Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. He served on the NSC staff as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2007 to 2009.
North Korea is a perennial candidate for America’s next war and a regular contender for the title of worst government on the planet. In the decades since the end of the Korean War, the communist dictatorship and cult of personality that rules from Pyongyang has amassed an impressive record of criminality and barbarism, including sponsoring terrorism, proliferating nuclear technology, becoming one of the largest currency counterfeiters in the world, starving much of its own population, and propagating a cruel and dehumanizing ideology. If the world were to take the “Responsibility to Protect” seriously, it might invade and overthrow the North Korean government and try its leaders for crimes against humanity. That, needless to say, will never happen.
Outgoing President Barack Obama reportedly warned incoming President Donald Trump that North Korea would be his first major international crisis. Trump appears to have taken the warning to heart. The United States delivered components of a new missile defense system (the THAAD system) earlier in 2017, and it became operational in early May. During Chinese President Xi Jingping’s visit to the United States in early April, Trump reportedly asked his counterpart to put pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs. Vice President Michael Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and CIA Chief Mike Pompeo each visited South Korea in the first few months of the new administration, a remarkable display of interest in the region and reassurance to the South. Pence declared during his visit on April 17 that “the era of strategic patience is over.” He reiterated the U.S.’s goal of a denuclearized peninsula and said that “all options are on the table.” Tillerson, using almost identical language the month before, warned that military options were on the table.
The Trump administration is right that normal diplomacy with North Korea is pointless. Coercive diplomacy, and possibly war, is the only feasible route to an eventual settlement, much less denuclearization. North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985; the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in 1991; a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1992; the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994; the joint statement of the six-party talks in 2005 pledging itself “to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs;” and an action plan to achieve its denuclearization in 2007. North Korea broke, abrogated, or withdrew from every one of these agreements, and in violation of them built and tested nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016.
So the Second Korean War is a real possibility. On purely strategic grounds, it may be necessary and may be the least bad scenario among a host of very bad ones. But as we war-game the possible trajectories, how does this play out? The problem is that North Korea is both a failed state and a nuclear power; it threatens the United States with both its strength and its weakness. Even though war might be necessary, it will not be easy or bloodless, and the aftermath would be immensely challenging to manage. Three major challenges stand out. First, the war will be harder and bloodier than any war since Vietnam, if not World War II. Second, the post-conflict mission, grappling with a collapsed North Korea, might be just as bad because of the magnitude of the humanitarian problem and the possibility of nuclear smuggling. Third, on the best possible scenario, the United States will win entry into a tense standoff with China over the fate of the two Koreas.
First, the United States will undoubtedly “win” a war with North Korea, in the narrow military sense of blowing up more stuff and bringing a just and overdue end to the Stalinist cabal in Pyongyang. But the Kim regime will not go quietly: it is likely to go out in an epic blaze of death and murder. What Saddam Hussein threatened to do in his last days in power, Kim Jong-un is actually capable of bringing about. North Korea has the fourth-largest active-duty military in the world. Most of the military is deployed near the demilitarized zone, deployed in reinforced underground facilities and hardened bunkers. In addition to chemical and nuclear weapons, they are pointing some twenty-one thousand pieces of conventional artillery southward. The North Korean military has carried out a series of careful studies of the U.S. military campaigns in Iraq, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. As a result, “Doctrinal changes were initiated that emphasised smaller, more mobile ground-force operational organisations, long-range and rocket artillery, ballistic missiles, reserve-force capabilities, ‘electronic intelligence warfare’ and special-operations forces,” according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
That means the Second Korean War’s initial conventional phase is likely to be immensely more brutal, bloody, and difficult than the three weeks of combat that opened up the Iraq War in 2003. In the Iraq War, Hussein had no real opportunity to attack his neighbors or inflict massive civilian causalities on anyone other than his own people. Contrary to widespread belief at the time, he did not have weapons of mass destruction: this time, there is no doubt whatsoever that Kim Jong-un has them. The flat desert terrain of southern Iraq enabled a fast-moving, fluid war everywhere outside a few marshes. The mountainous Korean Peninsula will make the dug-in North Korean military extraordinarily difficult to root out and destroy. And while the Allies work to root them out, North Korean conventional units will have time to inflict massive damage on South Korea.
But will the United States “win” in the broader, political sense? The challenges do not end with the initial military campaign. In the aftermath, presuming the regime has fallen and the conventional military has been defeated, imagine what awaits the United Nations forces, under U.S. and South Korea leadership. The second major challenge is that the United States will have just signed up for one of the largest and most difficult stability operations in history, a multi-trillion dollar decades-long cleanup job. The United States and South Korea must be prepared to feed the population, handle mass refugee flows, administer the country, and chart a course for its political future while simultaneously securing its nuclear weapons and material, defending against unconventional attacks by North Korean intelligence and military personnel, and assuring China that is security interests will be respected. South Korea has, rightly, developed plans for such an eventuality and should lead international efforts to stabilize a post-collapse North Korea, but the United States will have to be involved at some level because of its commitments to South Korea and equities with China.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration largely dismantled the institutions the U.S. had built to handle the challenges of stability operations, such as the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations and USAID’s Civilian Response Corps. And the military, of course, is reeling from years of steep budget cuts, eager to put messy unconventional warfare behind it, and obliged to implement the Obama-era defense strategic guidance that explicitly disavowed the goal of having a military capable of large-scale stability operations. Despite the past sixteen years of experience in stability operations, the United States is shockingly ill prepared for another such mission in East Asia.
In the midst of these significant post-conflict challenges, there is a third major challenge: the United States will be thrust into a tense standoff with China over the fate of the Korean Peninsula. China will not look favorably on the possible reunion of the two Koreas if that means the extension of the U.S.-South Korea mutual defense treaty, and the presence of U.S. troops, all the way up to the Yalu River. The diplomatic challenge is an order of magnitude greater than it was in 1953 because China was then barely a regional power, still recovering from a long and destructive civil war. Today, China’s indisputably greater power constrains the United States’ options. It is impossible to say what the political dispensation of Korea could look like because that will depend on China’s policy before and during a war with the North: if it collapses from military defeat in a war that China supports, an adjustment to China’s security interests should be among the concessions the U.S. demands in a post-war settlement. But if China cooperates against the North—even tacitly by cutting off aid and support—a more collaborative effort by the U.S. and China to decide the status of U.S. troops, North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and Korean reunification becomes possible.
These three challenges—a difficult and destructive conventional war; a massive and expensive post-conflict operation; and a first-rate diplomatic challenge—mean that the Second Korean War would carry the biggest stakes of any initiative in American diplomacy in generations. And that is only considering the military, strategic, and diplomatic implications of a hypothetical war. The hardest part is political. The United States does not have its best team in place to handle national security and grand strategy. Aside from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, whose professionalism and competence inspire confidence, there are still relatively few national security professionals at the top tier of the government. There are still a number of vacant posts at the State and Defense Departments because the White House is having trouble finding qualified people willing to work for the Trump administration, and because of the administration’s unwillingness to reach out to “blacklisted” critics. Senior White House staff, including Innovations Director Jared Kushner, have virtually no experience in foreign policy yet have been handed enormous responsibilities in that area. And even the best and most experienced staff in the world would not be able to compensate for an erratic and unconventional President who lacks foreign policy experience and appears unwilling to adapt to the steep learning curve.
This is the dilemma of foreign policy in the age of Trump. The United States may be compelled to take action, such as fighting a war against North Korea to defend allies and prevent the proliferation, or even use, of weapons of mass destruction. Yet for that action to succeed, it would require American policymakers to exercise extraordinary wisdom, prudence, and judgment, drawing on a lifetime of experience and study. If U.S. policymakers are unable or unwilling to do so, what does that mean for American leadership in the world? How should foreign policy analysts assess and prescribe action or inaction for the U.S. and other actors? When the U.S. is compelled to act, yet unable to act coherently, should it still try? Should the world adjust its expectations of American leadership? The U.S. traditionally has paid the overhead costs of organizing coalitions, setting the agenda, and providing command, control, intelligence, logistics, and other combat services. Can it still do so? Few observers or policymakers have answers to these questions yet.
Image: via leftoverrights.