01.02.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Which America’s Politicians are For and Against the Brute Force Senario Against North Korea


In previous texts, we have repeatedly cited the arguments of supporters of a military / forceful solution to the North Korean problem. As a rule, they boil down the to following thesis:

  • North Korea is a metaphysical evil and must be destroyed in one way or another, because ‘America does not negotiate with Evil, America defeats Evil’. This is not a matter of economics, but of ideology, and any means are permissible.
  • North Korea is a treacherous and tyrannical regime. This means that we do not have absolute certainty that when the DPRK will have nuclear missiles, they will not try to seize South Korea by blackmailing America with hits to its continental territory. Consequently, we must proceed from this perspective as the most probable and deliver a preemptive strike for the sake of the happiness of the peoples of the ROK and the US. We note that the thesis whereby Kim Jong-un aims to unite the Korean peninsula under his authority has been voiced even by the head of the US CIA Mike Pompeo.
  • War is a difficult and unpleasant business, but it is better to conduct it on favourable terms. Time is on the DPRK’s side, plus its conditions will not allow a preemptive strike without consequences. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces, General Joseph Dunford, pointed out on 22 July, the use of military measures to influence the DPRK will lead to horrific consequences, which has no analogues since the Second World War. However, this is not impossible; much more impossible is the very idea that a North Korean ICBM will fall on the state of Colorado. But in a choice between Colorado and Pyongyang, we choose Pyongyang.
  • Claims of the DPRK on the status of a nuclear power de jure destroy the American-centric world order. The blow will be inflicted both on the authority of the UN and on the non-proliferation system: it will entail the extrusion of the United States from the region, since Japan’s and the ROK’s nuclear weapons will suffice in order to contain the North. Therefore, not from any special dislike for the North, but for the sake of preserving the status quo the DPRK shall be served an exemplary punishment. It is curious that this argument is used least of all.
  • Since Kim Jong-un is still a rational player, he is unlikely to launch a full-scale nuclear war in response to a limited attack. This allows us to think that the conflict will not escalate and, therefore, the US has a chance to win it (more precisely, not to allow catastrophic losses).

As you can see, most of the arguments link the need for conflict not so much to the subjective peculiarities of Trump’s personality and his environment as to the objective national interests of the United States, but now let us say a few words about other points of view, noting that opponents of a military solution are not necessarily supporters of negotiations. A part would simply prefer to liquidate the DPRK in a different way.

The first group of arguments against war concerns the prohibitively high risks and costs. According to the vice-president of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Michael Greene, a preventive strike cannot completely destroy the ability of the DPRK to retaliate, but contains the risk of increasing the scale of the conflict. The war will involve millions of victims, since the North can transfer nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations or subversive groups without the use of missiles.

Greene proposes not to reduce pressure on the North demonstrating readiness for the military option. Firstly, the northerners are not sure that ‘the enemy will not dare’; secondly, it’s possible to influence China, whose leadership is so afraid of a war on its border that it will be ready break North Korea’s neck with sanctions, ‘so long as there’s no war’.

The Washington Post columnist Jeffrey Lewis also believes that the opportunities for nuclear disarmament of North Korea, diplomatic or by force, are closed. North Korea has a large stockpile of compact nuclear warheads to equip ICBMs with that are capable of striking the United States. ‘Do you really think that American strikes could take them all out? That one of them wouldn’t manage to survive and fly to Seoul, Tokyo or New York? Or that the US missile defence system will work better than its developers intended, and intercept all missiles aimed at the US, rather then the most of them? Do you want to live with this thought’?

Developing this thesis in another article, where he tries to describe (rather strangely in the author’s opinion) the scenario of the war between the US and the DPRK, Lewis assume the successful entry of North Korean nuclear weapons around Manhattan, estimating the total number of victims of missile attacks in the United States, ROK, and Japan as 2+ million people.

Rear Admiral Michael Dumont, believes that even approximate estimation of possible losses in such an operation is extremely difficult. The North Korean nuclear arsenals are in deep underground tunnels, and they cannot be destroyed by a preemptive air strike – after which a counterattack ensues. ‘The only way to detect and destroy absolutely all components of the North Korean nuclear programme is a ground invasion’, with all the relevant consequences.

According to the Rear Admiral, ‘there are no good options for military action against North Korea. The invasion of North Korea could lead to the catastrophic death of people in South Korea – both American troops and civilians. As a result, millions of South Koreans may die, and troops and civilians on Guam and in Japan will be at risk’.

Steve Bannon, the main political strategist, who has since left his post, agrees with the fact that there is no ‘military solution’. As he said in an interview with The American Prospect: ‘… forget about it until someone solves that part of the equation and proves to me that ten million Seoul residents will NOT perish in the first half hour of fighting using only conventional weapons’. And since there is currently no way to secure the population of Seoul from a possible attack from Pyongyang, the North Korean nuclear problem cannot be resolved militarily.

Of course, the death of ten million in half an hour is some exaggeration, but such a position well reflects the views of those hawks who understand that a military solution to the problem should minimise deaths on its side. As an alternative, Bannon pointed to the possibility of withdrawing US troops from the ROK in exchange for freezing the North Korean nuclear programme.

In Seoul, and not only, this proposal was called a hasty and careless step. North Korea repeatedly has demanded the abolition of South Korean-American field training exercises in exchange for freezing the nuclear potential and opening it up to inspections, but the complete withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula is a step that even Pyongyang does not expect. That is why Bannon’s subsequent departure from his post, according to one version, was connected to this statement.

The second group of arguments boils down to the thesis that negotiations can achieve results, and, therefore, are a better option than war.

On 28 June 2017 six former high-ranking officials, both Republican and Democrat, sent Trump a letter. Among them were William Perry, Defense Secretary in the Clinton administration, George Shultz, Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, and Siegfried Hecker, expert on nuclear weapons, who has visited the DPRK’s nuclear facilities.

The experts urge ‘to put diplomacy first in the list of available options’, believing that ‘dialogue is not a reward or concession to Pyongyang and not a sign of acknowledgment of the creation of nuclear weapons in North Korea’. Sanctions only will not solve the problem, especially since Pyongyang has shown that it can make progress in missile and nuclear technologies, despite the isolation. The likelihood that North Korea will suddenly launch a nuclear attack is in fact far less than a miscalculation or error that could lead to war. And in order to avoid a nuclear catastrophe, we need to establish contacts.

The hopelessness of the ‘preventive beheading strike’ has even been said by the former adviser-ambassador of the DPRK Embassy in London, Tae Yong Ho, who fled to the south. According to him, the North Korean army has an order to open fire in response to any military attack by the United States, even if the command order was not received. Of course, Kim Jong-un underestimates the military strength of the US and ROK. The US will win the war, but it would bring about enormous human casualties. Therefore, Tae Yong-ho called on the government of Donald Trump to meet with Kim Jong-un at least once in order to understand his thoughts and personally convince him that he will perish if he continues to follow the wrong path, use ‘soft power’, informing the DPRK about the situation in the world, which will help the collapse of the socialist regime.

The third group includes the arguments of those for whom it is important to show the incorrectness of the Trump path. So, the Democratic Senator from the state of California Diane Feinstein speaks for the refusal of North Korea’s isolation and for immediate negotiations with Kim Jong-un, saying: ‘The isolation of the North Koreans did not prompt them to abandon their attempts to obtain nuclear weapons. President Trump, with this loud statements, does not help the matter’.

Another group of Democratic senators, led by Connecticut senator Chris Murphy, put forward a bill that should prohibit the president from declaring war on the DPRK without the approval of the congress. ‘The time has come when we begin to take President Trump seriously when he repeatedly threatens military actions against North Korea’.

In conclusion – the opinion of the masses, expressed in a number of opinion polls and which demonstrate a certain dynamic.

Fox News, 16-18 July, 1,020 participants. 55% of respondents indicated the need for military intervention against the DPRK to stop Pyongyang’s development of missile and nuclear technologies. This is 4% more than the results of a survey conducted in April. At the same time, 68% of the survey participants expressed their fears about the possibility of the outbreak of war.

George Washington University, 13-17 August, 1,009 participants. 53% of Americans are against Trump’s North Korean policy, 43% of respondents were ‘for’ it. ‘These’ 53% don’t support Trump’s foreign policy as a whole. Only 41% of those surveyed support the work of the president as a whole, 56% voiced disapproval.

The TV NBC and company SurveyMonkey, 13-17 October, 5,047 participants. 54% of respondents consider the DPRK to be a serious threat to the country, despite the fact that a July poll from the same organisers the figure was 41%. Then, with a significant gap, followed by DAESH – 19%, Russia – 14%, China – 6%, Iran – 4%. However, 64% of those surveyed (5% more than in July) spoke in favour of a diplomatic means of resolution.

Japanese non-governmental organisation NPO and Maryland University in the United States, October-November 2017, 10 thousand Japanese and 20 thousand Americans. 44.2% of respondents in the US and 48.3% of Japanese oppose US military actions against the North, 32.5% of Americans and 20.6% of Japanese are in favour.

At the same time, 35.3% of Americans called the six-party talks and other foreign policy measures the most effective way to solve the problem, while 21.6% of Japanese called for China’s tougher stance. 40% of American respondents expressed agreement with the possibility of securing Japan with nuclear weapons, but 37.6% think that it’s necessary to recognise Pyongyang has a nuclear weapon.

Gallup Institute, 2-8 November, 1,028 participants. Support for Donald Trump’s approach to the North Korean problem was expressed by only 35%, which is 10% less than in September. The decrease is due to the increased tensions in connection with the bellicose rhetoric that was exchanged between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un after the sixth nuclear test and the launch of ballistic missiles by the North. 60% were against.

The Gallup Institute and Japanese ‘Yomiuri Shimbun’ in late November and early December. 82% of respondents in the US and 83% of survey participants in Japan consider the North a military threat. Answering the question about how to solve the North Korean problem, 52% of respondents in Japan noted the need for pressure on Pyongyang, about 40% indicated the importance of dialogue. In the United States, the figures were 56% and 37%, respectively.

Thus, American society is not ready for war, but this option has not been taken off the table, and our next issue will be devoted to how, even if not ‘along the first track’, the US and North Korea are trying to build bridges.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.