How The U.S. Can Win North Korea’s Deadly Game Of Chicken

Published On April 18, 2013 | By Marc Belisle |
By Marc Belisle

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed by University of Texas, Austin professor Jeremi Suri proposing the US should bomb a North Korean missile on its platform.  The potential costs of such a strike are infinitely greater than the potential benefits.  Bolstering US-Chinese cooperation is a growing possibility that would be far more politically stabilizing than an attack.

North Korea has 10,000 deeply entrenched artillery tubes aimed at South Korea’s capital, Seoul.  Twenty-five million people live in the greater Seoul area.  If North Korea attacked South Korea, tens of thousands of civilians would die per hour for weeks until South Korea and the US built csmonitorup the strength to repel the attack.  Millions of refugees would throw the peninsula into total chaos.  It would be one of the greatest humanitarian disasters since World War II.  Seoul is also one of the world’s most important financial hubs.  A second Korean war would trigger a global financial crisis that would dwarf the 2008 crash.  Even though South Korea and the US would almost certainly win this conflict in the end, the costs in achieving victory would be astronomical.

Suri writes that following an American strike on North Korea’s missile, a North Korean attack is “unlikely” but a reprisal that leads to war is “not inconceivable.”  This is unacceptable.  America should not pursue any policy so fraught with uncertainty and potential calamity.  The lives of the Korean people are not Suri’s to gamble with.  Suri writes that the North probably wouldn’t attack the South because it would be suicide for the North and because China would try to restrain them.

The problem with these potentially catastrophic assumptions is that we don’t necessarily know why the North is acting so belligerently.  Relations between the Koreas were less frosty under the so-called “Sunshine Policy.”  Under this policy, from 1998 to 2008, South Korean presidents Kim Dae Jung and then Roh Moo Hyun provided unconditional humanitarian aid to the North.  Hardline president Lee Myung Bak, elected in 2008, scrapped Sunshine for a policy of containment and military buildup, creating an ongoing chill.  Starvation is so rampant in North Korea, there are reports of people resorting to cannibalism.  Kim Jong Un has sent police abroad for riot control training and has bolstered his security.  Apart from the threat of an uprising precipitated by starvation and a growing awareness of the outside world, the young dictator may also be beleaguered by powerful domestic political rivals.  We cannot know how fully in control of his military and state apparatus he truly is.

Suri is assuming that the North’s bellicose rhetoric is substantive rather than theatrical for the benefit of some domestic audience.  It is likely that Kim is only beating the war drums to cow domestic rivals and build on what may be tenuous control.  Even if the North truly is slouching toward war, the US should do nothing to escalate the situation.  It is likely that Kim Jong Un is lashing out in desperation, wrought by domestic north-koreafinancial and political crises.  If the US strikes North Korea’s missile on its platform, Kim will almost certainly see this as a provocation, as Suri admits.  But we cannot know that Kim will rationally restrain himself, that he won’t perceive a necessity to retaliate to retain his throne from powerful domestic political rivals, or that radical elements within his military will not force his hand or splinter from his control.  Suri makes the mistake of assuming that Kim’s control is monolithic and that the North Korean dictatorship can be viewed as a united whole.  The current crisis is glaring evidence that this is faulty analysis.

The US should continue to coax China into cooperation.  There is an apparent spat between Beijing and Pyongyang.  Beijing is displeased with the new dictator’s lack of outreach and is tightening border controls, delaying aid shipments and penalizing North Korean bank transactions.

China would probably perceive a unilateral US strike on the North’s missile as a provocation.  Just as a foreign power wouldn’t ignore America’s views on a crisis in Mexico, the US cannot ignore China’s perceptions on the Korean peninsula.  In 1950, the impending UN victory over North Korea, which would have resulted in US influence on its border, altered China’s political calculations.  Mao abandoned his plans to invade Taiwan and crush Kuomintang once and for all and instead hurled his army into the Korean War.  China’s entry turned victory into stalemate and reestablished the DMZ dividing the peninsula at the 38th parallel.  A US strike on North Korea’s missile could startle Chinese leadership into hurrying back to the old policy of unconditionally supporting their buffer state against perceived American warmongering.  But US-Chinese strategic cooperation would isolate North Korea utterly and could become a pillar of geopolitical stability in East Asia for the 21st Century.

Suri also argues that the US should strike the North’s missile as an object lesson to the Iranian mullahs.  But the Ayatollah would love to see the US bogged down in North Korea.  Iran could quash domestic dissent, consolidate its hold over Iraq, help Bashar al-Assad crush the Syrian rebellion, undermine the US in Afghanistan, build up Hezbollah and Hamas and threaten Israel while America’s sword is thrust into the Korean peninsula.  A unilateral strike on North Korea elevates the likelihood of that outcome.

America’s government, media and academics need to step away from the discredited Neocon idea that dialogue itself is a reward.  During thesituation room Cold War, the US had a hotline with Moscow, not to reward Moscow, but to prevent millions of people from being nuked.  We should talk to Pyongyang, not to reward them, but to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations that could trigger a catastrophe.

Wars can start even when no one wants them to.  This can happen because of misperception, escalating provocation and tit-for-tat violence that spirals out of control.  Suri is dead wrong to suggest that we should escalate the situation with a strike that would be perceived as a provocation and could trigger a retaliation.  Suri’s casual suggestion that we escalate the tension on the Korean peninsula is academic malpractice.  America’s experiment with preemption in 2003 was a categorical failure, and should not be considered again.  The US should do nothing that could be perceived as aggressive and unilateral.

Through vigorous diplomacy, we can pull the rug out from under Pyongyang without risking blowing the Korean peninsula to pieces.

Photo Credits: CSMonitor, NPR, Business Insider

Marc Belisle | Staff Writer | The Everlasting GOP Stoppers

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Marc Belisle
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Marc Belisle

Senior Writer at Reverb Press.
Marc Belisle is a writer, activist and teacher. He is a regular contributor to The Everlasting GOP Stoppers. He has an Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies.

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