No Matter How Popular the Notion Is in D.C., a ‘Bloody Nose’ Strike on North Korea Would Start a Global War

Starting a worldwide conflict is usually a very bad idea.


The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Trump administration officials are considering adopting a “bloody nose” strategy, in other words, they are preparing to strike a limited number of North Korean facilities if there is another provocative missile launch or nuclear detonation. The American retaliatory action would “illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior,” the paper noted. “The hope would be to make that point without inciting a full-bore reprisal by North Korea.”

Earlier, the Telegraph, the London paper, reported the administration was “dramatically” increasing the tempo of its planning for such an action.

There are many reasons why Kim Jong Un, his nose bloodied, would decide not to go full-bore . And if the North Korean tyrant in fact refrained from doing so, Washington will have ended, at least for the meantime, the dangerous series of tests that are fast making his regime a full nuclear weapons state.

Nonetheless, a preventive strike is an exceedingly bad idea.

As an initial matter, some analysts are making the case the U.S. should attack even in the absence of a North Korean provocation.

For instance, David Allan Adams, in the widely discussed “Limited Strikes on North Korea Are Past Due,” argues it is time to “escalate to deescalate” in order “to break the North Korean provocation cycle.”

“Limited military action,” the former U.S. Navy captain wrote last month, “would serve the dual purpose of hampering North Korean nuclear progress and resetting the level of U.S. tolerance for Pyongyang’s belligerence.”

And in “It’s Time to Bomb North Korea,” posted on the Foreign Policy site on Monday, Edward Luttwak, a leading national security thinker, states the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea poses an “immense danger” to the “national interests” of the United States of America and its allies.

Of course Luttwak is correct about the dimension of the danger, but apart from malware that may have been planted by Americans, no one has tried to degrade, by military means, the North’s weapons capabilities.

As Lee Sung-Yoon of Tuft’s Fletcher School told The Daily Beast, Ashton Carter, while an assistant secretary of defense during the first North Korean nuclear crisis in the mid-1990s, spent months war-gaming the North Korean reaction to a U.S. bombing of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. “It very well may have been self-deterrence,” Lee says, “but the risk was thought to be unbearable.”

The fear is that Kim would retaliate against Seoul, which sits within range of his artillery, tucked into the hills just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post on Monday lists horrific casualty estimates resulting from an attack on the South Korean capital.

There is, despite everything, a powerful argument why Kim Jong Un would suffer a loss of his facilities in silence. An all-out war, which would follow his devastating attack on Seoul, would almost surely lead to the end of his regime. David Allan Adams and others sensibly argue that Kim retaliating against the South Korean capital would be “irrational.”

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“The truth is, nobody knows for sure whether Kim is a ‘crazy fat kid’ or a rational actor cleverly playing to his regime elites’ notion of their nation’s best interest,” he writes. “The distinction, however, is critical. Since no one knows for sure, the only way to absolutely discern the true nature of North Korea’s provocative decisions may be to gauge the regime’s response to limited military action.”

So is it really true, as Adams tell us, that “it is better to find out sooner than later”?

Kim is undoubtedly rational, yet even the rational miscalculate. And the possibility of miscalculation is why Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University, a leading North Korea analyst, is concerned about a “limited strike.”

“The risk here is that North Korea would think this was the initial strike of a full-scale war and would thus mobilize for attacks on South Korea, Japan, and possibly the United States,” he told The Daily Beast.

Another potential miscalculation involves China. “China is cautious,” Adams points out, and it “understands it is not yet able to confront the U.S. military directly.” This leads him to conclude it is “unlikely that Beijing would risk it all by overreacting to limited U.S. strikes on the northern peninsula.” Luttwak is definitive: “Anybody who believes China would act on North Korea’s behalf in the event of an American attack against its nuclear installations has not been paying attention.”

Beijing, to the extent it has publicly stated its intentions, has actually signaled the opposite conclusion. “If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so,” the Global Times stated in an editorial in August. It’s not entirely clear Beijing would make a distinction between a strike to take out just weapons sites and a strike to end Kim rule. The Chinese might reasonably come to the conclusion that Kim, one way or another, could not survive a decision not to retaliate.

Unfortunately, no one outside a small circle in Beijing knows what “China” thinks or would do. American policymakers and diplomats regularly talk to their civilian counterparts there but rarely converse with those who, as a practical matter, carry the most weight with ruler Xi Jinping, the senior officers in the People’s Liberation Army.

America, of course, does not have a good track record in predicting Beijing’s intentions. In October 1950, Gen. Douglas MacArthur assured President Harry Truman at the Wake Island meeting that Mao Zedong would not intervene on behalf of Kim Il Sung in the Korean War. The Chinese did just that, a few weeks later.

Let’s, however, be optimistic and assume that Kim Jong Un would not massively retaliate and China would not come to his rescue. There is one bad outcome we will almost certainly see.

An American strike on North Korea tempts Xi Jinping to make a move on Taiwan and Philippine-controlled features in the South China Sea, especially Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal. Moreover, Vladimir Putin may decide to renew his push in Eastern Ukraine or go after the Baltic States. Iran could make even more trouble across its neighborhood.

A strike in North Asia, therefore, likely results in simultaneous turmoil in Europe and both ends of Asia.

Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center believes the Pentagon is unprepared for multiple conflicts and thinks that, as a precaution, any preventive strike on North Korea should be preceded by the redeployment into Asia of tactical nuclear weapons. “Only under a new theater nuclear umbrella should the U.S. initiate any ‘limited’ military action against North Korea,” he told The Daily Beast. “Otherwise America risks falling into the trap of a strike by a nuclear and biological weapon-armed North Korea, all made possible by decades of Chinese technical and economic support.”

President George H.W. Bush withdrew tactical nukes from locations outside the U.S. in 1991, and there are no known plans to reintroduce them, but Fisher’s comments highlight the risks by showing how unprepared America is for widespread conflict.

A strike on North Korea will never be America’s alone to make. Charles Burton of Brock University, who studies China’s interactions with Pyongyang, made the point to me that not only would Washington have to cooperate with Seoul and Tokyo but it would also have to assure Beijing it would “respect the existing border between Korea and China.”

Without China’s acceptance of that assurance, there will, as a practical matter, be no American attack. And because a successful attack would make not only North Korea but China look weak, it is unlikely Beijing would ever say “go ahead, launch an attack close to my soil on my only formal ally.”

Simply stated, many in the Washington policy community think a strike on North Korean facilities will be painless, a “splendid little war” to borrow a term Americans once used. What they are not saying is that it could easily turn into a conflict across the globe and even result in history’s first nuclear exchange. I guess they think these risks are not relevant.