Time for a first strike on North Korea?

Just this afternoon, Ed was asking whether or not North Korea was dialing down the rhetoric and, just perhaps, signaling a return to the lousy normal situation we face regarding the ongoing Dancing With the Kims reality show on the Korean peninsula. But that answer is far from clear and some other voices are expressing an urge to advance the pieces on the chess board a bit faster. One of them is Jeremi Suri, who went to the pages of the Gray Lady to suggest that it’s time to put this charade to rest and just bomb them.

The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.

President Obama should state clearly and forthrightly that this is an act of self-defense in response to explicit threats from North Korea and clear evidence of a prepared weapon. He should give the leaders of South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan advance notice before acting. And he should explain that this is a limited defensive strike on a military target — an operation that poses no threat to civilians — and that America does not intend to bring about regime change. The purpose is to neutralize a clear and present danger. That is all.

It’s an interesting perspective and, I must admit, one which lies in a direction which I’ve found myself considering lately as well. But in my own dark, depressing thoughts, simply taking out a few strategic missile installations wouldn’t do the trick. The ruling family has been a pain in the lower anatomical sections for as long as I can remember, and I admit to wondering if it wasn’t time to just send some smart bombs in to the location of his next photo op and be done with him before he can spawn another generation of daft tyrants. But as I said, that’s really just depression talking, and not something I see as viable at this moment.

Not everyone agrees with Suri, of course. Over at OTB, Steven Taylor seems to think this is a rerun of a bad movie he’s seen before.

The logic here reminds me of pre-Iraq War logic: a bellicose dictator, who is often painted as unstable and unpredictable, appears to be developing weapons that, if deployed, could seriously damage regional stability and vital US national interests. Since an attack said dictator could have devastating results, best to act before such attacks take place. Indeed, a demonstration of power and resolve will help maintain, if not enhance, US security interests. Further: everything will go as planned once the action is undertaken.

A major flaw in Suri’s logic, I would argue: he is starting from the premise that Kim Jung Un’s threats are credible, i.e., that he would attack the South or US interests if allowed to continue. Yet, if the US were to militarily strike the North, then Kim would respond by backing down. Indeed, Suri’s argument is predicated on wishful (if not magical) thinking about how military power works. Just because the North is attacked does not mean that their automatic response will be better behavior. Indeed, provoking an adversary is a good way to get that adversary to overreact.

Comparisons between Kim Jong Un and other dictators are not futile, and he makes some fair points, but I disagree with the underlying reasoning. I’m not worried about an attack on North Korea making their leader more crazy and doing something nuts. He’s already crazy enough. But both the international politics and the military reality make me think that a first strike is still more of a negative than a positive.

From the military side of things, we’re watching all of NoKo’s assets like a hawk and we should be able to neutralize any first strike attempts they make. With sufficient provocation being displayed for all to see, nobody we care about (read: China and Russia) will care much if we go in after that and flatten a fair bit of the country and take out Kim. But if we strike first, that’s precisely the type of excuse the next leadership of North Korea, not to mention China, can use to muddy the waters and further make us out to be the bad guy.

But far more to the point, even if we have to live with Kim’s bellicose grandstanding for a few years more, “beating” North Korea seems like a losing proposition. From all the reports we’ve seen, the people of North Korea, starving though they may be and with relatives dying in concentration camps, really and truly hate us. They have been indoctrinated since birth to believe that the United States is the Great Evil waiting to destroy them and their beloved leader. We will not be welcomed as freedom fighting heroes by the citizens of North Korea. We’ll just be fulfilling the evil prophecy of doom they’ve been lectured about their whole lives.

So what does that leave us with? Another wrecked country that we have to ride shotgun over while they pick off our troops? We don’t need an occupation there or any sort of nation re-building efforts. This is a no win game as I see it, and there’s no profitable path forward unless they make the first move. The best plan I see is to stay on them like a blanket, ready to respond, and then hit them like the Hammer of God if Kim is stupid enough to attempt a strike.

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Ed Morrissey 10:01 AM on December 06, 2022