I am not a general. I am not an expert on tactics or logistics. Nor do I receive intelligence reports about the comparative assets of the United States and North Korea. What then qualifies me to make projections about a potential conflict on the Korean peninsula? The answer is very little.
So why am I about to engage in this exercise? It is because a great many less qualified commentators are doing so. Furthermore, because most of them have a pacifist bent, they are eager to point out how destructive such a clash would be. With hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of potential casualties, they imply it would not be worth it.
Although these observers typically say that all options should be on the table, many express a willingness to accept a nuclear-armed North. I am not. Not only would this rogues state represent an existential threat to us, but its ability to sell its technology is terrifying.
What if Hamas got these weapons? What about Boko Haram? We have a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, but what does this mean if there is no way to enforce it. The prospect of a worldwide arms race is unthinkable. Something must be done!
As it happens, the opponents of a military intervention usually make a huge mistake. They point out that over twenty million residents of Seoul are within artillery range of the DMZ and that the North has thousands of these weapons. Ponder, they ask, the extent of the devastation?
What they leave out of the equation is that Seoul can be evacuated—just as Miami was prior to Hurricane Irma. Why would people allow themselves to be sitting ducks? Wouldn’t moving south reduce their risk?
So here is my suggestion. The United States should send Kim Jung-On an ultimatum. Destroy your atomic weapons, the means of producing them, and your ICBMs or we will use stand-off armaments to do this for you. Furthermore, you must allow inspectors to verify that you have done so.
Americans do not need to deploy ground troops. Nor do a majority of inspectors need to be American. The Chinese can be permitted to do the job. They must also be made to understand that we have no desire to remove the North as a buffer against the West.
If the Chinese refuse to accept this and begin moving troops over the border, we can speed up our timetable. But what if the South refuses to evacuate. This is possible, but it is difficult to imagine a politician surviving a refusal to protect his people.
If this sounds bellicose, it is not much more than what was done during the Cuban missile crisis. Back then president Kennedy found the prospect of nuclear armed missiles on our doorstep intolerable. He thus regarded it as his duty to protect our welfare.
Today the reach of the North Koreans is greater and so it is their ability to hit us that should be the trigger. Lest we forget, Kennedy was willing to risk nuclear war to deter the Russians. He dispatched warships to blockade Cuba and to confront the Soviets.
Would On back down the way Khrushchev did? Would the Chinese be satisfied with preserving their hegemony over the North? It is impossible to say. This makes the danger of precipitating a confrontation substantial. Our calculations could go wrong.
But consider the alternative. If we are never willing to use our military assets, it is as if we did not have them. If all we are prepared to do is rattle them—and our enemies know this—we might be challenged at any moment. Each time we backed down, our adversaries would be emboldened to push a bit harder.
The protection of democracy is not free. Our ancestors knew this and therefore they took chances from which we benefit. Did they shed their blood so that we can retreat into appeasement and cowardice?
It is now our turn to step up to the plate. But we should not be reckless. We ought never be heedless of the consequences of our actions. But neither should we be pusillanimous. If strategic patience means never defending ourselves, it will not be long before there is nothing left to defend.
Melvyn L, Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University