By Fred Benson
The United States has been in a state of war with North Korea for 67 years. There was no formal end to the Korean War in 1953 but, rather, an armistice relationship that has waxed and waned in turbulence over the years. During a particularly dangerous period, 1966-69, 43 American, 299 South Korean and 397 North Korean soldiers died in firefights.
Provocative, irresponsible and mostly unrealistic statements have been emanating from North Korean leaders over these seven decades. The carefully worded U.S. response on each occasion was based on the assumption that these threats were intended to bring notice that North Korea sees itself as an entity important on the world stage but did not pose imminent danger to our national security.
This time, however, is different, as the United States has chosen to respond to these threats in kind. President Trump recently stated that “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them.”
On his recent visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ,) Vice President Pence put a finer point on the U.S. position, warning that “Washington’s era of strategic patience toward the North has ended,” a comment seen widely as a thinly veiled threat to conduct a preemptive strike on North Korea should they not suspend their nuclear missile development program.
North Korea reacted quickly, claiming that they will launch a “super-mighty preemptive strike against the United States designed to completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists’ invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes.” Further, they are threatening to sink the U.S. aircaft carrier on station in the region.
Reduced to simple terms, these competing threats of preemptive attack widen the possibility of a careless statement or act triggering enormous loss of life in South and North Korea, Japan and U.S. forces operating in the region. If American leaders become convinced that North Korea will conduct another nuclear test, and, as stated by Pence, “all options are on the table,” the U.S. may decide that it has no recourse but to “take out” those testing facilities.
If we were to do so, North Korea could respond with devastating attacks on Seoul, where more than 25 million residents live within range of thousands of North Korean artillery pieces deployed along the two-mile-wide DMZ separating the two countries. Simulations of a large-scale artillery attack by the North resulted in a prediction that 100,000 people in Seoul would die in the first few days alone. Another analysis noted that a single volley of North Korean artillery could deliver “over 350 metric tons of explosives, roughly the same amount of ordnance dropped by 11 B-52 bombers.”
Further, North Korea is thought to have more than 2,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including sarin and VX nerve agents, which could be delivered by artillery and short- or mid-range rockets to South Korea and Japan, countries where thousands of U.S. military personnel are stationed.
But the real heart of the matter is whether or not North Korea, as they often claim, will have the capability to join a miniaturized nuclear warhead with a long-range ballistic missile that could reach the United States within the next five years.
While Trump has firmly stated that “under no circumstances will North Korea be allowed to develop that capability,” delivering on that guarantee requires choosing from extremely difficult options. Doing nothing is not viable as it would permit the North to continue on its weapons development track.
Launching a large-scale joint military option to destroy North Korea’s nuclear testing sites and ballistic missile storage facilities could lead to a widespread regional war with devastating consequences. Using cyber weapons to damage or destroy North Korea’s nuclear test equipment is an option that may be short-lived at best and only accelerate the North’s missile efforts.
The most attractive course of action is to convince China to force North Korea into suspending its nuclear development program by threatening reductions in the supplies and material the Chinese currently provide. Trump deserves credit for making this case directly to President Xi, but there remains concern that China might be neither willing nor able to fully achieve that result. Even with those limitations, it appears to be the best and safest course of action available at present.
With the possibility that North Korea will conduct another nuclear test this week on the upcoming 85th anniversary of its military, we are entering a very tense and challenging time. As this article is being written, members of the U.N. Security Council are headed to Washington to meet with Trump at the White House – a first such venture for that body – to discuss next steps.
The most frightening part of this brinksmanship scenario is that the U.S. and North Korea are led by two men whose judgment and governmental acumen are questionable. North Korean President Kim is a brutal tyrant who has allegedly arranged the murders of his uncle, his half-brother and many other family members standing in his way to consolidate power.
And Trump is, well, Trump. The only real governors on the U.S. presidential war engine are Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Based on what I have heard from many who know these retired military officers well, they are the best in the business, an assessment that may be tested all too soon.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. He is a retired Army colonel whose last combat tour was commanding a U.S. infantry battalion on the Korean DMZ.