To Bloody Nose or Not to Bloody Nose

In honor of the Winter Olympics starting today and us sending our best athletes to compete in all manner of sliding on frozen water, let’s talk about why it’s an eminently TERRIBLE idea to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea. We’re probably safe until our athletes come home, but after that, who knows. Here are 4 really good reasons to do anything but attack.  

The president of South Korea, Moon Jae-In, has explicitly stated that the US ought not intervene without full and complete cooperation and approval. They’re our ally, and it’s ultimately their fight. Furthermore, relations seem to be warming on the Korean Peninsula these days, (see: joint women’s ice hockey team, marching under one flag, sitting down to negotiations for the first time in years, etc.) so it seems ever more unlikely that Moon would be down to attack North Korea right now. That said, there is some value in heeding the warnings of Abe and Trump and showing some cautious optimism with regards to Pyongyang’s “smile diplomacy” (basically they think that Kim Jong Un is playing nice for the time being to buy time to continue to develop his nuclear weapons and using the Olympics as a distraction).

But say we were A-OK with pissing off South Korea and decided to attack anyway because we really need to show those North Koreans who’s boss – there is no imaginable universe in which China would not respond in at least some form of protest against American troops and military action on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea provides a valuable buffer zone between the Chinese mainland and American troops in South Korea. As rivals, China would be unlikely to view offensive American engagement in Korea as a benign defense of the world order, and is instead more likely to view it as a threat to their regional hegemony, and would almost certainly get involved in some regard.

But say we don’t care that China would react poorly to this and we also don’t care that South Korea doesn’t want the US to intervene militarily. What do China, North Korea, and the US have in common? They all have nuclear weapons! Weather Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of reaching the US mainland is irrelevant; he has a nuclear weapon and if prodded far enough may be so inclined as to use it – and the trouble with nuclear weapons (and violence in general) is that if one person uses it then others are more inclined to do so as well. So avoiding nuclear catastrophe sounds like a pretty good reason to not go to war.

But say you believe, against all evidence, that it would be possible for the US military to strike North Korea so quickly and so hard as to rob them of any and all nuclear capabilities. Problem solved! North Korea can no longer retaliate! Not exactly. North Korea has hundreds of pieces of artillery along the 38th parallel, all of which could be used to target Seoul, which lies a mere 35 miles from the DMZ. Who lives in Seoul? 300,000 Americans and, oh yeah, 25 million human souls. Estimates from congressional research show that hundreds of thousands of lives would be lost in just the first few days of fighting. So maybe saving human lives can convince you not to attack North Korea.

But say you truly have faith in the American military and believe that they could take out not only every nuclear weapon but every piece of artillery and secure every civilian in Seoul: Well, first, you would be wrong. But second, even if we were to dedicate the resources to even attempt such a plan, it would subtract from the resources dedicated to other missions throughout the world – resources which are already spread quite thinly and which have resulted in numerous accidents and failures of readiness (see: A U.S. Navy ship crashing into a commercial vessel). Either we wouldn’t fully be able to commit ourselves to the war the Korean Peninsula or we would be neglecting our military everywhere else in the world.

Finally, (as is usually the case) there is the dimension of international politics to this conflict. If the US were to unilaterally attack North Korea, (even if it were a so called “bloody nose“ strike) we would garner international opprobrium. China and Russia already vehemently oppose this; so does South Korea and other allies. Were we to attack, particularly if it went poorly, we would lose yet more of our international credibility. The belief  that the US generally, at least tries, to do the right thing would dissipate further,  making it even more difficult to conduct diplomacy and foreign policy in the future – whoever the leader of United States might be. #FPF