Are we still discussing a possible "first strike" on North Korea?

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton has published an op-ed at the Wall Street Journal in which he makes the case for a preemptive strike against North Korea now that the Olympics are over. This is an article full of fascinating historical episodes which have traditionally defined the criteria various countries have used to determine when it’s justified to hit the enemy before they hit you. Bolton uses these various examples ( including Daniel Webster’s test of “necessity” in 1837 and Reagan’s decision to expand coastal maritime boundaries past three miles) to define the threat posed by Kim Jong-un and justify taking out his nuclear weapons facilities before they become even more of an imminent threat to the United States.

Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an “imminent threat.” They are wrong. The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute. That would risk striking after the North has deliverable nuclear weapons, a much more dangerous situation…

Although the Caroline criteria are often cited in pre-emption debates, they are merely customary international law, which is interpreted and modified in light of changing state practice. In contemporary times, Israel has already twice struck nuclear-weapons programs in hostile states: destroying the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 and a Syrian reactor being built by North Koreans in 2007.

This is how we should think today about the threat of nuclear warheads delivered by ballistic missiles. In 1837 Britain unleashed pre-emptive “fire and fury” against a wooden steamboat. It is perfectly legitimate for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.

I happen to like and have a great deal of respect for John Bolton. (He was nice enough to give us an interview a few years ago when he was mulling a 2016 presidential bid.) His experience and expertise in foreign policy can’t be ignored, so when he comes up with a proposal it’s always worthy of consideration.

In this instance, however, the medicine being proposed may turn out to be worse than the disease. To be sure, there’s a definite logic in some of what Bolton is saying here. If we assume that North Korea is not yet fully capable of delivering a nuclear strike to North America, but will reach that stage soon, then the cold, clinical conclusion would be to say that we should take out their weapons facilities now. Waiting until they have a reliable delivery vehicle for miniaturized nuclear warheads would basically guarantee that we’ll be hit after we launch the first strike because our spotty intelligence in that region almost assures that we won’t get them all in one time-on-target strike.

But that argument rests on two assumptions. The first is that North Korea will actually use the weapons on us once their systems are perfected. The second is that their retaliation after we hit them, even if it doesn’t involve nukes smashing into Los Angeles, would be an acceptable tradeoff. Honestly, I’m not sure either of those assumptions is certain enough to justify what would surely follow such a move on our part.

As to the first assumption, Kim Jong-un loves rattling sabers and talking about unleashing nuclear fury on us. But as I’ve asked here in the past, is he really that crazy or does he just enjoy putting on a show? He must realize that if he dropped a nuke on the United States the response would be immediate and devastating. There wouldn’t be a North Korea after that happened. We would be fully entitled to launch a massive counterattack and the entire world would stand behind us on the decision, including Russia and China. Nobody would take his side and his nation would be reduced to a large pool of slowly cooling glass. Kim surely knows this.

As to the second assumption, unless Ambassador Bolton is talking about a first strike which would basically destroy all of North Korea’s military infrastructure, they would be firing back as soon as our first cruise missiles came over the horizon. Granted, they might not be able to pull off an ICBM launch with tactical weapons that could be deployed over our mainland, but they could definitely hit Japan, Guam and any number of other targets in that region. And their conventional weapons would rain down on South Korea in massive numbers that would leave our missile defense systems totally overwhelmed. The death toll on the first day alone would likely be in the tens of millions according to numerous military analysts.

After the dust settled, the United States would likely be viewed as a pariah nation. Even if we didn’t launch the first nukes, we would have been the ones who “started” a nuclear war. In that scenario, it’s even possible that some other countries might use that as an excuse to jump in on Kim’s side. Is that a price worth paying? I don’t believe so. The fact is that right now there is still at least an outside chance (tiny though it may be) that diplomacy may work to restore a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. But even if it doesn’t, we’re dealing with the possibility of a war with the North. If we strike first, it seems to me that the possibility will immediately become a certainty.