Limited Strikes on North Korea Would Be an Unlimited Disaster

23/1/18 | 0 | 0 | 570 εμφανίσεις

There’s no clear upside — and plenty of potential downsides — to punching Pyongyang in the nose.

This April 15, 2017 picture released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 16, 2017 shows Korean People’s howitzers being displayed through Kim Il-Sung square during a military parade in Pyongyang marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT —EDITORS NOTE— RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – MANDATORY CREDIT “AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS” – NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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A military parade in Pyongyang marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung on April 15, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Many commentators across the national security community, such as Edward LuttwakMichael J. Green, Matthew KroenigOriana Skylar Mastro, and others, have the same bright idea for how to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to swear off further ballistic missile and nuclear warhead testing: Punch him right in the metaphorical nose.

The idea is that by hitting the right — and largely symbolic — target inside North Korea, we can find a sweet spot of escalation that’s light enough not to goad the North into a major war but painful enough to make them think twice about further testing of weapons of mass destruction. To quote one proponent, “Limited strikes should be targeted carefully and focused on North Korea’s specific provocation. A good start would be to take out the next North Korean intercontinental test missile on its launch pad.” As for the risk of a response, “If Kim can be deterred, as [critics of a strike] suggest, he will react in a way that risks few lives and leaves him options to preserve his precious regime.”

The allure of a punitive strike on North Korea is its seeming simplicity. North Korea continues its missile testing, or opts to detonate another nuclear device in a test shaft, and the United States fires a few missiles and fixes the problem. But this conclusion comes from a series of bad assumptions. We assume that the North Korean regime can detect with any realistic degree of confidence that a limited strike is in fact limited. We assume that North Korea will only analyze the costs and benefits of retaliating based on the merits of a fleeting crisis. And we assume that Kim Jong Un’s power is limitless and that he has none of his own constituencies to placate in the hours and days after a strike.

These assumptions are shaky at best. North Korea’s early warning network, fragile enough that a clean strike seems somehow viable, is more likely apt to encourage Pyongyang to take more aggressive action. Kim doesn’t have to consider just the ensuing hours and days after a strike, but also many years (and presumably other crises) in the future. And Kim is riding a tiger, and opting to blink will likely lead to his being thrown and eaten.

Limited wars have sometimes, if rarely, worked in the past, even between other nuclear-armed powers, such as the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999. Yet everything we know of the messy politics of Pyongyang suggests that the chances of keeping any conflict limited are small at best — and the alternative is far too horrific to take such a risk.

There’s a popular maxim in the military: The enemy always gets a vote. And when that enemy must weigh future risks and rewards, the greater military might and influence enjoyed by a superpower still might not be enough to coerce the outcome it desires. This, for a great power like the United States, is obviously frustrating. But just because it’s frustrating doesn’t make it any less true.

Chief among the problems with the limited strike option is that it assumes that the North is capable of discerning between a punch in the nose and a full-on pummeling — and that Kim could take the public humiliation of sitting on his hands throughout a limited U.S. strike and still cling to power. They can’t, and he wouldn’t. And North Korea isn’t the only case. In fact, studies of threats by larger powers against smaller ones show that most countries in North Korea’s position would retaliate with whatever means they have at their disposal.

In short, when you punch somebody in the face, the recipient understandably can’t know whether more is about to follow.

What to expect when you’re expecting … Tomahawks

The selling point of a limited strike is that American cruise missiles and stealth bombers stand a good chance of slipping past North Korea’s aging early warning system to hit their targets well before the Korean People’s Army could give its leadership a heads-up that an attack is underway. To quote Luttwak writing in Foreign Policy earlier this month, “North Korea’s radars, missiles, and aircraft are badly outdated, with their antique electronics long since countermeasured.” North Korea is actually modernizing its air defense networks, but it’s true that they still remain far behind those of the United States or its allies. As such, this is considered to be a selling point: not only could the United States punish North Korea, but it could also do so in a way that requires few resources and risks no casualties.

Unfortunately, the tactical advantages of American stealth and surprise don’t produce a crystal-clear situational awareness and understanding of American intent for our adversaries. Wartime surprise does what it’s supposed to do: confuses and overwhelms the adversary. That surprise is intended to so discombobulate an opponent that they can’t formulate an effective response until it’s all over. But if you’re trying to prevent further escalation, confusion is exactly what you’re trying to avoid on the other side.

Limited Strikes on North Korea Would Be an Unlimited Disaster

Category: International

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