North Korea has claimed to test fire an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) last night. The missile reportedly landed somewhere in Japanese waters. If true, this is the longest range missile North Korea has fired to date, indicating its rapid development of technology, a nuclear strike capability as distant as the coast of Alaska, and a violation of President Trump’s red line.
In January the newly elected President assured Americans regarding a North Korea developing the technology to strike American territory with one of his famous and to the point tweets: “It won’t happen!”
So much for that!
If these provocations from North Korea seem to be more frequent and consistent, that’s because they are. The current leader of North Korea has launched more missiles in one year than his father did during 17 years in power. Half of that year has been during the presidency of Donald Trump who has repeatedly announced his intentions to depart from the status quo regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and threat to the global order. President Trump’s blunt and brash stance toward North Korea, as well as China, on the matter are in some ways comforting. He has publicly demonstrated a certain level of impatience and resolve toward the crisis that his predecessors did not. It is all too easy for the American public to fall in line with the sentiments of the President and assume the US military should deal aggressively with this threat before it continues to grow out of control.
Such sentiment is tempting but there is good cause for why America cannot, or at least should not, respond militarily to the threat from North Korea. Here are the five top reasons.
We Don’t Know Where They Are
If a preemptive surprise attack from the United States meant to take out the threat of North Korea were to be effective, the top priority must be to immediately neutralize all threats of a North Korean nuclear counter strike. Unfortunately, the current state of US intelligence on the North Korean missile program is significantly deficient here. There simply is not enough certainty regarding how many potential nuclear weapons North Korea has but also, and just as important, where they are located. Therefore, a surprise military strike, if unable to take out North Korea’s entire nuclear arsenal would likely become the action that sets off a nuclear war, not the action that prevents one.
Many Americans mistakenly believe a preemptive strike could take place on North Korea before they have the ability to launch a counter or retaliatory strike. The North Koreans already have this capacity. They may be unable to reach the continental US with their currently known nuclear missiles but they can access key US allies in the region – specifically South Korea and Japan. In the case of South Korea, Seoul Korea is one of the largest cities in the world and only 35 miles from the North Korean border. The residents of Japan and South Korea would likely be among the first victim of a North Korea counter strike that include everything from artillery, to chemical weapons to nuclear options. This means immediate potential civilian death counts reaching into the millions in such a situation.
One of the primary obstacles to a US action against North Korea is China itself. Although China is certainly opposed to this nation at their eastern border possessing nuclear weapons, their current and historical policy has amounted to “better the devil you know than the one you don’t.” China recognizes that any US actions against North Korea would include a bolstering of US military presence and strength throughout East Asia. This is not something the regional hegemon and the third most powerful military in the world is likely to abide.
Robert Kelly from the Asian Security Blog has put it well when he wrote:
Any US campaign would take place over China’s objection, and the US would almost certainly not provide any advance notification. China loathes North Korea but fears its collapse and US military hegemony in Asia even more. The US has always grappled with how much to let North Korea impinge on its relationship with China. While Washington desperately wants Chinese assistance on the North, it has never risked the entire relationship, in all its many important aspects – trade, investment, China’s dollar reserve holdings, the South and East China Seas, climate change, and so on – on the North Korea question.
We live in a world where current refugee crises out of the Middle East and Africa are resulting in some of the greatest humanitarian crises since World War II. This would become merely the tip of the iceberg compared to the refugee fallout resulting from a strike on North Korea by the US. The already starving and desperate population of the “hermit kingdom” would have little to lose in the event of war or the toppling of North Korea’s current leadership. That state of affairs would mean a refugee influx in the millions across the borders of China, Japan and to a lesser extent Russia. Such a crisis would prove not only economically burdensome but would likely heighten the likelihood of greater and more expansive war measures across the east Asia region.
North Korea’s economy has been cordoned off at least since the 1990s when they began toying with nuclear technology. The threat posed to the global economy is not from the absence of North Korean trade but from the wall of security that would be raised to protect domestic borders from North Korean military retaliation.
A 2006 report from the RAND Corporation simulated a terrorist attack on a US port in line with North Korea’s current nuclear capabilities. While the ICBM is the greatest threat that the defense department fears from North Korea, a nuclear weapon brought into a US harbor via a freighter could pose just as deadly a risk and devastate the global economy.
Given these conditions, all U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level following the attack. This would severely disrupt the availability of basic goods and petroleum throughout the country.
The crisis in North Korea is clearly growing worse by almost all measures. The answer to the crisis will not be found in military strength, at least not military strength alone. That is why diplomacy and statesmen are a prized commodity for global leaders and influencers in this day and age. Unfortunately, while the President tweets the crisis deepens. This is one of the reasons why nations like China and Russia are currently meeting without the United States to work to find solutions.