Michael KreponA Third War in Sixteen Years?

Quote of the week:

“Go, my people, enter your chambers,
And lock your doors behind you.
Hide but a little moment,
Until the indignation passes.”
— Isaiah

At times like these, Biblical prophecy is called for. Instead, we get op-eds.

Donald Trump spirals downward. He has no other place to go. Due to circumstances comprehensible only in retrospect, he became president. The corners he has cut and the deals he has struck will be his undoing. He is temperamentally unsuited to be president and to have sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. In due course, he will be ushered out, the victimizer posing as ultimate victim. Bipartisan sighs of relief will accompany his departure. He will rally what remains of his base, until they, too, will eventually move on, disinterested in whatever shiny object he tries to sell.

The first order of business for American citizens during the Trump presidency is to do everything in our collective power to limit the damage he can do. Since the most harm could result from a preventive war to disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons, this aspect of damage limitation must have the highest priority.

Kim Jong Un is doing his part to prompt another preventive war. As provocations go, overflying Japan with a ballistic missile and carrying out another nuclear test are almost, but not yet, chart-toppers. These actions warrant even greater economic penalties, especially from China and Russia, as well as other clarifications of the folly of this young Maximum Leader’s current course. Tit-for-tat military rejoinders to his provocations also merit consideration — but only if they do not prompt conventional warfare and the use of nuclear weapons.

Along with nuclear deterrence, the other essential “pre-positioned” elements to deter North Korea are forward deployed military capabilities, theater missile defenses, sanctions and diplomacy backed by international law. The latter may seem quaint to the tough-minded, but it is an inconvenient fact that under international law, the only justification for a preventive war is if an adversary poses an imminent threat of attack.

In the case of North Korea, this construct is reversed: A first strike by North Korea’s untested leader seems within the realm of possibility only if he feels threatened by imminent U.S. attack. Thus, Trump will not have international law on his side if he decides to authorize a preventive war, and when Washington acts as the world’s most powerful rule breaker, U.S. leadership and alliances are badly eroded. When the two strongest nuclear-armed states engage in wars of choice and the blatant disregard for international borders, they reduce to rubble the two mainstays that have helped to keep the peace since World War II.

A second reason for restraint relates to the track record of the tough guys advocating another war: After the extended traumas of Afghanistan and Iraq, another U.S. military campaign must be nearly immaculate in its execution and almost immediate in North Korea’s capitulation. Let those who predict this result after predicting a cakewalk and cheerleading the war in Iraq come forward and forthrightly say so. Yes, there is one significant difference between a preventive war against Kim Jong Un than against Saddam Hussein: the former most assuredly possesses nuclear weapons. Does this make another war more compelling or more devastating?

A third reason for restraint relates to the track record of a badly wounded great power that has lost its moorings after 9/11. A war with North Korea would be the third fought by the United States in just sixteen years. The first two continue without end. U.S. expeditionary forces have been through Hell and back, and yet war hawks, having been temporarily foiled by successful diplomacy to strictly limit Iran’s bomb-making capacity, are busy setting the predicates for another war of choice.

Yes, the threat posed by Kim Jong Un and the North Korean nuclear program is very real. And yes, tougher measures against North Korea are needed. But what if sanctions do not succeed in forcing Kim Jong Un to capitulate and give up that which he holds most dear? Then what? Another war with heavy casualties will hand Beijing the keys to Asia and cause far wider ruptures in U.S. alliances in the Pacific and in Europe. America’s treasury will go deeper into the red and its standing in the world will decline further and faster – even after victory on the Korean peninsula.

There is no justice or justification in another war of choice that results in the deaths of many thousands of allied and U.S. civilians and soldiers, as well as the deaths of countless innocents in North Korea. Worse, there is no justice or justification in another war of choice that results in even a single mushroom cloud.

The norm of not using nuclear weapons on battlefields has been extended for seven decades since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This norm is the most important safety factor in a world of growing nuclear dangers. The reappearance of mushroom clouds on battlefields would be devastating enough; they could also prompt renewed nuclear testing by major and regional powers, as well as the shredding of what’s left of the nuclear safety net now being cut by Vladimir Putin and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Is a seven decade-old norm to be broken because a country with thousands of deliverable nuclear weapons has convinced itself that it cannot deter the use of one or more by North Korea?

The methods used by American Presidents to prevent the battlefield use of nuclear weapons by paranoid mass murderers like Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong can also be employed against the likes of Kim Jong Un. These methods included deterrence, but deterrence alone did not prevent wars or reduce nuclear dangers. Deterrence requires diplomacy to prevent mushroom clouds. This has succeeded before, and might succeed again. Direct diplomacy with Kim Jong Un also might fail, but it has to be tried.

Nuclear strategists who seek to “strengthen” deterrence by fine-tuning weapon effects and yields are living in an unreal world. Safety doesn’t come from smaller mushroom clouds; it comes from no mushroom clouds. Not one pre-eminent strategic analyst has ever authored a convincing explanation of how two nuclear-armed states – having failed at diplomacy so badly that mushroom clouds have appeared — can succeed at controlling nuclear escalation. The surest way to achieve escalation control is to not use nuclear weapons on battlefields.

For a war of choice against North Korea to succeed, U.S. armed forces would need to prevent a single mushroom cloud on the battlefield. They would also need to prevent significant casualties. If the Pentagon cannot assure these results, then a third war since 9/11 would invite folly.

A wiser course would be to rely upon the instruments that have succeeded in preventing mushroom clouds since 1945: a strong military and alliances, deterrence, a purposeful military presence in the region, and active diplomacy. One of these key elements is now missing – direct U.S. diplomacy to reduce nuclear dangers with North Korea. But here’s the rub: direct diplomacy is unlikely to eliminate the threat that Americans fear most. If Donald Trump cannot abide by a mutual deterrence relationship with North Korea, then for as long as he is in the White House and Kim Jong Un remains in power, the prospect of another war on the Korean peninsula lies before us.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Breaking Defense.


  1. Dan (History)

    The “logic” present in this article is convoluted to meet a political agenda of personal loathing in which the U.S. is the aggressor, nuclear weapons are deemed ‘wholesome’ and somehow ‘safe’ in the hands of a man who runs concentration camps and blasts apart his perceived rivals with anti-aircraft guns, and who has repeatedly attacked the R.O.K. without provocation.

    If Kim was interested in peace, he could easily return to Panmunjom and negotiate a suitable peace treaty in which the U.S. leaves the Korean peninsula, the DMZ would return to a normalized border crossing with border patrols and not land mines. He has shown no inclination to do so. Through his pronouncements and the aggressive pursuit of ICBM and thermonuclear technology above the basic needs of his people, he seems quite willing to retain his State on the literal ashes and bones of 25,000,000 citizens of the North Korean nation.

    Nuclear arms control and elimination should be the goal of this site and all rational peoples, but it is obvious by the above posted opinion that it is not. This author is advocating for more nuclear proliferation and specifically in the hands of someone who is actually demonstrably violent in the extreme.

    Diplomacy works only when in the minds of the rational and all participants are willing to concede to reach perceived better or higher goal[s]. Kim is not willing and proliferation of nuclear weapons is evil.

  2. tobychev (History)

    I don’t understand your argument when you say Krepon is arguing in favour of more proliferation: it is by definition not possible to argue in favour of proliferation in cases where weapons are already present. If you are taking Krepons words against the use of nuclear weapons in Korea as advocating that more countries should have them, well, that’s a choice nobody can deny you.

    Further, as the text you have commented on is dedicating a lot of time arguing against the use of nuclear weapons, it should come as no surprise it never actually uses the word “wholesome” to describe any aspect of nuclear weapons. Maybe you should refrain from enclosing things not said in quotation marks when describing the words of others?

  3. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Garrett Epps argues “Trump Doesn’t Have the Authority to Attack North Korea Without Congress.” http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/08/trump-doesnt-have-authority-attack-north-korea-without-congress/140635/?oref=defenseone_today_nl

    If he’s right, Republicans in Congress would have to sign onto the war orders before Trump launched the attack. If people insist there must first be a debate and resolution in Congress, this would tend to slow down King Donald and the enactment of his hawkish tweets. It would also put both Republicans and Democrats on the hook to say yea or nay.

    “Just war” requires that all reasonable diplomacy with North Korea first be pursued. Yet who trusts Trump to pursue such diplomacy, if he is so intent on undoing prior diplomacy with Iran?

    • Trevor (History)

      All Presidents have the authority to launch nukes on a whim at whomever they want. That Epps article you shared is incredible misleading. Trump can’t declare war without approval, that’s always been true, but he can absolutely launch a nuke. He could nuke London if he wanted. The system in place for using the nuclear codes was designed for quick response, as it has to be. Anyway, don’t rely on rules limiting the presidents ability to formally declare war to stop Trump from taking action which effectively declare war.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Trevor, I think Epps would agree with you that, as a matter of practice, Congress has not (much) reined in Presidential exercise of military power, and is unlikely to start now. Only if people demand a change, will Congress see a need for effective limits on Presidential war-making powers.

      As for nuking London on a whim, who needs for the President to be able to do that? The only time a quick response with nukes might be necessary would be if Russia (during the Cold War) launched a first strike attack. If Russia tried that now, submarines can launch an adequate second strike, even after waiting a whole week. Congress can and should limit the President’s nuclear prerogatives.

  4. Andrew Locke (History)

    I haven’t seen anybody mention anywhere yet the similarities between the new North Korean device recently depicted in the news and the US W88 warhead. The peanut-shaped radiation case, the apparently spherical secondary, to me it begs the question to be asked of why they went that route, and how they got there so quickly and apparently effectively. The W88 has been described, in the words of Harold Agnew, former director of LANL during the W88’s development there, as, “The most advanced US nuclear warhead”. Much of this sophistication no doubt stems from it’s supposed use of a non-spherical primary to enable a more compact overall design. This primary design would require a great deal of testing and experimentation to successfully develop, and which North Korea seems to have avoided by using an apparently spherical primary, judging by the spherical shape of both ends of their new device’s radiation case. The shape of the radiation case itself and whatever plasma source it needed to be filled with would likely also be challenging design issues. I wonder if Chinese espionage was involved, significantly advancing the state of North Korea’s nuclear warhead design and capability. China has, after all, been a steadfast ally of North Korea for many decades. Perhaps the Chinese struck a deal for warhead design assistance with North Korea after they demonstrated a certain level of progress in indigenous nuclear weapons development, just like the US did with Great Britain after they unambiguously demonstrated that they too had discovered staging and radiation implosion. I really don’t feel it is that far fetched: there is a lot of support for North Korea and it’s military provided by China, I doubt it stops at trucks to tow missile transporters.

    • George Herbert (History)

      It’s not a close copy of W88 by any means. Roughly, the W88 whole package is the same volume as the smaller arming/fuzing/firing can behind the main physics package on the NK “Mr Peanut” bomb design.

      W88 was far from the first warhead with a Double Bubble type radiation case. It’s not much mentioned or analyzed in public, but it dates back at least into the W50 from about 1960 (possibly earlier as an internal configuration inside a smoother external casing). See: http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2016/04/22/bomb-silhouettes/ by Alex Wellerstein based on a Pantex PR doc.

      In a sense, the W50 is a good analog. Available in 60, 200, 400 Kt models and 15″ x 44″, it shows a more compact bomb design for the same yield. I believe that the primary (much less radiation case around it) on Mr Peanut is bigger than any component on the W50; the secondary, I don’t know (but will analyze)…

  5. John Hallam (History)

    War with the DPRK would:
    –KIll upwards of 5-10 million people
    –Be likely to involve use of nuclear weapons on BOTH sides
    –Would be precisely the outcome we said we wanted to avoid having.
    –Would, if it drew in Russia and/or China, which is entirely possible, bring about a body count not in the millions, not on the tens of millions, not in the hundreds of millions, but in the billions.

    Wanting to initiate dialogue isnt wimpy appeasement its merely commonsense.

    But then blind freddie can tell you that.

    John Hallam

    • Adam (History)

      The US would not be required to use nuclear weapons in the event of war. As for the North’s arsenal, it’s true effectiveness and ability for rapid deployment is questionable. If we were to initiate a decapitating strike on the regime, there is still the possibility for limiting casualties to an acceptable degree.

      But that small window for a manageable war is shrinking with alarming speed. When they’ve perfected their ICBM and RV technologies, as well as further miniaturizing and increasing the yield of their warheads, that window will have closed utterly. And so, North Korea will be free to make as many demands as they wish upon the free world.

      I have to wonder what exactly you are hoping will happen? The North Korean regime has shown tremendous resilience to sanctions. In fact, a credible argument could be made that such sanctions and isolation have made them more resilient, as they have been forced to become increasingly self-sufficient for the majority of their needs.

      Given all these facts, it seems likely that in the face of fresh sanctions and increasing international pressure, North Korea will continue down its clear path towards an apocalyptic nuclear arsenal. Are you comfortable with a rogue nation achieving unprecedented levels of power? I’m not.

      Now is the moment for decisive action. Either we act, or they will act upon us with the full impunity a robust nuclear arsenal affords them.

  6. James Nelson Howard (History)

    I don’t see President Trump doing anything that President Obama would not have done, with the exception that President Trump is more vocal in promising massive retaliation against North Korea should they attack the US or an allied nation.

    Remember, President Trump has long been a skeptic of the various wars we’ve been involved in over the last 20 years.

    I think the mental image of President Trump with a finger on the button is more of a fantasy than anything based on his actions and past positions.

  7. Adam (History)

    While I understand the impulse to resist war unless all other options have failed, have all other options not already failed? In spite of increasingly aggressive sanctions, North Korea has grown vastly more dangerous in the past decade. A decade more of such ineffectual sanctions and what are we likely to see? My guess: 250-1000 kiloton warheads attached to a vast fleet of ICBMs and IRBMs capable of holding the entire world hostage.

    If North Korea were to then demand we lift sanctions or deliver “protection” payments, by what grounds would we refuse? Clearly not as a matter of principle, given that we’ve idly watched millions of Koreans be enslaved and murdered by a crime-state unequaled in modern history. Nether could we refuse as a matter of pragmatism. Why not lift sanctions and pay the regime 100s of billions if the alternative is multiple American cities reduced to ash?

    War is costly, yes. But make no mistake: there is a cost to appeasement which has now become starkly apparent. We’ve allowed a truly thuggish regime to achieve terrifying levels of military power. Perhaps they will collapse. Perhaps all their warheads will be tidly collected and dismantled before ending up in the hands of a terrorist group. Perhaps they won’t drop a 200-1000 kiloton warhead on San Francisco or Washington or New York in a last gasp of defiance.

    This kind of hope of appeasement is dangerously naive, and continuing to promulgate it without acknowledging the degree to which it has failed, to the unthinkable danger it has clearly put us in, is just as bad or worse than mindlessly beating the drums of war.

    Krepon is pounding his drums of peace while the barbarians are scaling the castle walls. Does he need a sword to his neck to finally realize there is no chance of peace? The horrifying truth is, that moment has already come.

  8. suggrapheus (History)

    My feeling is that McMaster, Mattis et. al. do actually want to return to diplomatic engagement and will reject a first strike in what would ultimately be at best, a Pyrrhic victory. Hang in with me for a long, weird, relevant argument. Remember when we were all talking about Trump’s military guys talking about Thucydides? (e.g. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/06/21/why-the-white-house-is-reading-greek-history-215287) Right, well, mapping Thucydides onto everything is the *classic* Yale Grand Strategy move. I swear I must have been sitting next to these guys’ future underlings for three years of Greek military history as an undergrad. I was both the token liberal and the token actual historian (aka not going into policy, or even academia about policy) in that Kagan seminar. Despite my being as I’ve said, a flaming liberal, Donald Kagan and I got on well personally, and his rigorous approach to textual history informs my (pretty unrelated) work to this day. Anyhow, his reading of Thucydides is measured in that he is not immune to the loss of civilian life that the text can gloss over sometimes with numerical figures or taut description that is under-read by students, and in that he obviously valued Periclean restraint. If Trump’s military team really sees the Thucydidean model for the Sino-Russo-Ameri-sphere as valid, they by definition will not launch a first strike attack against North Korea. Remember, in this model, we’re always Athens, holing up behind city walls and waiting it out for Sparta to throw itself against the fortified Piraeus enough times to decide it wasn’t worth it. The plague was not an anticipatable thing, and Kagan innately believes the Periclean strategy was largely workable, provided everyone stayed convinced in the Assembly &c.

    The problem is when one idiot decides to be Cleon. Now nobody who has read Thucydides seriously wants to be Cleon, if you trust the text’s account at all. Look up what happened to Mytilene in early-mid 5th cent BCE if you have any doubt. But the problem is ultimately, it’s not Mattis or McMaster, or the Senate, that will make a pre-emptive strike call (and again, I don’t love any of these choices as a liberal American, but they’re all better than the horrifying alternative, and at least one faction of them reads Thucydides with this interpretation). It’s Trump, of course, who might be convinced by someone like Bannon that NK poses an existential threat to ‘civilization’, or whatever nice little soundbite construct he uses lately, that is eerily like Cleon. A first strike is lose-lose for us as country, even if we somehow magically removed all the nuclear-capable arms with one shot. Conventional weapons damage to Seoul and Japan ALONE, and loss of civilian life included, would be a wholly unacceptable moral consequence. Of course, even all that considered, saying we “win” and we’re occupying NK and sitting on Chinese borders, at cost of enormous amounts of life, budget we don’t have, and weapons material/transit/running a giant supply line through SE Asia (always a great idea historically!). This effectively destablises our relationships with Russia and China, and gives us no discernable advantage in the broader ‘grand’ conflict of the long run in a model where one/both of them are stand in for Sparta and its client states. It also forces us to hold and rebuild our own client-state that isn’t even useful without its original buffer status or autonomy, again at great monetary and moral costs. Mattis and McMaster know this, and I’m guessing think like this too, big picture.

    Even bigger picture: Cleon AND Brasidas had to die before anybody could get to the Peace of Nicias, which of course didn’t hold. Also remember that at the end of the Peloponnesian War, Corinth and Thebes wanted to raze Athens to the ground and enslave everybody, because at that point they were even more bitter about the thing than Sparta. Yeah, client-states and broad hegemonies, always a great idea. Does this tell us anything about the present geopolitical situation with North Korea? Honestly, I actually don’t think the Peloponnesus in the 5th century BCE as mapped onto the Cold War as mapped onto now is a particularly great model, but then again, I’m just an historian of something completely different now. But what matters here might be how someone in the White House briefing room is explaining the 5th century Peloponnesus to our unstable idiot child president—and I’m betting that person reads largely like Kagan and his students, is conservative with a small “c”, and largely Periclean in aims. I just really hope whoever it is keeps this in line. The main thing you learn from reading Thucydides, IMHO, is how much you don’t want a Peloponnesian War foisted on your otherwise flourishing democracy in the first place, and exactly how brutal and obliterating war can be for culture. The man might be an extremely deceased brusque naval general who refers to himself in the third person, but he is not some dickwad that thinks war is fun. No one who has ever read Thucydides properly could possibly think that.

    BTW, the Hobbes translation is fun to learn about Hobbes’ own biases and Early Modern Greek translation practise, but I recommend the Landmark edition with maps. Of course, I hope if my family is going to be blasted over thermonuclear oblivion over it, someone in that room at better least read the damn Greek. It’s not bad, as Attic texts go. Also if you read the Melian dialogue and then choose to invade Melos all over again, instead of you know, maybe scheduling some more dialogue and not a catastrophic era-destroying war, god help you. Sending a pre-emptive strike to NK is arguably an even worse decision than the Athenians made about Melos, because neither Sparta nor Melos had ICBMs or nuclear bombs—and there was no 5th century equivalent force (well one could–stretching it–make a naval argument about something like the ICBM damage-wise, but not range-wise). This expat American liberal is now in the odd position of having fingers crossed for Mattis, McMaster, and the conservative hawks with Cold War/Thucydides fetishes that actually paid attention in class.

    —Long time reader, first time poster, and academic historian… shamefully procrastinating in the Bodleian

    p.s.—Thucydides, Jowett translation with Greek on Perseus: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0200

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      it’s about time you got into the conversation.
      as I read the tea leaves, I sense that a strike against a single missile preparing to launch is under serious consideration. Self defense, limited action, not regime change. The key unknown: how would Kim Jong Un respond?

    • suggrapheus (History)

      Thank you– although there’s a reason I’m not a military historian, avoided Yale Grand Strategy like the plague, and am the kind of person who cries when they write about the destruction of libraries during the Thirty Years War. If only people cared about Aldine press runs as much as they did about NK Hwadong missile specifications– of a similar wonkiness level and style, with watermarks and everything! Granted one is a reason for dying and the other for living…

      Anyhow, obviously game theory models without rational actors don’t work, so if they really are considering a preemptive strike (the war with Sparta was inevitable! Athens had to hit Melos while it could so its client states stayed in line!), even at one small site, they are playing with fire. It won’t mean regime change, but that doesn’t matter to Seoul, Guam, or even possibly Japan. There is no Basilikon Doron for NK leaders, as far as I can can read in translation anyway, and even if there was, it might be helpful to note that propaganda publications, even when written by leaders/dynasties themselves, aren’t great predictors of actions. Or who gets executed at banqueting halls! Maybe KJU wants to go out in a crown of fire rather than the eventual slow Soviet decline w/erosion by market and cultural diplomacy. Maybe he really does want total war. If you don’t know, and are a leading expert on the thing, we shouldn’t risk it. Why *not* try more diplomacy or sanctions, even if ultimately ineffective? Neither can possibly be worse than nuclear war or wholesale losses of civilians in Seoul. To do otherwise is to gamble with a whole lot of lives, as you argue compellingly above. Waiting is what mature people and diplomats have to do. A preemptive strike risks huge casualties that matter too much.

      And of course, as I’m sure you’re already thinking, the whole Thucydides analogy is deeply flawed in a world where the Melians, or the Corinthians if you’d like, don’t even have to get within 500 miles of Athens to obliterate it all. If you declared war in Greece in the 5th century BCE, you had to send your own citizens as hoplites, or your own navy. There was real personal risk– even to some degree in late Republican Rome, or with certain parts of the Punic Wars. Without arms control, and with nuclear toys, no one you know or care about dies when you make that pre-emptive strike, unless the consequences are always clear. The moral conditions are so much easier for someone with less than stellar empathy. I don’t know much about Mattis or McMaster personally, but I don’t think Trump cares how many people die in say, Guam, until he sees the bodies of children dying from radiation poisoning on FOX. There are lots of missiles sitting around missile sites that I’m sure some administration official could hold up a photograph of and say “this was about to launch.” Because of all this, and more, you’re right– to walk away from the table now is a basic rejection of just war. It is war predicated on the mere possibility of an act of war that may or may not occur without the ‘preemptive’ action in the first place. Military history should be more about this kind of thinking for people with this kind of power. Pericles melted the gold statue of Athena, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be on board with a trigger-happy pre-emptive missile strike.


  9. Michael Krepon (History)

    A comment from Trevethans:

    Dear Mr. Krepon:

    It is remarkable at how many points I must agree with you. To which add my misgivings about the institutional competence of the US to conduct effective military campaigns. If Taliban support for Al Qaida, including offering it a base of operations because it was an ideological ally, justified taking down the regime, remaining in country after the failure of Tora Bora to stop Osama bin Laden and his entire staff from walking right through our (too thin) line of infantry was not only folly, it was a violation of our nominal doctrine. So was the decision to remain in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Colin Powell himself demanded violation of the so-called Powell Doctrine, never mind it was and remains essentially valid. Proud of the role my (liberal, PhD holding) aunt played in the rebuilding of Japan, as a teacher minimally paid during the reconstruction, I actually believe in nation building in some circumstances. But Afghanistan is tied for last place on my list of places to try. And the kind of political unity that permitted reconstruction in Germany, Italy and Japan post WW2 simply does not exist in this era of political division. Further, even if it did, we cannot afford these extended campaigns which cannot end successfully in less than decades. The fiscal, and the human cost, is unsustainable. A veteran of Viet Nam, heartbroken by the human side of the fight against a truly evil enemy (which, no one seems to remember, remains in power and now is treated as an ally) caused me to volunteer to work with refugees (in Portland and Seattle). My first act on meeting someone was to apologize for the policy of my country, a policy that rendered it unsafe to remain in their homeland. I think we would agree on more than 90% of policy matters over at least the last three quarters of a century.

    Yet I believe you have got your question above precisely backwards.

    A close friend, retired Lt. Col. Larry A. Frost, U.S. Army), summarizes the problem of understanding DPRK in these words: “Everything that makes sense in our terms is upside down. Nothing you may reasonably assume about how things work is true of North Korea. It is an insane society.”

    Which is not to say you are wrong about the intentions or capability of the regime. Doing a survey of the policy and technical history of atomic science in its first generation, I learned (and was pleased to learn) that the DPRK’s atomic program was born in the mind of Kim el Sung just after Nagasaki; that is object was always deterrence of invasion. That makes sense in a small country repeatedly invaded by China, Japan and even Russia. And the salient point about Korean history since the end of the Korean War has been that North Korea does NOT invade – however large its army may be – wholly in spite of its offensive posture – and in spite of Olympic records set in terms of rhetoric and even small scale hostile acts. North Korea knows full well the outcome of invading South Korea, and has no intention to try. North Korea has no designs on, or illusions about, conquest of China or Japan, or the Amur Province of Russia. The risk of a war started by North Korea on any given day is minimal. I will go so far as to say even if threatened, it still won’t start a general war. Indeed, the real game it plays is to exploit what it regards as international folly in order to get concessions of various kinds. It is actually impressively successful at playing the diplomatic card, in spite of its systemic failure to honor the rules of diplomacy in any and every sense. Witness the so-called Agreed Framework, with imports of oil and nuclear technology no less! It was dead the day it was announced, yet the scholarly and diplomatic world pretended it was a serious deal, right up to the day of the first nuclear weapons test. I have yet to see the author of any analysis who said “I was wrong.” [I am an analyst who says “I was wrong about this” all the time. I think it builds credibility. But I am told that it is a “career killer” for an academic to admit he or she was wrong. Maybe it is – but I only respect one who can.]

    The problem of North Korea is grand strategic, and it is much bigger than the country itself, or the capability of its military forces. There is also some remarkably good news this summer: China seems to have done an astonishing about face on its historical policy towards its “closest ally” – you know – “North Korea and China are as close as lips and teeth.” China has in fact officially said that, in the event of war between DPRK and the US, it is officially neutral. It also has decided not to veto serious sanctions. Really? That sounds almost like something that a novelist might dream up. But it is also true. China seems to want the inverse of what I want. My “ideal” solution for DPRK is to let China take down the regime, and install in its place one friendly to China – permitting there to be a buffer between South Korea and China (and also Russia) – and preventing what in the longer term must be a Chinese nightmare – a unified, modern gigantic high tech and democratic Korea. Never mind that most Koreans and I actually want that. [Disclaimer: the cost of reunification would be 3 or 4 times greater than that or the reunification of Germany was, and it is OPPOSED by NUMBERS of wealthy and powerful SOUTH Koreans – who prefer to avoid that drain on their economy over otherwise nearly universal interest in national unity. Korea is a unique culture, nationalist beyond comprehension by most non-Koreans. Never mind, reunification is not entirely favored as a real option in the South, on cost grounds.] But I am willing to compromise – and I don’t think ignoring China is wise. I would have supported suggesting China take control and set up a poor (but tolerable) regime. It never would have occurred to me that China wants to let US fix the problem – or even that it thought the problem must be fixed. Yet that seems to be the case. Never mind the result will be a unified Korea.

    This astonishing policy change needs to be understood in terms of the previous policy. China decided that it was good policy to export missile technology and nuclear weapons technology illegally because it hurts the West in general and the “main enemy” (the USA) in particular much more than it hurts China. DPRK is the keystone of the so-called Islamic Bomb Network – a way to export that cannot be traced to Chinese ports. Cargos generally sail for Malaysia, from which they are transshipped to other nations. Lest you think there is no real Chinese content to the “Islamic bomb” nations, consider that Libya turned over – among many other things – plans for a first generation implosion bomb written in Chinese. [The Chinese first generation bomb was based on Joe-1, a nearly exact copy of the Trinity design]. This is consistent with a photograph turned over by Dr Kahn of Pakistan during his debrief – a photograph of the first three DPRK “devices” – which look a great deal like these early US and Russian weapons. The proliferation problem has been ignored too long, and been facilitated by all the nuclear powers in one sense or another. It is starting to spiral out of control, and is likely to result in nuclear weapons use somewhere, in our lifetime (even if you are as old as I am). In times of crisis, Pakistan puts atomic bombs on unmarked trucks and runs them around Islamabad. Its institutions are thoroughly penetrated by Islamists, and sooner or later one of these is going to be seized. And they have no PAL technology (permitting only authorized use). [I suggested changing that, and both India and Pakistan were given it. But their weapons are not designed to use it, and won’t be able to for years yet to come, after redesign and remanufacture.] But if CHINA has decided that past policy is a mistake, there is actually hope things could get better.

    North Korea is unique in diplomacy. Its diplomats are not state funded! They are required to self-finance via criminal means. They run drugs and guns and anything else they can to generate hard currency – not just for diplomatic operations – but also to share with the regime for whatever purposes. As well, DPRK has never honored any nuclear agreement and never intends to honor one. It sees negotiations as a way to buy time (for more development of missiles and warhead technology) and as an opportunity to get what amounts to blackmail. It thinks it is exploiting the foolish policy of anyone and everyone who believes in diplomacy and international agreements.

    North Korea is unique in defense policy. It has none. It is CERTAIN it will never be invaded (the very opposite of Kim el Sung’s reasoning in wanting to play a long game to get nuclear weapons – HE wanted to end the long history of invasions of Korea). [Some of this history can be found in my research paper. It has an exhaustive index. Look up a name or whatever, and find QUOTES or summaries of documents or books on that subject. This is a research tool – not a thesis. The Korean materials were provided translated by a Washington think tank – which is good – since my Korean is limited. But I was also aided by an ex USAF, ex DIA analyst who spent his career on Koran analysis – and who arranged for materials to be sent to the think tank in the first place.] North Korea does NOT deploy to defend, does NOT train its troops do defend, and ONLY trains for attack. If pressed enough, in theory at least, North Korea’s military will attack to the South, and its capabilities are indeed impressive: such an attack is likely to be “a spectacular failure” (borrowing language from the DoD’s annual Report to Congress on PRC) – but it might actually work. My friend, Lt.Col Frost, in a staff wargame at Fort Wainright – took just ONE special forces brigade and rendered the gigantic US Second Division combat ineffective in a single day. [DPRK has the largest special forces in the world – at least 60,000 strong] Soldiers spend their entire tour (normally 10 years, rarely 11) in the same sector of the front line – and learn it intimately. It is not an ineffective concept. Interrogation of defectors indicates impressive tactical skills and local knowledge. But this policy means that everyone in North Korea’s military knows they are not going to win a defensive battle. The entire gamble is on the offense. IF an attack came, it will look a bit like Desert Storm (or the fall of Romania, where the leaders were executed by their own bodyguards: not because they were disloyal per se, but because it was the only act that would save their own lives). Any officer suspected of not being willing to surrender won’t be allowed to live long enough to be a problem.

    North Korea’s internal policy is draconian beyond comprehension. It has more political prisoners than any other nation in absolute as well as relative terms. One man defected because he found he had unknowingly bought two pens MADE IN CHINA. He was not disloyal, but he had zero hope about his fate if caught and no way to dispose of them once inside his unit’s facilities. To suggest things are not perfect is a felony crime. Parents do not let young children hear what they say that is critical because the children might talk at school – with dire consequences. There are literally millions of scores to settle. A regime short on food uses it as a weapon – and those who inform to get food are seen as traitors – in a society where the basic social unit is the family – not the individual. Even the naive who believe the party line (like the girls who saw the billboard with the height of their leader equal to that of the leader of South Korea) will quickly learn the truth once things start to fall apart and people are free to talk. Prediction of complex events is risky – but the uncertainty in the case of DPRK in a crisis is a matter of hours. Will the regime disintegrate in single digit hours or in double digit hours? If the latter, will it be a very low order number of double digit hours? Almost certainly. But odds are it will be single digit hours. The biggest problems are going to be logistics.

    Indeed, my fear is that some ignorant planners may think they should use nuclear weapons on North Korea. No chance that is necessary or appropriate. North Korea is a regime devoid of internal trust. Being a member of the “royal family” only makes you a threat (witness the fate of an elder brother, or the general/uncle who put Kim the Youngest on the throne). No one is allowed to have nuclear warheads and delivery systems in the same place – HE would be a threat. Not to mention that delivery is a real problem. But – if you insist – go ahead: keep giving them more time and they will eventually solve that problem.

    There is one final issue. No one in the policy world cares. Koreans care, mostly, but some at high levels in the South are willing to ignore it too. North Koreans starve to death. It is believed more than 99% of those alive suffer physical and mental effects from malnutrition. Then there are something like 900,000 political prisoners. There is a human cost to NOT taking this regime down. In a good year, death to starvation is measured in five figures. In a bad year, it is measured in six figures. IF one considers all humans equally valuable, the cost of NOT taking this regime down over time is vastly greater than leaving it in place – no matter how messy that takeover might be. But probably, most of those who die in a takedown will die at the hands of other North Koreans, for revenge or out of fear they may not facilitate surrender. You had my cousin executed, or my mother and siblings sent to prison camp, or I am afraid you might try to make us actually fight – those kind of reasons.

    In the longer run, tolerating this regime is to tolerate selling whatever missile, nuclear weapon, or any profitable non-nuclear weapon technology it has (even if China cuts off newer stuff for a change). It tolerates kidnapping – there is even a program to get white men to make babies – some of whom can pass as white people to use as spies. [Granted, most victims of kidnapping are Asian, for a host of reasons, some of them are even US citizens] If you allow diplomats in your country, you are allowing in very organized crime – they do little else. I can think of no excuse to pretend it will pay off to negotiate with this regime. It is time to un-muzzle our Korea specialists. I am told “we want to cheer when you talk, because we cannot say what you are saying.” There is no hope for sane policy absent understanding of the true situation.

  10. Michael Krepon (History)

    From Peter Huessy,:

    The biggest problem with Russian tac nuke capability is not even the ten to one Russian advantage. It is the large number of types of attack that we cannot match at all because we don’t have precision low yield missile warheads and because ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and bombs can’t match the type of attacks that can be launched by nuclear SAMs, torpedoes, a variety of ASW weapons, air-to-air missiles, short-range tactical battlefield missiles, nuclear artillery, nuclear anti-ship missiles etc. The threat of use strategic nuclear forces is not credible against these types of attack.

  11. John (History)

    So much misunderstanding by Dan, the first comentator!!

    He said: “If Kim was interested in peace, he could easily return to Panmunjom and negotiate a suitable peace treaty in which the U.S. leaves the Korean peninsula…..”

    In fact, it is just the opposite of the reality.
    If Dan put “US” in place of “Kim”, that would have been close to the truth.

    So many Americans are ignorant of the fact that N. Korea first proposed a peace treaty to the US in 1974!! But we have ignored or rejected it deliberately so that we can keep our military bases in S. Korea forever.

    Only truth will free us from this unnecessary, costly war!