Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, has been using his nuclear arsenal for years to threaten South Korea, Japan and the United States.
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Even though North Korea fields one of the largest armies in the world, its conventional power – in terms of equipment, training or efficiency – is no match for the combined forces of South Korea and the U.S. That is the reason for Pyongyang’s nuclear program, which was originally intended as a deterrent and a means of retaliation, not as an offensive weapon.
But that changed when Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011. Since then, the ballistic missile and nuclear tests have come thick and fast, and the pace of provocations has even stepped up in recent weeks.
In consequence, the U.S. has accelerated the deployment of its THAAD anti-missile defense system to protect South Korea and Japan.
Two U.S. naval task forces led by the supercarriers USS Carl Vinson and the USS Ronald Reagan have been cruising the western Pacific since May. A third strike group, led by the USS Nimitz, has now been directed to the area.
In contrast with the first two carrier groups, the Pentagon claims that the Nimitz is sailing to the area on a routine operation. Nevertheless, the dispatch of a third carrier completes one of the largest concentrations of naval power since World War II.
If this high-profile and costly deployment fails to bring results, U.S. decision-makers might feel compelled to strike
It is a high-profile and costly operation that must bring results. If the provocations from North Korea continue, U.S. decision-makers might feel compelled to strike.
The possibility cannot be excluded that Kim Jong-un, if pressed too hard, might also respond with a preemptive attack. This could come in the form of a conventional assault on Seoul across the demilitarized zone.
The very worst case would be if Mr. Kim, left without hope, decides to strike his neighbors with nuclear weapons. While this option would be suicidal for the North Korean dictator, it unfortunately cannot be ruled out. This makes effective anti-missile defenses essential.
Logic of escalation
Nobody in this conflict is interested in war. However, the provocations and threats have escalated to an intolerable level. The U.S. naval buildup has sent a clear signal to Beijing, which could ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang to moderate its behavior. This is perhaps the best one can hope for now.
However, domestic power considerations make it very difficult for Mr. Kim to climb down. The instant he shows weakness, his rule (and his life) are in jeopardy.
There are few indications that the North Korean ruler could be removed by an internal coup d’etat. Kim Jong-un is extremely vigilant and will not hesitate to kill members of his own family, as the recent assassination of his half brother shows.
The new U.S. administration is fully aware of the stakes. In the words of Secretary of Defense James Mattis: “If this goes to a military solution, it’s going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
A preemptive strike by the U.S. would need to destroy its targets immediately, without exception and on every level
That does not exclude the possibility of a U.S. attack. To succeed, a preemptive strike would need to destroy its targets immediately, without exception and on every level. It would have to completely eradicate North Korea’s capability to use nuclear weapons against South Korea and Japan. Kim Jong-un must be killed and his entourage eliminated. A devastating bombardment of Seoul, which is in easy range of North Korean heavy artillery, must also be averted.
Failure to achieve any of these objectives would result in mass casualties as the North Korean regime, with nothing left to lose, lashes out in what could be nuclear retaliation.
An American preemptive strike would also require the tacit agreement from China and Russia. This could entail concessions by Washington in other areas.
South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, took office last month with a program of rapprochement with the North. He has shown reserve toward the U.S. and openly protested the deployment of the THAAD system, even though it protects his own country. Seoul’s new attitude could have the unintended effect of encouraging Kim Jong-un in his murderous and ultimately suicidal gambit.