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By James H. Nolt
A couple weeks ago I rated the prospect of war with China as unlikely. More likely is a new U.S. war with North Korea. Please keep in mind that I am not advocating such a war. It would result in immense suffering within both Korean states. Rather, I am concerned that President Donald Trump might escalate during a crisis and might even see such a war as a plausible solution to a series of difficult problems, including both domestic political concerns and North Korean belligerence, combined with its development of nuclear weapons and missiles. This might be the most dangerous period for the Korean peninsula since the armistice ending the first Korean War in 1953.
Four lines of evidence lead me to believe that if the U.S. becomes involved in any new war, it would be with North Korea. First, North Korea is vulnerable to defeat and more isolated than any other potential American adversary. Second, a renewed Korean war could have considerable domestic political benefits for Trump. It could rescue him from a difficult stand-off with Republicans in Congress and enhance his executive power. Third, such a war might be one of the few possible ways for Trump and the economic nationalists in his inner circle, such as chief strategist Steve Bannon, to initiate a trade war in East Asia and accelerate military spending to create domestic manufacturing jobs. Fourth, the North Korean regime has such a reputation for recklessness that it is perhaps one of the easiest in the world to provoke. Conversely, it is unlikely to de-escalate a crisis or offer satisfactory negotiations.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the North Korean economy has been in severe decline. It had depended on managed trade with other socialist economies, including generous terms of trade. Since then, North Korea has been plagued by severe raw material shortages, especially oil, which has contributed to several bouts of famine and declining manufacturing output. Unlike China, which prospered from market-oriented reforms and export-led industrialization, the North Korean economy has become more isolated than any other. Its isolation deepened in February when China, North Korea’s most significant remaining trading partner, announced an embargo on purchases of North Korea’s major export, coal. This is the most formidable Chinese action against North Korea to date, probably taken out of frustration over the continuing North Korean nuclear and missile tests plus the recent assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, apparently by North Korean government agents.
The fact that North Korea has a massive army and nuclear weapons leads many to discount the chance of war. However, given the current state of North Korea’s military capabilities, its limited nuclear armaments are more likely to incite war than deter it. Nuclear deterrence only works if both parties believe that the adversary’s forces are sufficiently immune to destruction by a first strike, thus compelling both parties to refrain from a pre-emptive attack for fear of reprisal. This condition is called “mutual assured destruction” or MAD. However, a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. could destroy most North Korean nuclear facilities and launch sites. Given a week or so for U.S. preparation, any missiles that survived the initial attack could be intercepted with high probability.
In order to understand this last point, I must introduce some technical detail. The easiest time to destroy ballistic missiles is during the boost phase, when they are accelerating into space. However, the U.S. could not achieve this during the Cold War with the Soviet Union since Soviet (and now Russian) ballistic missile launch sites were in the interior of a vast country and therefore impossible to reach during their boost phase. North Korea, on the other hand, is a small country. U.S. AEGIS SM-3 missiles fired by cruisers and destroyers sailing off Koreas's east and west coasts could rather easily intercept missiles launched from anywhere within North Korea during the boost phrase. Even U.S. fighter aircraft could potentially achieve such intercepts using the air-to-air missiles they carry. Furthermore, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile systems now being deployed to South Korea and Japan also have this capability. THAAD should be operational by April. Thus the U.S. military likely has high confidence, particularly if reinforced by naval forces, that North Korean missiles are susceptible to interception.
Furthermore, although North Korea has a large army, both the size of its army and its population are roughly similar to Iraq’s at the time of the U.S. defeat of its military in 2003. It could not stand up to the combined forces of the U.S. and South Korea, although North Korean artillery and rockets could inflict considerable damage in South Korea as far as its capital, Seoul, before the North’s inevitable, if costly, defeat. The most deadly North Korean threat to South Korean civilians is not its rare and hard to deliver nuclear weapons, but VX nerve gas, which was also used to assassinate Kim Jong Nam. Thousands of artillery guns and rockets could deliver this deadly gas as far as Seoul. Thus, South Korea likely aims to avoid war with the North, but there is no guarantee that Trump would be as prudent.
Short, decisive wars generally boost a leader’s popularity. A classic example is U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of Argentina during the Falklands War. Despite the costly loss of several Royal Navy ships, the U.K. victory was quick and decisive. The Argentine government fell, but Thatcher’s popularity soared. Turkey’s rapid victory during the Cyprus War of 1974 had similar effects. The U.S. defeat of Iraq in 2003 also gave President George W. Bush a boost, but support eroded during the long and costly occupation that followed. A Korean war would not have this problem, because in the aftermath of any defeat of the North, the South Korean government would take responsibility for reunifying the peninsula, not the U.S.
Furthermore, war enhances executive powers, which might make it possible for Trump to push through nationalist economic restrictions that would otherwise be blocked by free traders in Congress. The Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 is still on the books. The U.S. has almost no trade with North Korea, but North Korea’s most important trade partner, China, might be targeted. Congressional opposition to tariffs or sanctions against Chinese trade might evaporate in the context of a Korean war.
Compared to other countries in the world, the North Korean regime has habits of belligerence that make it much less likely to exercise prudence during any confrontation. If Trump wanted to provoke a war, a “crisis” analogous to the Tonkin Gulf incident that provided the excuse for the Vietnam War would be easy to concoct. It is also possible that a war could accidentally occur as a result of tit-for-tat escalatory actions. For example, if U.S. or Japanese ships shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile, either as a deliberate warning or out of ignorance as to whether it is just a test or an actual attack, the North Koreans might snoop on the naval forces off its coast using submarines. The ships, sensing danger, might attack or seem to attack the submarines, leading to retaliation, etc. Just this week the North Korean regime announced that its recent missile tests are practice runs for potential attacks on U.S. bases in the region. Both sides can imagine that a real attack is plausible. The prospects of mutual restraint are weaker than in any other potential conflict around the world.
James H. Nolt is a senior fellow at World Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at New York University.
[Photo courtesy of Korea_DMZ_Train_49]