With North Korea, A Military Option Means Nuclear War

This tense clash between two nuclear-armed and irrational actors like Trump and Kim Jong-un has me and many foreign policy experts on edge.


For the last week or so, I have been anxiously asking myself: is Donald Trump warming up the American war machine? After a unilateral order to launch over 50 missile strikes in Syria, the U.S. rerouted warships to the Korean peninsula as a show of force. To make matters worse, Trump provoked a rogue nuclear power on Twitter while Kim Jong-un threatened to “hit the U.S. first” with nuclear weapons at the first sign of a strike from the U.S. against North Korea. It appears that North Korea is also preparing for its sixth nuclear test, expected April 15, the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder Kim Il Sung ― and Trump has signaled he’s prepared to respond with force.

From the increasing risk of conflict and nuclear escalation in North Korea, the chance of the U.S. entering a war with Syria, and the use of the largest non-nuclear bomb in history, things are not looking great on the war-and-peace front. From where I stand, it looks like we are on the brink of nuclear war ― and Trump is threatening to throw us off the cliff.

Last week’s missile launch against Syria dominated headlines after Trump’s long-standing non-interventionist stance crumbled overnight. Trump excused this deadly acrobatic flip-flop by bemoaning the deaths of innocent Syrian children ― but his justification rings hollow, considering the fact he has blocked those same children from seeking refuge in the United States.

This is a lesson we seem to never learn: strong arming states via military force cannot replace strategy or diplomacy. And the consequences of relying on force in North Korea are even higher.

I have read many pieces analyzing why Trump flipped his position and bombed Syria last week. Some point to his emotional volatility and subsequent hot-headed decisionmaking. Others suggest the missile launch was an age-old ploy to boost Trump’s approval ratings and distract Americans from the mess he has created domestically in less than 100 days. Yet more are interpreting the strikes a warning to North Korea, a clear signal to the reclusive regime that Trump will not hesitate to use force, however unproductive it may be.

Whatever the rationale, Trump’s missile strikes in Syria make a scary situation in North Korea even scarier.

It is becoming more and more evident that the threat of conflict and nuclear escalation between the U.S. and North Korea is real and growing. To be frank, this tense clash between two nuclear-armed and irrational actors like Trump and Kim Jong-un has me and many foreign policy experts on edge. On one hand, we have Trump ― who has repeatedly demonstrated that he lacks the temperament or the knowledge to deal with the complex, nuclear-tinged stalemate in the Korean peninsula. On the other sits Kim Jong-un, a ruthless, paranoid dictator who has nothing to lose, and is someone who that has spent his time in power threatening the U.S., South Korea, and Japan with nuclear war.

We know that Donald Trump resorts to force without strategy when faced with complex and urgent geopolitical crises, which he proved with last week’s abrupt cruise missile strikes. And as with Syria, there is no easy fix when it comes to North Korea, but there certainly is no viable military solution.

There is no scenario in which military action against North Korea ends well. Engaging in armed conflict could lead to a second Korean war with hundreds of thousands of casualties ― or worse, it could trigger the use of nuclear weapons with the capabilities to kill millions in an unprecedented global catastrophe.

In complicated, tense crises like these we need even-handed leadership and diplomacy, not impulsive decision-making or belligerence. But with a reality TV show star at the helm and a gutted diplomacy wing, I do not have much faith that these leaders of ours will steer us clear from conflict.

Donald Trump once told us that he would keep us out of war with Syria ― and then changed his mind within 24 hours. If he does the same in North Korea, it could quickly mean nuclear war. We cannot count on him to choose diplomacy over war. And it is quickly becoming more important than ever that we hold Trump, his administration, and our members of Congress accountable to choose diplomacy, not bombs.