Why Attacking North Korea Would Be Suicidal

Tens of millions of Americans would be in real trouble.

The greatest threat to U.S. security today may not be the volatile and irresponsible regime of Kim Jong-Un in North Korea, but volatile and irresponsible Washington policy makers who are talking up preemptive war as a way to stop his missile development program.

One of the GOP’s leading foreign policy spokesmen, Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, recently told NBC News’s ‘Today Show’ that he advised President Trump to attack North Korea “if that’s what it would take” to stop that country’s missile program.

The resulting war, he conceded, “would be terrible, but (it) would be over (there), wouldn’t be here.” The conflict would be “bad” for China, Japan, and South Korea, “but what it would not do is hit America, and the only way it could ever come to America is with a missile.”

If President Trump actually believes Senator Graham’s nonsense, tens of millions of Americans may be in real trouble.

North Korea doesn’t need intercontinental ballistic missiles to blow up New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and other great urban centers. It just needs a few innocuous-looking commercial freighters to float some atomic bombs into our harbors, where no anti-missile shield can stop them. Given the tens of thousands of shipping containers that enter the United States each day, smuggling in a few deadly weapons would be no great feat.

Washington needs to face the fact that North Korea has joined the ranks of nuclear powers, and there’s likely no turning back.

The detonation of just one small bomb would do immense damage. A 2003 study by Abt Associates for the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that “The economic impact of even a single nuclear terrorist attack on a major U.S. seaport... would create disruption of U.S. trade valued at $100-$200 billion, property damage of $50-$500 billion, and 50,000 to 1,000,000 lives could be lost. Global and long-term effects... are believed to be substantially greater.”

Three years later, experts at the RAND Corporation analyzed a simulated terrorist attack on the Port of Long Beach with a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb, which is well within the yield of North Korea’s current weapons. Among the plausible outcomes it described:

  • “Sixty thousand people might die instantly from the blast itself or quickly thereafter from radiation poisoning.
  • “One-hundred-fifty-thousand more might be exposed to hazardous levels of radioactive water and sediment from the port, requiring emergency medical treatment.
  • “The blast and subsequent fires might completely destroy the entire infrastructure and all ships in the Port of Long Beach and the adjoining Port of Los Angeles.
  • “Six million people might try to evacuate the Los Angeles region...
  • “Gasoline supplies might run critically short across the entire region because of the loss of Long Beach’s refineries—responsible for one-third of the gas west of the Rockies.
  • “The early costs of the Long Beach scenario could exceed $1 trillion, driven by outlay(s) for medical care, insurance claims, workers’ compensation, evacuation, and construction.”

And that’s only for starters. Over the long term, “all U.S. ports would likely close indefinitely or operate at a substantially reduced level following the attack,” the report noted. “This would severely disrupt the availability of basic goods and petroleum throughout the country.”

The good news is that North Korea, unlike shadowy terrorists, has a return address and no reason to court total annihilation by starting a nuclear war with the United States. The bad news is that Kim’s regime would likely seek to destroy as many American cities as possible if a preemptive U.S. attack put its own survival at risk.

Yet many U.S. policy makers and advisers fail to appreciate that fact. In mid-March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Pyongyang that the United States was potentially ready to use force to make it “abandon its development of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.” UN Ambassador Nikki Haley made an even tougher threat a month later.

At the end of March, former CIA Director James Woolsey insisted that “The U.S. must be prepared to preempt North Korea by any means necessary—including nuclear weapons.” Retired Gen. Jack Keane, who was offered the chance to become Trump’s secretary of defense, said in April, “A pre-emptive strike against launch facilities, underground nuclear sites, artillery and rocket response forces and regime leadership targets may be the only option left on the table.”

Let’s hope Trump has some saner advisers on his team. Washington needs to face the fact that North Korea has joined the ranks of nuclear powers, and there’s likely no turning back. It is still possible to contain and deter Kim’s regime, as revolutionary China was when it first built the Bomb. But engaging in a preemptive attack would be a suicidal undertaking.

Jonathan Marshall, an independent analyst, is author or co-author of five books on U.S. history, national security, and international conflict.