A war against North Korea: It could happen


Last updated on

It is odd that North Korea causes so much trouble. It is not exactly a superpower. Its economy is only 1/50 as big as that of its democratic capitalist cousin, South Korea. Americans spend twice its total GDP on their pets.

Even so, Kim Jong Un’s backward little dictatorship has grabbed the attention of the whole world, and even of America’s president, with its nuclear brinkmanship. On July 28 it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit Los Angeles. Before long it will be able to mount nuclear warheads on such missiles, as it already can on missiles aimed at South Korea and Japan.

In charge of this terrifying arsenal is a man who was brought up as a demigod and cares nothing for human life—witness the innocents beaten to death with hammers in his gigantic gulag. Last week his Foreign Ministry vowed that, if the regime’s “supreme dignity” is threatened, it will “pre-emptively annihilate” the countries that threaten it, with all means “including the nuclear ones.”

The likely consequences of a nuclear war between America and North Korea would include, for North Korea, the destruction of its regime and the death of hundreds of thousands of people. For South Korea, the costs would involve the destruction of Seoul, a city of 10 million which lies within easy range of 1,000 of the North’s conventional artillery pieces. For America, there’s the possibility of a nuclear attack on one of its garrisons in eastern Asia, or even on an American city. Nor should we forget the danger of an armed confrontation between America and China, the North’s neighbor and grudging ally. It seems distasteful to mention the economic effects of another Korean war, but of course they would be awful too.

President Donald Trump has vowed to stop North Korea from perfecting a nuclear warhead that could threaten the American mainland, tweeting that “it won’t happen!” Some pundits have suggested shooting down future test missiles on the launch pad or, improbably, in the air. Others suggest using force to overthrow the regime or using pre-emptive strikes to destroy Kim’s nuclear arsenal before he has a chance to use it.

It is exactly this sort of military action that risks a ruinous escalation, however. Kim’s bombs and missile-launchers are scattered and well hidden. America’s armed forces, for all their might, cannot reliably neutralize the North Korean nuclear threat before Kim has a chance to retaliate.

The younger Kim, like his father, sees nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee the survival of his regime. It is hard to imagine circumstances in which he would voluntarily give up what he calls his “treasured sword of justice.”

If military action is reckless and diplomacy insufficient, the only remaining option is to deter and contain Kim. Trump should make clear—in a scripted speech, not in a tweet or via his secretary of state—that America is not about to start a war, nuclear or conventional. However, he should reaffirm that a nuclear attack by North Korea on America or one of its allies would immediately be matched.

America also should formally extend its nuclear guarantee to South Korea and Japan, and boost the missile defenses that protect both countries. This would help ensure that they do not build nuclear weapons of their own. America should convince the South Koreans, who will suffer greatly if war breaks out, that it will not act without consulting them.

China is fed up with the Kim regime, but fears that, if it were to collapse, a reunified Korea would mean American troops on China’s border. Trump’s team should guarantee that this will not happen, and try to persuade China that, in the long run, it is better off with a united, prosperous neighbor than a poor, violent and unpredictable one.

All the options for dealing with the North are bad. Although America should not recognize it as a legitimate nuclear power, Washington must base its policy on the reality that it is already an illegitimate one. Kim may gamble that his nukes give him the freedom to behave more provocatively, perhaps sponsoring terrorism in the South. He may also sell weapons to other cruel regimes or terrorist groups. The world must do what it can to thwart such plots, though some doubtless will succeed.


© 2017 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (August 5). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Image Credits: Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Latest posts by The Economist (see all)