Contemplating a limited military response to North Korea’s provocations
Ever since US nuclear technology was stolen by the post-war Soviet Union, the United States has avoided direct confrontation with nuclear-armed states out of fear of escalation into unthinkable nuclear warfare. Ironically, the more powerful we have become, the less we have been willing to use military power in any form against nuclear foes, reducing the deterrence effect we spend so much money to achieve. For this reason, Mao Zedong referred to the United States as a “paper tiger.” North Korea has attained nuclear status and will soon develop a missile capable of reaching the United States. The question is whether, in the face of this mounting existential threat to the homeland, the United States can afford to continue its historic policy of unilateral paralysis.
Military experts believe that the threat of mutually assured destruction has somehow kept the world safe since 1945. President Reagan challenged this notion. Through deception, he convinced the Soviet Union that the US could become impervious to their missiles. Yet far from unleashing their barrage of nuclear weapons in advance of this demise of mutually assured destruction, the Soviets did the reverse. Bereft of their deadly threat to America and embarrassed that a small subjugated state like Afghanistan could send their most advanced fighter bombers home in retreat, the Soviet empire collapsed.
The hypothesis of Mutually Assured Destruction, a bedrock of American policy since 1945 with the exception of the Reagan interlude, assumes that the enemies of America think like we do. They don’t. The governments of the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea came to power and stay there at the barrel of a gun. The decision makers of these political systems are held to very different accountability systems than those of a democracy where leaders are regularly brought in front of an electorate. There, military supremacy is everything. The will of the populace is a distant second, if that. A strategic approach in dealing with these powers that does not consistently demonstrate the supremacy of our conventional military over theirs is therefore potentially mistaken.
The US has indeed prioritized military supremacy since 1945. But the failure to actively employ military measures against our most lethal enemies has bestowed upon them virtual victory, keeping in power regimes that could have been brought to their knees through defeat in skirmishes with US forces. Chinese jets intimidate the US and Japanese air forces daily with impunity, bolstering the position of their military leaders back home. Every Russian fighter jet that invades NATO air space over Lithuania and makes it back home safely is a triumph reinforcing the rule of force over civilians. Turkey has recently demonstrated more strategic acumen than the United States in dealing with Putin’s air force. Shooting down a Russian jet led to a deal that brought the two closer together in the end.
With the exception of the Reagan era and arguably flashes of brilliance under Nixon (carpet bombing Vietnam) and Kennedy (the Cuban missile standoff), the US paranoia of using military power has bolstered the enemies of the people in these totalitarian states. Violators of other countries’ sovereignty go home decorated rather than falling in disgrace, coups, and popular uprisings. Ironically, the stronger the US military becomes, the more praise is heaped upon those who defy us, bolstering their tenuous hold on power. China’s military has become so corrupt (the price of becoming a general there is said to be $2 million) that there is some question whether their military would collapse under its own weight if it were ever called upon to act. Do we really need to tolerate their military’s flagrant violations of international rights of way in the South China Sea?
Limited military action could lead to the implosion of the Kim regime that clings to power in North Korea. Our fear of escalation, however, arguably keeps in power defiant regimes like this that would have fallen had we been less fearful of confrontation. A strategic lethal strike disabling North Korea’s most advanced weaponry would likely be more successful than we imagine against this proxy regime of China. Will Kim’s military follow his order to counter-attack the South, a suicide mission, when there is no imminent threat to the North and their prize military possessions, Kim’s raison d’etre, have just gone up in smoke? China would protest but encounter no imminent threat requiring action either. Will North Korea’s troops, not battle tested for 64 years, take the personal risk upon themselves to attack the South if their executioner has just been eliminated in a lightning-strike drone decapitation?