Bombing North Korea would be a War of Choice

Image result for north korea airstrike

This essay is a re-post of a piece I wrote earlier this month for The National Interest. It is an extension of the arguments a made earlier in the month, that North Korea is not in fact an existential threat to the United States. And that wonderfully scary photo is courtesy, naturally, of the Chosun Ilbo.

In brief, my argument is that the US has the ability to survive a North Korean nuclear attack, and therefore, we do not need to threat-inflate North Korea into some state-breaking threat to the United States. It is not. North Korea is dangerous enough without scaring the crap out of people unnecessarily. Killing a lot of Americans is not the same thing as bringing down the Constitution, and too many Trump officials are eliding that critical distinction. Strategic bombing has yet to bring down a country, and there is no reason to think the US is different. We do not need to bomb North Korea because it is on the cusp of destroying the American way of life. It could not do that even if it wanted to, which it does not. So an air campaign would still be a war of choice, no matter how much fire-breathing rhetoric you hear from Trump, Dan Coats, or Bolton.

The full essay follows the jump.

In my time with The National Interest, no column I have written received so much criticism as my claim last week that North Korean nuclear weapons do not represent an existential threat to the United States. Perhaps due to the current, ‘Summer of 1914’ atmosphere, critics found it ‘strangelovian’ or insouciant about the use of nuclear weapons. I appreciate the TNI editors allowing me an opportunity to address these concerns.

Normative vs Empirical Analysis

A basic distinction in social analysis is between normative or moral concern, and empirical explanation. Soberly discussing potential US survivability was too dispassionate for some readers. Perhaps nuclear weapons discourse should be morally rejected as too awful to contemplate. This is an old concern in strategic studies, often called ‘thinking the unthinkable.’ Perhaps analytically discussing nuclear weapons helps ‘normalize’ them; perhaps thinking about nuclear war strategy, survivability, state resilience, and so on makes the appalling less appalling.

There is no easy answer to this, but it seems to me that not discussing how the US might respond to a nuclear attack is irresponsible as national policy. Nuclear weapons exist. That genie will never be returned to its bottle, no matter how much we wish it so. Similarly, North Korea is a nuclear missile power, and we are unlikely to roll that back either. These are empirical facts, and no amount of normative revulsion over nuclear weapons’ awfulness will undo them.

I find nuclear weapons as appalling as anyone, pray they will never be used, and fear deeply that the world’s most dangerous state, North Korea, now has them. But revulsion alone is not enough. We must also think soberly about how we will respond in a worst-case scenario.

Worst-Case Scenario Planning

If we accept the empirical reality of the Northern program, and the policy requirement to deliberate its possible use against the United States, then we return to my original essay. There I presented a worst-case scenario: multiple North Korean nuclear strikes against the United States. Worst-case thinking is unnerving but ultimately part of responsible policy planning in order to grasp a problem’s maximal contours. If one lives in an earthquake or tornado zone, one hopes for the best, but plans for the worst. The logic is the same here, if not more accentuated with nuclear weapons. We all, obviously, hope that North Korea never launches against the United States. Indeed, this is extremely unlikely, unless the United States attacks North Korea first, because the North Koreans are not suicidal, and they know that American retaliation would destroy them.

Nonetheless, when planning we should at least consider the worst-case scenario in passing. Specifically, is the current, worst-case talk correct that nuclear missilized North Korea is now an ‘existential’ threat (see below) to America? Were North Korea to launch against the United States, could it do enough damage to actually bring down the American order – the state, the Constitution, the American way of life? It is obvious that many Americans would die, the economic and ecological consequences would be disastrous, a sharp, brutal turn in US foreign policy would follow, and so on. I contest none of that in the original essay. Rather I express skepticism that the United States could not absorb at least some North Korean nuclear strikes without political implosion as well. The humanitarian catastrophe would, of course, be tremendous. Rather, I am asking if the US government would collapse as well, which the ‘existential threat’ language suggests.

In the essay I speculate that it would require dozens of strikes on American cities to actually pitch the United States into political collapse. Cooler-headed respondents suggested a lower threshold, or that even a few strikes would catalyze a military takeover. Perhaps. But the experience of states under strategic bombing in the twentieth century suggest far greater social and political resilience than that. The US launched massive air campaigns against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, communist North Korea, and communist North Vietnam, including nuclear weapons against Japan. Cities were razed; millions killed; millions more wounded. But none of the regimes collapsed or were overthrown, nor did those societies meltdown into some kind of Mad Max/Lord of the Flies dystopic anarchy. The Nazi and Imperial governments survived to surrender in good order, while the North Korean and (North) Vietnamese governments are still with us today.

In fact, the social resilience of the populations under these punishing campaigns astonished US planners and is a reason why the US no longer contemplates such large-scale civilian bombing. It does not seem to work. Perhaps the US is different. Perhaps it is politically more vulnerable. But I suspect not, as I argue in the original essay. The US has major advantages those countries did not have: it is geographically and demographically very large, with multiple, federal layers of government, wealthy, and has deep political stability. By way of example, if multiple cities in the American west – those closest to North Korea – were struck, why should that lead to social collapse in Alabama or Maine or Pennsylvania? Fear, alarm, and martial law would likely ensue – but why collapse? Would city, county, and state governments all over America simply cease to function if Washington, D.C. were struck? Perhaps, but that is not intuitively obvious, even if it is deeply disturbing to contemplate.

I see no reason why saying this is somehow inappropriate; indeed, it strikes me as a good thing that the US has these depths of resilience. (Why would we not want that?) To see cases where North Korean nuclear weapons really are an existential, constitutional, or state-breaking threat, consider South Korea or Japan. Both are geographically and demographically much smaller and denser than the US, with highly centralized governments. That makes them extremely vulnerable to just a few strikes on their biggest cities.

All this suggest that, even in a worst-case scenario, the United States – its government, constitution, and way of life – could in fact ‘ride out’ a North Korean nuclear strike, despite the awful human toll. This is an important, if macabre, point to make, and one that is being inappropriately elided in the current atmosphere of paranoia.

Not an Existential Threat

North Korea is a great enough danger without unnecessary threat-inflation from US officials regarding Northern missiles. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats has repeatedly said North Korea’s nuclear weapons are an “existential” threat to the United States. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster suggested that North Korea is undeterrable, and that Donald Trump believes a North Korean nuclear missile – not its actual use, but simply its existence – is “intolerable.” John Bolton, naturally, agrees; even the potential of a North Korean nuclear missile warrants a military strike.

Coats’ assessment is almost certainly inaccurate given the four strategic bombing cases discussed above, while the Trump White House and Bolton would have us fight just over the potential of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The US has lived with Soviet/Russian and Chinese nuclear ICBMs for years. Pakistan too has nuclear weapons. Most Korea analysts agree that the Kim elite of North Korea is rational. They are not suicidal ideologues like Osama bin Laden or ISIS. They firstly want to survive – whatever their other goals might be – which means they are highly unlikely to simply launch at the US out of the blue.

Hence we do not need to preventively bomb North Korea – with the huge risk of regional or even global conflict that entails – just because they have nuclear weapons. Pyongyang will not launch against the US, unless we attack them first, and the US would, even in that extremely unlikely, worst-case scenario, survive. If we knew the North was about to attack, we should indeed preemptively strike. But that is almost impossible to know, especially with a state as opaque as North Korea, so any US attack would be globally viewed as unnecessarily preventive, not legitimately preemptive.

As this essay has tried to argue, there is no clear-cut case for that, which is perhaps the root of all the administration threat-inflation. President Trump would have to sell to the US public why the US cannot adjust to Northern nuclear weapons as we did to Soviet/Russian, Chinese, and Pakistani nukes. Indeed, the preventive attack case is much stronger for more vulnerable South Korea and Japan, but they have made their peace living next to nuclear North Korea. President Trump might consider that harrbefore we do something rash. US officials should be more honest about all this in the current febrile atmosphere. We are not on the cusp of World War III, the apocalypse, or any of that cable news hysteria unless the Trump administration chooses to attack. And such an attack is not ‘existentially’ necessary. Let’s at least be honest about th

12 thoughts on “Bombing North Korea would be a War of Choice

  1. They are not suicidal ideologues like Osama bin Laden or ISIS. They firstly want to survive – whatever their other goals might be –

    “As if the logic were not in itself reminiscent of fascist Japan, the regime makes increasingly bold use of the very same terms—such as “resolve to die” (kyŏlsa) and “human bombs” (yukt’an)—that were so common in imperial Japanese and colonial Korean propaganda during the Pacific War.31 In the summer of 2009 the evening news periodically played a stirring anthem entitled “We Will Give Our Lives to Defend the Head of the Revolution.” The text runs, “Ten million will become as guns and bombs … to give one’s life for the General is a soldier’s greatest honor.”

    Excerpt From: Myers, B.R. “The Cleanest Race.” Melville House, 2011-02-08. iBooks.
    This material may be protected by copyright.

    I mean what else needs to be said?


    • A lot, like a lot a lot. First of all, Japanese imperialist nationalism took place in a far different milieu than North Korean nationalism is today. Japan was arguably the wealthiest and most powerful nation in Asia during the 1st half of the 20th century. Very few North Koreans on any level, official or civilian, believes this about their country today. Their knowledge of the outside world may not be comprehensive, but it’s extensive enough that none live fully under the illusion that the DPRK is a paradise. Ergo, the Japanese person had something that he/she knew was worth defending, even if only in fending off an unknown alternative future; no North Korean is likely as afraid of that future. (Incidentally, there was a cultural strain along those lines in Colonial Korea, but I’d be surprised if such a sentimental, impersonal thought existed on any level of modern North Korea)

      Secondly, that North Korea adopted Japanese fascist language says nothing about their ability to carry out the actions that language entails. Imperial Japanese military might, even in its actually-existent, circa 1940’s form, far exceeds anything currently in Asia, with the likely exclusion of China’s military. On the contrary, if the past few decades of North Korean behavior indicate anything, it is specifically that they talk the talk so that they don’t have to walk the walk. North Korea, as a nation and an idea, isn’t worth anything to anyone, probably even less to North Korean leadership than American, Japanese, or South Korean leadership.

      Finally, North Korea is well aware that its existence is tenuous, and based upon the ability to talk big while only ever having to act small. It is small, but in keeping everyone else more-or-less dancing to its tune, hardy. Imperial Japan, because of all its disparate moving parts, was fragile–as, in a sense, all large and powerful states are. They had much more to lose from failing to live up to bombastic language, because in failing to do so, they’d have lost the credibility to pose as a threat. North Korea has never really been a threat, at least not to the U.S., and I’m inclined to say that Japan and South Korea have strong enough institutions at this point that, changed though they’d greatly be, they’d survive a bombing of their capitals, as well.

      Basically, North Korea’s words have always meant next to nothing (refer, also, to their very consistent failure to live up to the expectations set out in compromise for removing sanctions or receiving aid). It’s only the words of a certainly cowardly American leader that are beginning to actually legitimize a North Korean threat.


      • Taking your points in reverse order:
        1. So what does North Korea believe then if we can not believe what they say? Is there any other regime on Earth of which we would say that their words mean “next to nothing?” Would we, for example, simply refuse to believe Iran’s words when it declares itself a Shia theocracy? And if the objective of the nuclear program is to secure an aid deal why did they proceed with the 2012 rocket launch when there was an aid deal with the US in effect at the time? And more importantly how is the regime supposed to justify itself to its people once all of the money from any putative agreement is spent?

        2. North Korea’s existence is not tenuous. Even at the height of the famine in 1994 the US was too afraid of North Korea’s artillery and chemical weapons to bomb Yongbyon.

        3. North Korea certainly can carry out just about everything that their language entails which is not to say that they actually would. The bomb tested last September is as powerful as the Nagasaki bomb. They have successfully tested an ICBM that can reach at least as far as Chicago with a light warhead twice. The regime has stated that the Hwasong-12 and Hwasong-14 can carry a “large-sized nuclear warhead,” which is almost certainly code for a hydrogen bomb. The nuclear test site can support, according to 38 North, a nuclear detonation of 282 kilotons as of last April. Kim Jong Un was photographed only a few days ago with a design for a solid-fueled ICBM. So, if they are not well-armed enough to do everything they say, they certainly will be in the near future.

        4. The economic differences between twentieth-century Japan and contemporary North Korea are of absolutely no importance. None. So little does North Korea care about economic issues that it freely admits that South Korea is the more prosperous of the two Korean states. It explicitly calls itself a military-first state. And of course the North Korean people view North Korea as worthy enough of a cause to die for. The bombers of Korean Air 858 were willing to commit suicide rather than be captured. What has changed since then? The economy? People are still willing to die for the ISIS caliphate. They don’t care that its GDP is lower than the Sunni monarchies. So it is with North Korea.


      • 1. North Korea doesn’t believe in anything. North Korea, as an entity with explicitly nationalist goals, doesn’t exist; it’s nothing but a grand-scale embezzlement scheme for the Kim family and the military elite, who take the funds from whatever economic activity state (i.e., military) actors can engage in with foreign partners. Iran, as the Shia nation with far and away the largest economy in the Middle East and a long history of significant participation in global affairs, has credibility at stake. It also has a history of democracy, even if it’s not consistent or always strong. North Korea has none of these things; it believes in nothing. It is solipsistic and very nearly autarkic, because that is all its elites need to live comfortably and relatively securely. And, its people have never subjectively known anything other than their current existence, so nothing more is truly expected. Even if more is increasingly hoped for because more of the outside world is known, this hoping is not done openly, because all are aware of how dangerous it is to hope for change.

        2. Perhaps tenuous was the wrong word; let’s say “conditional”. If North Korea were to actually follow through its threats of a fiery Seoul, it would be destroyed, and North Korean leadership knows this. North Korea doesn’t still exist because its existence is sound; it still exists because there is no easy alternative.

        3. I’ll put it this way: North Korea does not pose a symmetric threat to the U.S., unlike Japan of the imperial period could at least posture to. Perhaps the DPRK could strike the U.S., but only once or twice, maybe a few times. It could only strike the U.S. with missiles, not with land, sea, or other air forces. It has no deep well of resources to pull from, no proportionate population to conscript. Note that all they ever threaten is missile strikes which we can (apparently) be scared into thinking will disable the U.S. in short order. North Korea could not possibly hope to engage in the kind of protracted fight that any truly existential threat to the U.S. would need to be. I say this not as an American nationalist; I say this as a person who knows very basic facts, e.g., population sizes and defense budgets. The threats that North Korea makes will probably always be a bit past their current capabilities, and it is in no position to do anything in addition to what it says it will.

        4. The North Korean state and military apparatus may not care about the economy, but you better believe that North Korean people–evermore exposed to foreign media, which shows life better than they have ever had it–do. That exposure makes all the difference in the world when establishing the idea of North Korea as a cause worth dying for. It’s been almost 30 years since that flight. North Korea is a stagnant place, but it is not static. Do you honestly believe that North Koreans think the same about their country as they did in 1987?


      • 1. “Great states,” Hillary Clinton once said, “need organizing principles.” Kim Jong Un needs to get drunk on Hennessy and have sex with pleasure squad girls is not an organizing principle. How could such an explicitly exploitative state achieve the levels of mass support that the dictatorship has received? Hence, the North Korean masses must be told that they live in poverty for some other reason. Which do you think is a more attractive message for the North Korean masses to hear: “We need to sacrifice material comfort to build nukes to drive out the Yankees and reunite the motherland,” or “We need to sacrifice material comfort to make sure that our leaders live in comfort?”

        2. The United States nuclear umbrella since July 28 is a polite fiction. There is no way that we will follow through on our threats to defend South Korea if they have all of Guam, LA, SF, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, etc in range. Of course you will bring up how the Communists never used their nukes but North Korea is not Communist; its dominant ideology is radical nationalism.

        3. I’m not saying that North Korea will nuke the US unprovoked so the question of wether we can live with “only a few,” nuclear strikes upon this country is irrelevant. Simply put, if North Korea does not have the ability to carry everything out today, that they certainly will soon. Kim Jong Un was seen standing next to a model for a Pukguksong-3 so we’ll see how far the SLBM program goes.

        4. I have no reason not to believe that they think the same way as they did in 1987. There is absolutely no evidence of a domestic opposition movement operating openly in North Korea today. There is no North Korean equivalent to the Cuban ladies in white. There is no North Korean version of Havel. Any resistance to the regime is coming from outside North Korea itself.


      • 1. If living in America–or observing the lives of South Koreans–has taught me anything, it’s that people will pay as little attention to the politics of their nation as they can afford to. Particularly as North Korea’s daily life has gone relatively unchanged internally for decades, why should they start to pay attention now? What reason do they have to expect change? Change happens everywhere else–not in North Korea.

        2. It may be thin, but the U.S. does have some credibility to uphold. If we say we’re going to protect South Korea, or respond to an attack on it, and we don’t, then what reason do Japan, the Philippines, or any other China-adjacent, U.S.-aligned nation have to refrain from militarizing more seriously? North Korea provides a very convenient counterfactual–as it has become evermore clear that China will not defend North Korea no matter the latter’s action, North Korea has escalated its militarization. (And who said I think the DPRK is communist?)

        3. The Kims have been standing next to giant missiles for decades. Their increasingly actual capability says nothing about the odds that any of them being used. The calculus remains the same; there is very little reason for North Korea to exist other than historical accident and a family’s iron grip on power. No one but the Kims and the DPRK’s military overlords is really happy about the DPRK existing; a missile against an ally of the U.S. or the nation itself would surely spell the end of this Hermit Kingdom.

        4. I’m not talking about open resistance; no one’s positing an impending Velvet Revolution. That kind of thing was never the way of things in pre-modern Korea, anyway. The only real example of secondary power structures in Korean history have been when there’s been a high degree of factionalism or broad social uncertainty–think of the literati purges or the Donghak Rebellion. There exists no question on the power structure in North Korea. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a generalized sense of discontent among the populace which isn’t heard–or even spoken; this is North Korea, after all. You can say I’m chasing after hope; that doesn’t invalidate its possibility.


      • 1. North Korea is of course a totalitarian state. Politics is certainly something that is more important to them then it would be to us. Not one of us would, for example, break into a fit of crying if a picture of our president were covered with rain.
        2. You are exactly right that any US surrender of South Korea would mean the end of every alliance or promise we have ever made from Japan to the Philippines to NATO. Hence, I do not believe the militarization of US-allied nations is a bad thing. It’s certainly better than our empty promises even though I realize it will never happen. Moon Jae-In will never do anything mean to North Korea and Japanese public opinion is strongly anti-nuclear. (I only brought up Communism because it is the stock thing now to say “We all worried about Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons and that turned out reasonably fine;hence, North Korea having nukes will turn out similarly fine. That is not the case.)
        3. The goal of the nuclear program is to get the US forces out and force South Korea to sign a unification by confederation agreement, which is something Pyongyang has been talking about since 1960. North Korea does not have to use its nuclear weapons. It just needs to stage a few 2010 style attacks for America to realize that the alliance is not worth its while and that US forces in Korea are sitting ducks. The US public is not psychologically prepared for the notion that their troops in Korea could actually die. We think of the Korean conflict as over in all but name. Hence, public opinion will turn strongly against the alliance soon.
        4. I’m sure there’s a sense of discontent with the economic situation, but the regime explains that this situation is necessary, at least until the Yankees are driven from Korea forever and the country is reunified. It rationalizes the economic gap between the two Koreas away.


  2. North Korea and the black market. Not just a U.S. and South Korea problem.
    “NK is Enabling Instability and Violence: North Korean Proliferation in the Middle East and Africa.”

    NK does business with Bulgaria, Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Syria, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran. NK could pass an operational nuke to one of these groups for use in Europe or the Middle East as a suicide attack.

    So another country might bomb NK before the U.S. does.


  3. Pingback: Learning to Live with a Nuclear N Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: Learning to Live with a Nuclear North Korea: Awful, but Better than the Alternatives | Peace and Freedom

  5. Pingback: The Wide Gap between South Korean and American Media Coverage of North Korea | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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