Starting the Second Korean War?

Restraint is almost certainly the better part of valor


What to do about North Korea was a major topic during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to South Korea and China. The North remains predictably unpredictable. If the Korean peninsula has gone a few weeks without a crisis, expect Pyongyang to create one. So it has been with the advent of the Obama administration.

Angry over the Bush administration's failure to offer sufficient inducements, the North announced that it was halting plans to dismantle its nuclear program. Irritated with Seoul's new hard-line towards North Korea, Pyongyang declared all agreements with the Republic of Korea to be inoperative.  Now the North apparently is preparing to stage a missile test. Secretary Clinton called the latter "unhelpful," as if Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was a valued negotiating partner.

The government in Seoul responded with a yawn and Secretary Clinton indicated her desire for continued negotiations. But the latest emanations from Pyongyang have caused some policymakers to advocate confrontation. Philip Zelikow, late of the Bush State Department, suggests war.

This isn't the first time that U.S. officials have proposed sending in the bombers. The Clinton administration apparently came close to ordering military strikes before former President Jimmy Carter's dramatic flight to Pyongyang. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has spent years pondering the possibility of preventive war against the so-called Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

It was never a good idea, but the pressure for military action may grow. Selig Harrison of the Center for International Policy recently traveled to the DPRK, where he was told that existing supplies of plutonium had been "weaponized." He argues that the U.S. "can tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea that may or may not actually have the weapons arsenal it claims," but others would put the military option back on the table.

Zelikow goes even further. He says: "whatever the merits of Harrison's suggestion when it comes to North Korea's nuclear weapons, the United States should not accept Pyongyang's development of long-range missiles systems, which can be paired with an admitted nuclear weapons arsenal, as still another fait accompli." In his view, Washington should warn the North to stand down; if the DPRK failed to comply, the U.S. should take out the missile on its launch pad.

Why? Zelikow contends that "the North Korean perfection of a long-range missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country." To rely on deterrence, he adds, would be a "gamble."

Obviously no one wants the North to possess nuclear weapons or missiles of any kind. However, North Korean threats against the ROK and Japan are not threats against America's vital interests. Japan is the world's second ranking economic power and the South has roughly 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the North. Sooner rather than later they should be expected to defend themselves. Washington is busy enough dealing with its own geopolitical problems in the midst of an economic crisis.

Moreover, nothing in the North Korean regime's behavior suggests that Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is any less amenable to deterrence than were Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Kim may be many things, but there is no indication that he is suicidal. Rather, he likes his virgins in the here and now.

Of course, it would be better not to have to rely on deterrence. But a preventive strike would be no cakewalk.

If there is insanity at work on the Korean peninsula, it is the assumption that Kim would do nothing if his nation was attacked by the U.S. He might choose inaction, but more likely would see such a strike as the prelude to regime change. In that case the results of the Iraq war would impel him to act first rather than await invasion. America and South Korea would win any war, but the costs would be horrendous.

Moreover, the DPRK could easily initiate a more limited tit-for-tat retaliation. The South's capital of Seoul lies within easy range of Scud missiles and massed artillery. Even the "optimists" who believe that Seoul could be protected by massive military strikes along the Demilitarized Zone talk about holding casualties to under 100,000. Imagine Pyongyang announcing a limited bombardment in response to the U.S. action, combined with the promise of a ceasefire if the ROK blocked any further American response. Washington's Asian policy would be wrecked along with Seoul.

Despite the vagaries of dealing with the North, it is not the first bizarrely brutal and secretive regime with which the U.S. has dealt. Forty-some years ago there was China. The unstable Mao regime, atop a country convulsed by the bloody Cultural Revolution, was developing nuclear weapons. National Review editor William F. Buckley and New York Sen. James Buckley both pressed for a preventive attack on Beijing's nascent nuclear program. The Johnson administration considered proposals for such an assault.

The arguments were similar as those made today regarding North Korea: An unpredictable regime, the uncertainty of deterrence, and the relative ease of attack. It's impossible to know what the world would have looked like had Washington struck, but China likely would have moved closer to the Soviet Union and become more resolutely hostile to the U.S. Restraint almost certainly was the better part of valor. So, too, with North Korea today.

Of course, Washington still should work with the DPRK's neighbors in an attempt to persuade Pyongyang to abandon both its missile and nuclear ambitions. Even more important, though, would be to turn the problem of North Korea over to the surrounding states. To the extent that the North threatens anyone, it is South Korea and Japan. China and Russia are unlikely direct targets, but still have good reason to prefer a stable and peaceful Korean peninsula.

Thus, the U.S. should withdraw its 29,000 troops from the ROK, where they are vulnerable to military action by Pyongyang. Then North Korea would be primarily a problem for the ROK, China, Japan, and Russia. And the U.S. need not worry about the latest North Korean gambit.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon) and Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Cato).