensions, only to then offer talks in exchange for one benefit or another.

This strategy worked particularly well when the Republic of Korea generously subsidized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as part of the Sunshine Policy. However, South Koreans eventually ran out of patience with the North.

American officials are no less frustrated. The Obama administration sought to put the North on the backburner, but Kim’s nuclear test in 2009 and military provocations this year made that impossible.

The situation is increasingly dangerous. Pyongyang risked war by sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling an island occupied by civilians. The government in Seoul is under pressure to respond vigorously to any new DPRK provocation. Mistake or miscalculation could easily trigger a serious crisis, if not widespread conflict.

Throughout the Cold War America’s overriding objective was to protect South Korea’s independence. In recent years the ROK has raced past North Korea in every measure of national power other than military force, and any deficiencies in the latter are a matter of choice.

Washington made one attempt to liberate the North, but Chinese intervention in the Korean War wrecked that plan. Now liberation has reemerged as a possible objective.

For instance, Jonah Goldberg broached the topic in a column entitled “Save the North Koreans!” which called regime change “the only conceivable remedy for North Korea’s plight.” But he then backed away from calling for military action. In contrast, writer William Tucker explicitly urged a joint U.S.-China invasion.

Most serious is Michael Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute. He called for “a campaign to steadily reduce North Korea’s ability to conduct military operations outside of its borders.” Targets could include Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities.

In Mazza’s view such attacks would degrade the DPRK’s ability to project force and discourage Kim Jong‐​il from future assaults. Although Kim could retaliate, as a rational actor, Mazza argues, the Dear Leader likely would do nothing lest he lose any ensuing war.

Regime change is the only sure answer to Pyongyang’s malign behavior. But the same could have been said for the Soviet Union and a host of other oppressive states around the globe.

Unfortunately, as the U.S. has learned in Iraq, even “easy” military victories come with a high price, especially to the people being liberated. The North is thought capable of pouring 300,000 to 500,000 artillery shells per hour into Seoul, located around 30 miles from the border. The city is the political and economic heart of the ROK, with a population of 10 million people.

The likelihood of the People’s Republic of China invading the North, even in conjunction with America, is less than faint. The DPRK may be troublesome, is not worth an unnecessary war to Beijing.

The U.S. would run into severe problems if it invaded the North. Victory would come at very high cost, especially to the ROK.

And Washington could not be certain of China’s response. While the PRC would be unlikely to directly enter the war, it might aid North Korea. Future relations between China and the U.S. undoubtedly would be greatly complicated.

Kim obviously would be less inclined to retaliate if he believed his regime was not threatened. But that’s not how he might interpret American military strikes.

After all, the U.S. routinely uses military force (not to mention covert action) to overthrow governments it doesn’t like. If Washington targeted the North’s chief deterrent capabilities, Kim might reasonably conclude that it was the start of a campaign leading to regime change.

Moreover, U.S. military action, especially if directed at the DPRK’s nuclear facilities — Kim’s major accomplishment — would threaten his prestige and perhaps his power. The pressure to do something, especially from the military, would be intense.

Nor would Pyongyang have to roll the tanks in response. The North could announce a limited bombardment of Seoul in retaliation for America’s attacks. Suffering South Koreans might take the DPRK’s side.

Keeping peace on the peninsula should be everyone’s, and especially the South’s, overriding objective. This doesn’t require a South Korean policy of pacifism.

Seoul could well believe that the only way to maintain an effective deterrent of its own would be through an aggressive military policy. However, if Seoul did so, it should bear the entire risk of war, and not expect the U.S. to intervene if the ROK judged wrong.

Some day the DPRK, or at least its current malignant regime, will pass away. The smartest strategy is to wait. Starting a war would be the worst of a set of bad choices.