Invading North Korea is a Really, Really Bad Idea


The idea of invading North Korea comes up now and again. Usually this is quickly dismissed as hugely risky, naïve, and so on. But the idea does keep recurring and there is an underlying moral attraction to stomping on North Korea. NK is just about the worst place on earth, barring perhaps the ISIS statelet emerging in the Middle East.

So I took this opportunity to sketch out a more detailed rebuttal than the usual ‘this is crazily dangerous’ response. I lay out 6 reasons, probably the most important of which is that South Korea, which will carry most of the costs of a NK collapse, is strongly opposed to preemptive attack. More generally, I continue to be amazed at how blithely neocons and liberal internationalists recommend the American use of force all over the place. Iraq (and Libya and Afghanistan) haven’t made it obvious how risky regime change decapitations are?

This essay was motivated by this original argument for an invasion by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Should Gobry read this response, please note: ‘I did notice that you blocked my access to your twitter account. My apologies if this response came off as harsh or inappropriate. That was not my intention. Contact me if you like.’

This essay was originally picked up by the Lowy Institute and, I was pleased to see, reprinted by the National Interest. It begins after the jump:


Earlier this month, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued for a US invasion of North Korea. Thankfully, the general response has been quite negative (here, here, here). Invading North Korea is a terrible idea, and it is worth laying out why in some detail. I do not intend this as a particular shot against Gobry – I do not know him personally – but rather against this general idea, as it comes up now and then.

In 1994, the Clinton administration came quick close to a massive air campaign against the North (well-discussed here). Then in the first term of President George W. Bush, regime change was the watchword, and North Korea was on the axis of evil. If the Iraq invasion had worked out, it appears that other states were on the Bush hit list. Neoconservatives (neocons) love to loathe North Korea.

I should note however, that in my seven years working in Korea on Korean security issues, I have never heard a reputable Korean analyst argue for preemptive attack in an op-ed, at a conference, on TV, and so on. Nor have any of my hundreds of students over the years argued for this. This is a western debate that has little resonance on the people who would mostly carry the costs – already a big problem for Gobry’s argument.

1. Moral Revulsion is Not Enough

Gobry, and President Bush who placed North Kore on the axis of evil, both share an admirably strong moral revulsion of North Korea which motivates their hawkishness. Certainly that revulsion is warranted. There is little dispute that North Korea is the worst country on earth – although perhaps the emerging ISIS statelet is giving it a run for its money. The moral argument against North Korea became clear as early as the 1950s, when Kim Il Sung solidified control of the North and turned it into a cult of personality so servile and vicious scholars began using the neologism ‘Kimilsungism’ to describe it.

But there are of course many nasty, awful dictatorships. Perhaps none as awful as North Korea, but certainly huge numbers of people have suffered in many other states, both powerful and weak. Mao’s China comes to mind, as does Cambodia under Pol Pot, or Zimbabwe and Syria-ISIS today.

For a brief moment under George W Bush, after his second inaugural address, it looked as if ‘promoting freedom around the world’ might actually become US foreign policy, thereby justifying widespread global pre-emption. But that was always wildly impractical, and the American public rejected it immediately. And if there is anything we have learned from offensive regime change in places like Iraq and Libya, it is that the unintended consequences and future bloodletting can be extreme.

2. South Koreans really, really don’t want to Invade North Korea

Much of the western debate on North Korea assumes that South Korea will simply go along with whatever decisions emerge from Washington. I thought the same before I moved to Korea. Like many, I figured that the ROK was a democratic ally standing ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with the US for freedom and democracy, and all that. But South Korean foreign policy is far more realist than that. I have been arguing for a long time that South Koreans are not neocons and that they really don’t want to up-end the status quo if it will be hugely costly.

Polls in South Korea have shown for years that South Koreans fear the costs of unification, increasingly don’t see North Koreans as a fellow people (for whom they should make a huge sacrifice), don’t think that North Korea is a huge threat, dislike Japan almost as much as, if not more than, North Korea, dislike conscription, worry a lot that the US might do something rash and provoke a war, and so on. Neocons like Gobry may see this as a moral failing – South Koreans slacking on the defense of democracy and their historic responsibility to end the world’s worst tyranny. (And I will admit myself that I think South Koreans need to step-up more on this.) But that is ultimately for South Koreans to decide. Far more South Koreans would like to see the two Koreas slowly grow together after North Korea has changed on its own (for example, by a coup, Chinese pressure, or internal breakdown). There are lots of hawks in South Korea (try here and here), but not even the most extreme argue for a preemptive invasion of North Korea.

3. North Korea has nuclear weapons

If the first two reasons are a little soft, this one strikes me as a show-stopper. The United States has never fought a sustained conflict against a nuclear power. Indeed, the very reason North Korea built nuclear weapons was to deter US offensive action. It is hardly a leap of logic to think that the North would launch once US ground forces arrived on its territory. Gobry assumes, far too blithely, that the US could find all the missiles and hit them before they launch. That is a helluva gamble, and certainly not one that South Korea or Japan, the likely targets, want to make. At the very least, we cannot go over the heads of Seoul and Tokyo if we choose to seriously strike the North.

4. The (North) Korean People’s Army would probably fight

This is a tricky debate, because we have no good opinion data on KPA morale. We guess at readiness based on drills and the ferociously-looking marches through Kim Il Sung Square and so on. But we really do not know.

The neocon position in such situations is to again assume the best – that rogue state armies are paper tigers and would collapse quickly. Certainly the Iraqis did in 1991 and 2003. And I would agree that KPA would suffer revolts if pushed into an offensive against the South. But a US invasion would justify all the propaganda Northern soldiers have heard for decades. Overnight they would go from a conscript army used primarily as slave labor on construction projects to defenders of the nation against a long-foretold invasion.

The nationalist interpretation of US preemption would be the easiest interpretive frame. Do we really have any sense that the US army would be ‘greeted as liberators’? That is yet another huge gamble, because if we are wrong, it is a war against a state where almost every able-bodied male has extensive military training. Even in Iraq, the insurgency showed how tenacious third world nationalism is and how easy it is for such feelings to ignite when faced with armed foreigners, however noble their intentions.

5. The People’s Liberation Army might Fight too

A US invasion would also justify every hawk in China. It would set US-Chinese relations back by decades, and almost certainly push the US and China into a larger, violent, heavily militarized cold war throughout Asia. Neocons who loathe China’s repressive oligarchy might not care, but post-Iraq, that frightening insouciance about the world’s second largest economy would almost certainly be a minority opinion in the West, and definitely would be among America’s Asian allies who would carry most of the costs of militarized Sino-US competition.

Indeed, if the US invasion spun out of control – which is easy to envision given the North’s nuclear weapons and the size of the KPA – China (and Japan) could easily get chain-ganged in. China went to war in 1950 to keep the Americans off the Yalu, and that was a war the North stated. If the US were to invade, America would suddenly look like an aggressive, aggrandizing power. It would be easy to see the PLA fight once again for essentially the same reasons.

6. Reconstruction would fall to the US

Here is yet another Iraq lesson neocons seem blind to. When regimes like Libya or North Korea are decapitated, something new needs to be put in place. Gobry’s assumption is simply that South Korea would absorb ex-North Korea. And it probably would in more traditional collapse scenarios. But if the US were to pro-actively invade North Korea, it would be easy to see Southern and global opinion arguing that this is yet another mess made by belligerent Washington that it should clean up. And there is also the potential for a nasty insurgency by Kimist dead-enders, a point Gobry does not even consider.

Neocons really need to learn a few lessons from Iraq and the war on terror about the use of American force.

2 thoughts on “Invading North Korea is a Really, Really Bad Idea

  1. Thinking hawkishly, how about targeted airstrikes on military facilities? How might NK react? Especially if it were in immediate retaliation to the next provocation? Would it really risk everything in a return strike, or immediately erupt into all out war? More extreme, how might it react to a strike/assassination that successfully decapitated the leadership?.. That would surely effect some internal power struggles and one faction might finally reach out for foreign support.

    Separately, how might a country like NK respond itself to current Russian style strategies of ‘non-linear’ warfare and denials of blatant military action?

    I have to say, short of an attempted US led land invasion (which would certainly be indescribably disastrous and tragic) every scenario I can think of for ‘change’ in the status quo – whether military or peaceful – requires the withdrawal of US troops from at least South Korea and ideally Japan. Even if US hawks wanted to strike NK, it would be safer for itself to do this from a longer distance and at the same time lessen the chances that NK would respond by attacking Seoul (especially if SK declared neutrality or officially condemned the action).

    If American hawks really wanted a full war for regime change, it would be easier to instigated a false flag ‘incident’ and then ‘come back,’ guaranteeing it better perceived legitimacy. (I certainly don’t support this, but am surprised US hawks aren’t thinking along these lines).

    Likewise, and more positively, SK would have better chances of getting Chinese cooperation on NK if the US were out of the immediate picture.

    I recognize, of course, this isn’t current reality (and you’ve discussed the topic not so long ago).

    Equally, from a SK hawkish perspective, military action would have been best taken in the 1990s when NK was at its weakest.. If it were ‘targeted strikes’ it might have then gotten use to the idea of its military facilities being destroyed occasionally, lessening the chance it would overreact whenever it happened (and trusting then it wouldn’t have managed to develop its nuclear capability).

    I stress, I don’t support the military options, first and foremost for the human cost of any war, but also because I think NK is better off as an independent country; at least in the mid term, presuming it could reform enough to end immediate hunger and be a few degrees less oppressive.


    • Hi Andrew,

      I tend to agree that the time to hit NK – if it was to be done – was 20 years ago. But most ideas to attack NK have focused on limited airstrikes on missile sites, not full-blown invasion as Gobry argues for here. That is so risky, especially when we know how badly Iraq went, that I am amazed this stuff makes it into print.

      I do think that NK’s continuing nuclear build-up does slowly raise the pressure on SK, and that if NK does not stop, at some point, SK will strike NK to prevent it from having enough weapons to obliterate SK and conceivably win a war. That is still far away, but it is coming. In the next 20 years, rising SK anxiety over NK missiles is my biggest fear for a major outbreak of hostilities in the peninsular. I will have some come out on this in the next month or so.

      Good to talk with you again.


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