Why war is not a real option against North Korea

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A powerful military deterrent and a resolve to pursue effective diplomacy can prevent war on the Korean peninsula, preserve the lives of the millions living in Seoul (and probably tens of thousands of American service members), and secure American vital national interests in Asia.

Attempting a preventive military strike out of the misplaced belief that we have “run out of road” will result in the very fate we’re trying to avoid, a North Korean nuclear strike.

I served a full career in the U.S. Army, being deployed four times into combat zones. I have killed men in the performance of my duty and would not hesitate to do so again if our country or citizens were in peril. I am a strong advocate for a powerful military.

But it is precisely because I have experienced war up close that I am the strongest advocate for diplomacy — — genuine diplomacy — — as the most effective way to pursue our interests globally. The deteriorating situation with North Korea is a pressing case in point.

If we are to ever find a solution to the current crisis, there is one fact that must be soberly and humbly recognised: There is no preventive military solution to the North Korean nuclear program that would not impose unacceptable, catastrophic cost on the U.S. and our allies South Korea and Japan.

Yet a preventive military strike is precisely what America’s key foreign policy officials are threatening to unleash. Last Friday, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley presumptuously said that if “diplomacy” failed, “I have no problem kicking it to General Mattis because I think he has plenty of options.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added his voice to the push when he warned that if talks failed, “our military option will be the only one left.”

What these officials mean by “diplomacy,” however, is effectively limited to two things.

First, ordering Pyongyang to get rid of the nuclear weapon’s program the Kim dictators have been working on for nearly 25 years while giving nothing in return. And second, trying to compel China to take actions to force the North to do what we want.

Picture: Getty Images

There isn’t even the pretense of offering North Korea any guarantee of its security, nor of providing a win-win option for Chinese cooperation. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, however, is the most dismissive of diplomacy while claiming preventive war would be effective.

The claim by many that Kim cannot be deterred by military means is not merely hollow, but also ignores the history of more than 60 years of Kim family rule. Since the armistice ending the Korean war was signed in 1953, all three North Korean dictators — — Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-un — — have had one overriding governing objective: regime survival. They will let their people starve to death if that’s what it takes to develop capabilities to deter an attack from the U.S. or its adjacent historical adversaries.

The U.S. should communicate that should North Korea use WMD against American personnel or allies — — or if U.S. intelligence detects the imminent use of such weapons — — we will launch an immediate and withering counterstrike, essentially evaporating the Kim regime. This would be a “preemptive” and totally justified strike, which is far different from the currently advocated option of a “preventive” strike.

Concurrently, American diplomats should be conducting aggressive and effective diplomacy throughout the region to pressure North Korea to eventually denuclearize the peninsula. That’s difficult, but not the impossible task some may believe.

China is almost as angered by the Kim regime as is the Trump Administration. But as much as China detests the Kim regime, they have other interests of their own, as President Trump referenced in his speech to the United Nations. Beijing wants to avoid war on their border for many reasons, and have concluded — — rightly or wrongly — — that if they were to choke Pyongyang to death by cutting off all oil shipments, the regime could in desperation lash out and use WMD to start a war against the U.S., or the regime would collapse — — leading to a unified Korea allied militarily with the U.S.

To avoid this outcome, China is willing to work with the U.S.. But to conduct effective diplomacy, we must demonstrate an ability that is sorely lacking in Washington: a willingness to consider the interests of our negotiating partner and attempt to shape their thinking so they align more closely with ours. That will not happen through coercion.

Even if it took 10 or 15 years of relentless diplomatic pressure from the joint efforts of the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan to convince Kim Jong-un to give up his weapons and doing so resulted in the eventual denuclearization of the peninsula — — and successfully deterred war — — it would be a major victory for U.S. foreign policy and secure our vital national interests.

Any attempt at preventive war will harm U.S. interests, making nuclear conflict profoundly more likely. It is imperative Washington moves to a posture that provides a firm commitment to militarily deterring North Korea while using all of our economic and diplomatic power to eventually reduce or remove the threat to U.S. interests.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defence Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

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