Three days after offering to talk to North Korea without preconditions, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reversed course, insisting – as President Donald Trump has – the North must first stop its nuclear threats. As he backs away from the table, are we closer to war?
Trump speaks of "fire and fury." National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says the North’s nuclear program is “the most destabilizing development in the post-World War II period.” John Brennan, the former CIA director, estimates the odds of war at 25%. Senator Lindsey Graham says there's a 30% chance the U.S. will launch a nuclear first strike. The Council on Foreign Relations sees it closer to 50%.
The idea that war with North Korea is a near-term inevitability is normalized for many. But exactly what calculus is necessary to take Trump, et al, at face value and believe war is coming? On the other hand, what line of thinking suggests the threats are merely a blowhard throwing some Grade-A tough guy meat to his base?
If one believes North Korea holds nuclear weapons simply as a deterrent, a defense against attack by the United States as happened with Iraq and Libya after they denuclearized, there is no need for America to go to war. The North Koreans won't use theirs unless we use ours first. It is a classic example of what kept the Cold War from going full-hot.
The history of North Korea, embodied in its national philosophy of juche, is about survival, keeping the regime alive. The Kim family has been remarkably good at doing just that since 1948. Unlike Cuba, they economically survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. They suffered total war, famine, natural disasters, and decades of sanctions. They haven’t sought reunification by force with the South since 1950, even as stronger and weaker American presidents came and went.
There is no rational argument why North Korea would destroy itself with the pointless first-use of nuclear weapons against the overwhelming power of the U.S.. If you were the general briefing Kim Jong Un on the risk versus gain of the offensive use of nukes, try and figure out how you'd pitch national suicide as a possible up side. The weapons are defensive. North Korea can’t be the one that starts the war.
Over in Washington, the only way to believe Trump's threats are real is to believe the North, in spite of everything you just read, would somehow see its way to using its weapons offensively, i.e., to attack South Korea as part of an attempt at reunification. Only then is a pre-emptive strike justified as self-defense. As part of America’s act of self-defense, potentially millions of Koreans, alongside hundreds of thousands of Japanese, as well as persons on Guam, maybe Hawaii, would die.
And the strike by America would need to come soon, before they get us first. Sound familiar? This was the rationale used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, we were told, and it would be fatal to wait for him to use them against us. "Who wants the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud?" then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned in 2002. "How long are we going to wait to deal with what is clearly a gathering threat?"
The trick was that it was almost certain the Bush administration knew Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction in 2002, and they definitely knew even during Iraq War 1.0, Desert Storm in 1991, Saddam did not use his chemical or biological weapons.
It is the latter point that's worth exploring. Saddam didn't use his chem/bio weapons because the other side would then have no option but to retaliate in kind. In the case of Saddam, as with North Korea, the disparity in firepower with the United States meant total destruction. The only way to win – survive – is not to play the game.
For the United States to decide on a first strike against North Korea the risk is beyond disproportionate to any possible gain. In a "miracle strike" every U.S. weapon would land perfectly on top of every North Korean target, including the American nukes needed to reach deep into the living rock of the mountains that protect the most important sites. This best case scenario would still leave North Korea under a radioactive cloud, which, given predictable weather patterns, would spread to Seoul and Tokyo. North Koreans not killed outright would trigger a humanitarian crisis unheard of in modern times. And the 1950's Korean War offers a clear indication of how China would have to respond to an attack near its border, never mind a zombie apocalypse in the form of millions of starving North Koreans.
And even that best case scenario is fully theoretical, because as any military planner will tell you, a "perfect" strike is impossible. Any American first-use plan includes at least a handful of lucky shots by the North (imagine one of those doomsday shots landing in Los Angeles), plus the activation of sleeper cell special forces almost certainly already in place in South Korea, Japan, and elsewhere.
On top of the actual destruction, it is unclear if the global economic system would survive nuclear war, if South Korea and Japan could remain American allies if Seoul and Tokyo are aglow, if China would blithely continue to hold their American government debt and not purposefully trigger a crisis on Wall Street, or if any president, especially one already hated by about half the country, could explain away a radioactive Los Angeles was the price of safety from an even worse possible North Korean attack of the future. And those thousands of American troops immolated on their bases in Korea and Japan, sorry about that, hope that won't negatively influence any votes in 2020.
If you were briefing the president, could you find the gain in that Strangelovian scenario to balance the risk? We'd certainly get more than our hair mussed up. You'd probably instead say what one person who might actually talk with the president really did say. Rear Admiral Michael Dumont, the vice-director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained “There are no good military options for North Korea. Invading North Korea could result in a catastrophic loss of lives for U.S. troops and U.S. civilians in South Korea. It could kill millions of South Koreans and put troops and civilians in Guam and Japan at risk.”
To believe the U.S. is headed toward war requires belief that one or more national leaders would destroy themselves and much of their country for no gain whatsoever. Imagine what you want about madmen, but leaders and politicians just don't think that way.
Still, anyone can ignore whatever facts they like, and believe whatever they want to believe. After all, some people still believe a fat guy in a red suit is going to come down the chimney later this month; try and persuade them that isn't true...
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell