I wouldn’t count on that.
There’s already been a breakthrough in the renewed talks between the Koreas, with the North agreeing on Tuesday to send its athletes to February’s Winter Olympics in the South. But one does not need to look far for a reminder that the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains incredibly dangerous. According to The Wall Street Journal, Trump administration officials are “quietly debating whether it’s possible to mount a limited military strike against North Korean sites without igniting an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.”
This “bloody nose” strategy would entail responding to some provocation by North Korea with a limited strike to demonstrate the potential price of dictator Kim Jong-un’s continued misbehavior. Financial Times describes what that might look like:
Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA analyst, says there are many options that could be interpreted as a kick in the shin or a bloody nose. They include striking a military facility such as an air base or naval facility not associated with the ICBM programme, destroying one of Mr. Kim’s homes, hitting a key part of the missile programme or targeting a missile during a test launch.
“Presumably, such a strike would be a one-off attack that is immediately followed-up by a presidential announcement that this is a warning shot and nothing more,” says Mr. Wilder.
Trump officials are said to be debating whether this strategy is even feasible, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis focused on using diplomacy to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster arguing that it’s time to consider military options as well.
Many experts are deeply skeptical of the idea that the U.S. could strike North Korea in any way without provoking devastating retaliation. “Our intelligence is not great, so how do we know that they would not respond?” Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff from 2007 to 2011, told FT. “If I was Japan or South Korea, I would be asking ‘what are we, chopped liver?’ The U.S. is supposed to be protecting them.”
Even if Kim did not respond to a preemptive U.S. strike with nuclear weapons, he could still use the estimated 15,000 cannons and rocket launchers he has aimed at Seoul. James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander and current dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, foresees “no military options which would result in fewer than several hundred thousand casualties and perhaps as many as 2 million to 3 million.”
So the plan said to be under consideration involves carefully calculating how North Korea might respond to a limited strike, U.S. officials are working with spotty information, and millions of lives hang in the balance. That would be a terrifying prospect under any administration, and we currently have a president who thought it was smart to give Kim a fun nickname and threaten his nuclear prowess on Twitter.