Despite reports of US and Chinese military buildups, North Korea’s increased pace of provocations, and President Donald Trump’s administration’s repeated claims that “all options are on the table,” — the US would have to be absolutely insane to attack North Korea.
To the untrained eye, the preparations for war are all there.
The US has deployed the world’s most advanced missile defence system to South Korea to protect against ballistic missiles.
And the US has sent a carrier strike group, the most powerful unit of naval power in existence, near North Korea’s shores.
The US has permanently stationed 25,000 members of the world’s best organised fighting force right of the North’s borders — and they just finished a massive military exercise.
But even the best systems in the world can’t stop a determined foe with a handful of nukes.
Adm. Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence under Obama, recently told a crowd at the Harvard Club that there’s just no way to safely knock out all of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities in one go.
“If I were to run the national intelligence again and the president comes to me and says, ‘Here is General [Jim] Mattis’ strike plan and can you ensure me that this will take out of all the North Korea nuclear capabilities?’ — it won’t be easy to say yes,” said Blair, according to the South China Morning Post.
Blair conceded that before he’d advocate an attack on North Korea, he’d accept it as a nuclear-armed state.
Blair’s statement echo’s Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis’ recent admission that a fight with the North would be “”tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
The US has 2,300 nuclear weapons, any one of which could hit North Korea in a moment’s notice. North Korea may have a dozen or so nuclear weapons, and only the ability to hit a few, close targets within an hour or so of planning.
But it only takes a single nuclear detonation to make conflict unthinkable. Unlike the surgical and virtually unpunished April 7 US strike on a Syrian airfield, North Korean missiles would likely return fire thick and fast.
Experts believe North Korea would probably respond with artillery fire that would light up Seoul and its 10 million residents. Decoy missiles would streak across the sky to overwhelm missile defences. And ground forces would pour in through hidden tunnels.
The US and South Korea would undoubtedly smash North Korean forces in time, but not before a missile touched down, or another catastrophic act of war befell thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent South Koreans.
According to Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic International Studies, there’s only one military option that even begins to make sense for North Korea.
“If North Korea has a ballistic missile on a launchpad that we think is armed with a nuclear warhead,” then the US would seek to eliminate that, one, single missile,” said Glaser. “But even a strike on a missile on a launchpad could result in retaliation.”
After all, how should the North Koreans know that incoming missiles from the US had a limited objective? The risk remains that they’d misinterpret a limited strike for a full-on attack.
And the idea of eliminating a single, consolidated threat from North Korea is simply a dream. North Korea may well be beyond using launch pads, as their recent missile tests have all taken off from mobile launchers, many of which have tank-like treads to allow them to fire from hidden, wilderness locations.
All three options for dealing with North Korea — ineffective sanctions, conceding to nuclear blackmail, and military action — all are terrible. But the most terrible and unlikely is direct military action.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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