Hold the Fire and Fury, There Are No Realistic Military Solutions To North Korea

Yesterday The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence experts now believe that North Korea possesses a miniaturized nuclear weapon capable of fitting onto an ICBM. President Trump responded with an extremely bombastic statement, saying “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States … [or] they will be met with fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Following up those comments, The Washington Post quoted President Trump’s early morning blustering that U.S. nuclear weapons are “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.” Despite the incredibly cavalier rhetoric coming out of the White House and conservative punditverse, here is a quick breakdown of why there are no good military solutions to North Korea.

Take it from those who would know:

  • Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Face the Nation concluded that “a conflict in North Korea… would be probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes… But the bottom line is it would be a catastrophic war if this turns into a combat if we’re not able to resolve this situation through diplomatic means.”

  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said at the Aspen Security Forum, “many people have talked about military options with words like ‘unimaginable,’... I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific, and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there’s a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.”

  • Former Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told the Korea Joongang Daily “the U.S. realistically has no pre-emptive military options and that attacking the North would be reckless. ‘That’s not really plausible… if we were to preemptively attack North Korea, they would automatically respond, and all that artillery and rocketry on the DMZ [demilitarized zone] would be unleashed on Seoul, and there would be great death and destruction.’”

  • Victor Cha, director for Asian Affairs in President Bush’s National Security Council, said “as wars go, this would be the most unforgiving battle conditions that can be imagined—an extremely high density of enemy and allied forces—over two million mechanized forces all converging on a total battlespace the equivalent of the distance between Washington, D.C., and Boston.”

By the numbers:

  • The North Korean army is 1.02 million strong, with 3,500 battle tanks and 21,000 artillery pieces.

  • Thousands of North Korean artillery guns are pre-sighted on Seoul, a sprawling capital city of some 25 million people. That is about as far away from the DMZ as Baltimore is from Washington D.C. Shells fired from those batteries can reach Seoul in about 45 seconds.

  • This includes one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons amounting to 2,500-5,000 tons, which can be fired from artillery shells, rockets and missiles.

  • Pentagon experts have estimated that the first ninety days of such a conflict might produce 300,000 to 500,000 South Korean and American military casualties, along with hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths.

  • When President Clinton was contemplating a pre-emptive attack on North Korea in 1994, the commander of U.S.-Korea forces estimated that attempting to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program would likely result in a total of 1 million dead and nearly $1 trillion of economic damage.

  • All of those estimates were made before North Korea had developed functional nuclear weapons, however, now “intelligence reports... conclude the country is capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks.”

There are no realistic military solutions to the crisis in North Korea. Right now there are two inexperienced and bombastic leaders threatening each other with nuclear weapons, and the risk of stumbling into a catastrophic war is very real. We must deescalate tensions and begin to talk with the North Koreans and the Chinese to resolve this problem diplomatically. The United States, and the world, cannot afford a military misadventure on the Korean Peninsula.