Will North Korea ever attack South Korea?

Why the US must not attack North Korea under any circumstances

The international community must accept that North Korea has nuclear weapons and learn to deal with this situation. There are three reasons for this:

  • North Korea will not give up its nuclear program at any price.
  • The economic sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council did not lead North Korea to deviate from its nuclear course.
  • Wanting to force nuclear disarmament militarily carries the high risk that the conflict will escalate and there will be a war.
    The Trump administration seems to view the first two points similarly. However, she has a different point of view when it comes to the threat or use of military means - with the aim of finally taming North Korea.

Has the “strategic patience” come to an end?

North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test in September 2016. Then in July 2017, the country detonated a missile that can reach US territory.

These tests were undertaken because of advances in the development of the nuclear weapons program. These tests were also intended to express displeasure with the US’s annual military maneuvers with South Korea and to test how far one can go with the new Trump administration.

In response, the United States redoubled threatening gestures and military muscle games. During his visit to South Korea in mid-March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “strategic patience” with North Korea had come to an end. There are therefore "all possibilities on the table" to dissuade the country from its nuclear course.

And Donald Trump wrote on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/851767718248361986

“North Korea is looking for trouble. If China helped it would be great. If not, we'll solve the problem without you. UNITED STATES"

In the past, the United States has relocated stealth fighters and other bombers to the Korean peninsula - to make North Korea aware of the consequences of further provocations. However, Trump has put an entire aircraft carrier formation on the march, which is much more than a threat.

After the US air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria, the North Korean government has no choice but to take the threat seriously. The risk of an escalation into a full-blown war has increased significantly.

Targeted air strikes

Targeted “surgical” air strikes, similar to those in Syria - the US can also imagine that in North Korea. This proposal is not new.

As early as July 2006, former Defense Department officials Ashton Carter and William Perry suggested that the US could prevent further missile tests and send a strong message to the North Korean leadership if they targeted their missile launchers. This proposal was never taken up because a retaliatory strike by North Korea was considered likely.

Attacking missile facilities is one thing. The bombing of North Korea's nuclear facilities is another proposal. But for targeted air strikes to be successful, the US must be sure that the critical assets will actually be destroyed.

In the early stages of development, the North Korean nuclear program focused on the reactors and processing facilities in Yongbyon. Since then, several hidden operations in the North Korean nuclear fuel cycle have been exposed or deliberately exposed by the Kim regime.

The “crown jewels” of the nuclear program - the bombs themselves and the stocks of fissile material - are likely to be hidden deep in secret, armored, underground facilities, protected from air raids. If ever there was a good chance of targeted air strikes, it was in the early stages of the nuclear program.

Successful air strikes on nuclear facilities run the risk of toxic radioactive fallout that contaminates the surrounding regions both within North Korea and in neighboring countries. This fallout risk has long been one of the reasons why air strikes against North Korea were ruled out as a military option.

In addition, targeted air strikes against the North Korean leadership are conceivable. So the attempt to mortally wound the Kim regime and achieve the disarmament of nuclear weapons by changing leadership.

There is a precedent for this: the attack on Iraq in 2003. US-led forces targeted presidential palaces, government buildings and other "targets of opportunity" in an attempt to eradicate Saddam Hussein and move towards an end to the invasion.

Let us assume, theoretically, that dictator Kim Jong-un was killed in an air strike. Does the Trump administration have a contingency plan for a post-Kim North Korea?

There is a clear risk of a creeping expansion of the military mission should the US be drawn into expanded pacification and nation building. The experience in Iraq should warn us to exercise caution in bringing about regime change by force if there is no peace plan.

The escalation to a real war

Let us further assume that Kim survived a targeted attack. For decades, the North Korean leadership's strategy was anti-American propaganda. Therefore, escalation to full war seems inevitable should North Korea be attacked.

This is one of the reasons South Korea has not acted against North Korean provocations in the past two decades - not even attacks like the bombing of Yeonpyeong-do and the sinking of the South Korean sea corvette Cheonan.

The South Korean capital Seoul can easily be attacked from North Korea because of its proximity to the demilitarized zone. It is practically impossible to defend against artillery and missiles. Is the Trump administration ready to risk an escalation of the conflict that would endanger the lives of millions of South Koreans in and around Seoul?

It is difficult to imagine that the US-South Korea alliance could endure such a catastrophe - especially if the crisis was triggered by clumsy American intervention.

An escalation of the conflict would be a disaster for the region. One only has to look at the humanitarian tragedy and the inhumane policy towards the Syrian refugees and apply them to Northeast Asia. Does the Trump administration have a plan for what to do in the event of a war with the refugees on the Korean peninsula?

This is the nightmare scenario for the Chinese government. It is one of the main reasons for their continued - albeit increasingly half-hearted - support for the Kim regime. It is also the reason why China vetoed any resolution presented to the UN Security Council aimed at military action against North Korea.

Why deterrence has gained the upper hand

The idea that a targeted air strike could be used in the case of Korea is an illusion. There is a good reason several US presidents embarked on a deterrent strategy against North Korea. All possible military options have one thing in common: an unacceptably high risk.

North Korea is able to retaliate using conventional weapons or weapons of mass destruction against targets in South Korea and Japan. North Korea's ability to attack South Korea has helped maintain a balance of deterrence in the Korean peninsula since the Korean armistice in 1953.

While the US clearly benefits from counter-terrorism, deterrence struck a rough balance in Korea. As the stronger player, the US need not act aggressively there to maintain this balance and maintain regional stability.

It should also not be forgotten that experts in rather superficial analyzes exaggerated the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear weapons because they assumed that the Kim regime was irrational. A more careful analysis of the actual conduct of the leadership refutes this assumption.

The overriding goal of North Korean foreign policy remains the survival of the regime and an eternal Kim family dynasty. North Korea sees hard military might as the only reliable means to guarantee its security in an allegedly hostile environment.

North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile systems are the ultimate practical expressions of this worldview. But what is even more important: From an international perspective, you are the only real leverage of the North Korean leadership.

Trump's foreign policy makers would do a good thing to reconsider their logic of escalation. A nuclear attack against the US or its regional allies makes little sense for North Korea. Viewed from this perspective, a strategic restraint on the US side, based on deterrence and neglecting unnecessary one-sided muscle play, tends to preserve regional stability.

In 2002, North Korean expert Victor Cha stated that North Korea would most likely use nuclear weapons if it were cornered and the continuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. Worryingly, by deploying the "USS Carl Vinson" combat unit, Trump has increased the likelihood that this very scenario will occur.


This article was published in English by The Conversation. You can read the original article here. Vera Fröhlich translated the text. Martin Gommel selected the image (public domain) of the aircraft carrier.