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No, North Korea Isn’t "Super-Mighty"

Stooping to the level of North Korean bluster is both unnecessary and reckless.


North Korea is feeling threatened, so it has threatened back.

"In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched," the isolated regime's state-run media warned Thursday, it will hit the "U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes."

The phrasing is classic Pyongyang, the bizarre mix of childish bluster and lethal armament that throws normal foreign policy strategy out the window. This same announcement from any other nuclear power would mean the start of World War III, but from North Korea, it's mostly business as usual.

What isn't business as usual is the international response to this latest round of provocation. U.S. surveillance planes are reportedly on alert for another North Korean nuclear test, as are Chinese bombers. Vice President Pence told Pyongyang the American "sword is ready," and, after some miscommunication, Japan's Self-Defense Force began joint exercises Monday with the USS Carl Vinson in waters off the Korean peninsula.

And though defense officials have denied a recent report of imminent U.S. invasion, there's no denying the feeling that U.S.-North Korea tensions are escalating. As ever with North Korea's unique circumstances, the prudent course for the United States may be debatable, but de-escalation of those tensions is not.

An American strike on North Korea would be, in a word, disastrous. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday, war "would be bad for the Korean Peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan, be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea."

Even in the best-case scenario—a tidy overthrow of the Kim Jong Un regime that doesn't take South Korea down with it and liberates a grateful population—the entire region would be thrown into long-term chaos. A new Korean war would easily cost America $1 trillion and produce one million casualties, Gen. Gary Luck, formerly a commander of U.S. troops in South Korea, estimated.

A best-case scenario isn't even close to probable. If the U.S. takes up the North Korean offer of war, we risk war with China and North Korean nuclear, chemical, and biological strikes on U.S. troops stationed in and civilians living in South Korea. Post-regime change and an easy acceptance of American occupation by a desperate and ruthlessly brainwashed population is highly unlikely. South Korea may not prove a willing or able partner in the nation-building efforts that would follow.

Realistic assessments of a strike on North Korea are in short supply in Washington. Graham followed his grim account with a hearty recommendation for war, recklessly advising President Trump to prepare for a preemptive invasion. That is foolish and dangerous advice, but hardly unexpected from a senator who never saw a war he didn't like.

Though tensions may be rising, no North Korean strike on the United States is imminent. North Korea is not capable of executing any attack on the American mainland, let alone instantaneously reducing our country "to ashes."

Pyongyang has yet to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead across the Pacific Ocean, let alone a warhead that could survive the trip. (The military parade organized to honor North Korea's founding president this month included what appeared to be ICBMs, but there is no evidence those are functional—or even real. This is, after all, a nation prone to expanding its navy via Photoshop.) The medium-range missile test shot into the Sea of Japan back in February, for example, traveled about 300 miles. To hit California, a North Korean missile would have to go more than 18 times that distance.

In addition to this technological inadequacy, the showboating that is a consistent feature of North Korean military development means a surprise strike is extremely unlikely. Pyongyang will publicly test its missiles as it makes them. As the Kim regime has said, the point of being a nuclear power is for the world to know you're a nuclear power. The United States will not be surprised by a North Korean ICBM.

That timeline gives us options. Stooping to the level of North Korean bluster about preemptive strikes and ready swords is both unnecessary and reckless. It means President Trump should tune out the bad advice of the Lindsey Graham wing of the Washington establishment. It means North Korea isn't anywhere near as "super-mighty" as it claims to be, and the United States must not let ourselves be swept into an inevitably disastrous war.

Photo Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet/Foter.com

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • damikesc||

    An attack on N Korea would be an exceptionally poor idea

    ...but kicking the can down the road hasn't exactly worked wonders over the last 23 or so years.

    Eventually, they have to be told no. It would've been easier 10 years ago, but Bush didn't want to do it. Even easier 20 years ago ,but Clinton didn't want to.

    Ignoring them hasn't changed the equation. And given their poverty, selling nuclear weaponry is something I doubt they will have a big problem doing (they've undertaken assassinations inside the borders of one of their extremely few allies)

    The problem is that dealing with an adversary is dramatically easier BEFORE they become a nuclear power. Once they have the capacity (and North Korea seems to have that capacity albeit with insufficient means of delivery), your options are far more limited.

    If Trump can get China to finally yank the chain on them, bonus for him.

  • colorblindkid||

    Exactly. I actually think North Korea is the only country that will openly and preemptively attack US territories and allies. They are the only existential threat we face. Nobody else would dare. It is important to stop them before they can reliably reach Hawaii or even Japan with nuclear weapons. One of these days they'll wind up actually launching a successful missile.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    That's an odd definition of "existential."

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Dear Leader might bluster, but all his aides, generals, and kissups are selected for kissing ass and saying yes, and they act that way because they like thelife of luxury. The last thing they are capable of doing is running a real war; it's one thing to monitor maintenance of 10,000 cannon aimed at Seoul, another thing to plan and execute an invasion of the South. And start a suicidal nuclear attack? I doubt they have enough weapons to do that, but I doubt even more that those kissups would follow through and lose their life of luxury.

    I suspect Dear Leader is treading a very fine line between enough bluster to keep everybody off-balance, and provoking those kissups to assassinate him

    Dear Leader's worst problem right now is having met a national leader (Trump) who says as many spontaneous loopy things to keep people off-balance. I don't think Dear Leader knows how to respond, and I think his kissups are in a state of panic, worried they might have to choose between broaching assassination with their fellow kissups or keeping quiet until Dear Leader is provoked into such a rant that even the Chinese decide to rein him in.

  • ThomasD||

    Yep. If the NorK military leadership thought they had a credible shot at victory we'd already know the outcome.

    But I do wonder if the new 'loss of patience' approach is all Trump or if it is something that was hashed out with the Chinese at the most recent meeting.

    Because China is and will remain the key.

  • mtrueman||

    "Because China is and will remain the key."

    North Korea is the key. China is the distraction. If US wants peaceful relations with North Korea, I don't think China is the country to deliver. They have their own interests which do not coincide with those of the US.

  • ThomasD||

    Absent China there would be no North Korea.

  • mtrueman||

    If US wants something from North Korea, no sense in asking China for it.

  • Wizard4169||

    Existential threat? Seriously? Even the South Koreans have trouble not giggling when the Norks threaten their destruction. They could maybe take a tiny poke at us. Someday. With weapons that don't actually exist yet. We could make their entire stupid little fucked-up country glow in the dark with weapons we actually have, today. So how are we existentially threatened?

  • mtrueman||

    "Ignoring them hasn't changed the equation"

    America has never ignored North Korea. Not since the Korean war in the 1950s. Today US has North Korea under trade sanctions and constantly threatens attack.

    "If Trump can get China to finally yank the chain on them, bonus for him."

    If the US is pursuing failed policies, I'm sure the Chinese are willing to see them continue. The North Korean thing is an American obsession. I doubt the Chinese share it.

  • granite state destroyer||

    Kicking the can down the road has worked pretty well actually. North Korea has been cracking at the seams for some time and most Americans seem unaware of how much has changed. Over the last decade the State has been forced to abandon most of the agricultural and service sectors to the whims of the free market, much of the younger generation is widely aware that the government lies, the vast gulf of wealth between China and North Korea is obvious to every educated person, and most people are aware how rich South Korea has become. No one believes in the ideology anymore, the government is supported solely by cynics and bureaucrats scared of being shot like Ceaucescu when the Kims inevitably fall. All sign point to a slow, painful but steady transition to a system much like China or Vietnam. Not perfect, but far better than the massive chaos and disruption a war would bring on. The Chinese are playing this one correctly - ease the Kims out but don't create a civil war and waves of refugees. Whether or not North Korea has nukes is pretty much irrelevant since China already does.

  • Dizzle||

    This is basically it. Noone wants war but the situation can't continue as is. China is the last chance for diplomacy, but turdface-un may not want to negotiate away his last eency-weency bit of leverage to china.

    China has slowed coke coal shipments from n.korea (actually buying some from us now and raising the price) so there's a start at least.

    The question I think is better asked. Are Americans' more comfortable killing the n. Koreans swiftly with military strikes but having our own casualties or slowly with economic pressure and starving further an already starved country?

    Either way, through sanctions or war, millions will die because of terdface-un's bad decisions.

  • Spinach Chin||

    "we risk war with China "

    FFS, China is not going to go to war with the US on behalf of Kim Jong Un.

  • Conchfritters||

    I agree. For all of China's faults, nothing suggests to me that they are suicidal.

  • Ron||

    Wasn't it the Chinese forces that forced us out of North Korea in the first place and China only stopped when McCarther said he would use a Nuclear bomb on China if they continued past the 38th Parallel? I think China may be even bolder today since they have retalitory resources now.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    China's leadership seems to be a lot less ideological and a lot more pragmatic now than they were then.

  • granite state destroyer||

    Yes, today it is the USA who seems to have turned into ideological fanatics on the North Korea issue.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Yes. No. No.

    Macarthur wanted to use nukes once the chinese intervened. That led to truman sacking him. The lines stabilized on their own around the 38th parallel after macarthur was removed and replaced with ridgeway. As spinach said above, China isn't in the mood to go to war with the US over kim jung dumbass. And frankly the US isn't in the mood for a ground war in korea either.

  • Sevo||

    Beat me to it. Ron needs to read history from something other than Reader's Digest.

  • Wizard4169||

    Riiight. China will just stand around with their collective dick in their hand while we run wild right on their border. You must be drinking the same Kool-Aid as the people who insisted the Iraqis would greet us with flowers and hosannas as soon as we took out Saddam. Just for a little comparison, let's imagine a civil war in Mexico. China decides to dive right on in there. How would we react?

  • Spinach Chin||

    Is Mexico run by a madman bent on world domination and reducing its enemies to ashes?

    China and NK are not equal powers. They keep Kim in his cage for pragmatic reasons. As soon as he gets out, all bets are off.

    If you think China is going to go to war with its top trading partner over the actions of NK's insane child dictator, you're absolutely fucking crazy.

  • Set Us Up The Chipper||

    He's so ronery.

  • Matrix||

    We are obligated to respond if the Norks attack targets in South Korea or Japan. And our response will be overwhelming. We cannot preemptively strike the Norks without China jumping in, but we can respond to their attacks. China would not be obligated to support the Norks if they strike first.

    But if you expect us to sit by and do nothing if the Norks hit our allies, you're out of your mind.

  • Spinach Chin||

    "We cannot preemptively strike the Norks without China jumping in, but we can respond to their attacks. China would not be obligated to support the Norks if they strike first."

    Unless Kim Jong Un does something highly provocative. I don't think it necessarily has to be NK attacking first. At some point China will wash their hands of the Norks.

  • Conchfritters||

    Oddly quiet in the whole discussion is South Korea. They are fully aware what a disaster it would be if the peninsula were unified - - if you thought West Germany abosrbing East Germany was hard, this would be much more difficult. Most South Koreans don't give a shit about them and just want to ignore North Korea. How about we save that $1,000,000,000,000 quoted in the article, and let South Korea deal with North Korea on their own. China is a major trading partner with South Korea, and would probably fight the North on their own if they ever crossed the 38th. We don't even need to be involved.

    And fuck you Lindsey Graham, you fucking bitch.

  • CE||

    Most South Koreans would rather be unified and not have a madman ruling a large military within artillery range of their capital. Without taking a survey, we can be sure they would rather the situation continues as is, rather than the US preemptively invading and causing North Korea to destroy Seoul.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday, war "would be bad for the Korean Peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan, be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea."

    And, here, I thought American politicians were primarily interested in what was good (or bad) for the United States. Speaking of which, I'm not convinced that shivering and shaking every time a petulant child throws a temper tantrum is in our best interests.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuAzvb38PyI

    Showing a defensive posture isn't always a prelude to war. In fact, appeasement can be just as irresponsible. And, unfortunately, North Korea's threats aren't all empty.

    In recent years, they sank a South Korean ship without provocation, and they shelled a South Korean village without provocation, too. There need to be negative consequences for misbehavior. Waiting around for North Korea to do something that can't be ignored anymore isn't necessarily path to peace.

    I'd suggest doing something provocative with China. Historically, China has used North Korea as a counterweight to Taiwan. No reason we can't do likewise. If China isn't willing to do what's necessary to help bring North Korea to heel, then maybe we should schedule a diplomatic visit to Taipei. That wouldn't be militarily aggressive, but it might do the trick.

  • Rhywun||

    And, here, I thought American politicians were primarily interested in what was good (or bad) for the United States.

    Nationalism is so passé.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Ding! Winner! China has used the norks to distract us at their convenience. Taiwan is the perfect counterbalance to that. Why I'm sure we could work out some purely defensive aircraft sales to taipei...

  • CE||

    Talking about a preemptive invasion is sort of the opposite of a "defensive posture".

  • mtrueman||

    "then maybe we should schedule a diplomatic visit to Taipei"

    Of course the Taiwanese are just champing at the bit to play at Trump's games.

  • BYODB||

    North Korea is the best example of what shitty foreign policy can do over the decades, and now that they're a nuclear power they hold the distinction of being the worst country with that capacity (Yes, IMO they are far worse than Iran even if they're 'less' powerful overall).


    While I'm not saying that we should shake in our boots over North Korea, we shouldn't continue to laugh when they saber rattle. If anything, their consistent and constant threats to the United States and allies carry a new tone now that they can technically follow through on those threats. If I recall their last missile test was concerning.


    I'm curious how blasé the author will be once their nuclear delivery device is capable of hitting their house. I don't know what the 'right' solution is, but there is little denying that North Korea is hostile towards the United States. They've just historically lacked much ability to do anything about it. If that changes, the entire game changes.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Playing nice with the norks over the last 25 years sure has paid off. What could go wrong?

  • BYODB||

    I wouldn't say that we've played 'nice' with them, in fact the only reason they still exist at all is because of China. Therefore it's sort of their responsibility at this point. It remains to be seen if China will actually uphold that or not. (Being on the U.N. Security council should mean some responsibility for created proxy nations, rather like ourselves and Israel like it or not.)

    Letting them get nuclear weapons may well be a decision that China comes to regret since the one target North Korea can definitely hit is their neighbor and if China yanks too hard on that leash who knows what they'll do.

    It may very well be that one reason China is suddenly a little more open about the whole thing is because the leadership of North Korea has told them to fuck off. In todays age, it might be easier for China to not mention that fact and let us clean up their mess. I'm not saying that's likely or anything, but it's occurred to me. Dictators don't like being told what to do.

  • mtrueman||

    "Therefore it's [North Korea] sort of their [China's] responsibility at this point. "

    I know this is an article of faith for all you CNN viewers out there. It's a good indication of American intellectual paralysis and lack of resolve. Problem is, North Koreans don't see the Chinese as their masters. They also want to deal with Americas directly, not through proxies. I don't think the solution should be impossible. Just lock Kim and Trump in a room and let them out when they've successfully negotiated a deal. I won't be easy, they are North Koreans, after all, but Trump should be able to appease them.

  • granite state destroyer||

    It has paid off damn well. We have had no war, South Korea is prospering, and the North Korean state continues to decline and lose more and more control over most of the economy. The Chinese are smarter than us, they know they can afford to wait the Kims out. At some point in the next 20 years this Kim or his successor will be begging China for asylum, a military junta allied with wealthy North Korean business owners (a new class that has arisen over the past decade) will take over North Korea, and the country will continue to reform slowly and painfully. Or we could follow our crazy ass media cycle driven American politicians and just start a war now and kill millions to gain 10% points in the polls.

  • Ron||

    Talk about refuge problems. If North Korea ever does strike Japan in any matter there may be a flood of Japanese to American and Australia and the Japanese army will triple within days and fully invade N. Korea itself. talk about real problems when something could have been tried and since nothing else has worked you end up left with one alternative.

  • crufus||

    Is North Korea the designated bogeyman for the Trump administration? Like Saddam Hussein was for Bush II?

  • damikesc||

    It's not like North Korea hasn't been a problem for a lot longer than Jan. 20, 2017.

  • BYODB||

    I clearly remember when Obama solved the North Korea problem forever, but then Trump sent out a tweet and reignited the problem.

    /moron

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Does this mean there will be a reboot of M*A*S*H?

  • ThomasD||

    Talk about worst case scenario.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Nice job of eating my previous comment, reason.

    As I said before the norks already have an icbm. They've orbited two objects and something in orbit doesn't just have 18 times the range of their mrbm test, it has infinite range. The only real limiting factor for the norks is payload and warhead miniaturization.

    But please, let's all go to the grauniad for a teknikul analysis.

  • damikesc||

    North Korea presents a similar conundrum to my preference to not interfering as Nazi Germany did in the 1930's.

    If Britain or France decided to do ANYTHING before 1939, Hitler would've collapsed quickly. It'd be a rout.

    But they didn't. And we couldn't afford to. So, Hitler became a huge problem and was a stupid invasion of Russia away from possibly conquering all of Western Europe.

    Would it not have been better if Hitler's repeated bluffs were called long before?

    North Korea is currently a nuclear power run by a crayon-eating retard. Trump is leaning on China heavily to do something with them (which is the right move at this point). But should we assume an inability to harm us badly now will continue indefinitely?

  • Sevo||

    Pretty sure NK would have to fight its way through China and then some to conquer Western Europe; did you have an alternative in mind that might mean some threat to the US?

  • damikesc||

    Pretty sure NK would have to fight its way through China and then some to conquer Western Europe; did you have an alternative in mind that might mean some threat to the US?

    Hmm, testing nuclear weaponry.
    Actively working on rockets and has launched several successfully.
    Has had no problem performing assassinations in friendly nations.

    Yup, nothing to worry about.

  • ToCa81||

    Most reasonable people don't want a war with North Korea. It gets to a point, though, where we can't just continue to dismiss their threats as bluster. They are developing nuclear weapons and threatening several countries, including our own, with destruction. Even a staunch non-interventionist like myself can see the appeal of eliminating a regime that is actively pursuing global, catastrophic ruin. Methinks it time to start whispering in the ears of Un's underlings with promises of power and glory for themselves.

  • Mark22||

  • Robert||

    The classic sol'n would be to partition N. Korea into China, Russia, Japan, & S. Korea.

  • Karl Hungus||

    North Korea and Kim Jon-un pose about as much threat to the US as Iraq did under Saddam Hussein. That is to say, none at all. The country is run by a spoiled, sheltered rich kid who's never been told "no" in his life. Cloistered and ignorant though he clearly is, he's smart enough to knows that if he were to launch any sort of attack against the US, his country – and by extension his life of power and luxury – would cease to exist in a matter of hours.

    Osama Bin Laden was committed; he was willing to leave behind a life of safety and wealth to become the most hunted man in the world. Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, is a megalomaniac, but he's no committed ideologue. He's not going to throw away everything he cherishes for a war he knows he'd never win.

  • Longtobefree||

    "And though defense officials have denied a recent report of imminent U.S. invasion, "
    The link leads to an article that has NO mention of an invasion.

    No one in their right mind quotes Lindsey Graham on any topic, let alone international relations.

    The million casualty article is from the New York Times, a paragon of questionable facts. It is stated with absolutely no context or justification, and does not even suggest if that number includes all sides in a ground war.

    Move along, nothing to see here, just mindless speculation based on assumed facts. This is not the article you are looking for.

  • Captain Malthus Reynolds||

    "North Korea is feeling threatened, so it has threatened back."

    Wrong. Just flat out wrong.

    If Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges or whoever the hell wrote this article had paid ANY attention to the foreign policy of North Korea over the last couple of decades, they would understand that the DPRK needs no provocation to make threats.

    Most often, this saber-rattling is used as a tool to extort foreign aid from the United States. This is the actual dilemma: the entire Korean Peninsula is a hostage crisis in one way or another. The people of North Korea are the hostages of the regime, and Seoul is the hostage of the North.

    Sanctions have been ineffective because the ones who do the starving are the stultified populace.

    Military force and (here comes the hate) REGIME CHANGE are off the table because of the (mostly conventional) artillery aimed at this very moment at the capital of a democratic ally.

    If we're going to talk about serious problems in the world, I think it's time people concerned about liberty grow the fuck up.

  • mtrueman||

    "Most often, this saber-rattling is used as a tool to extort foreign aid from the United States."

    I'm not sure that foreign aid plays the role in the North Korean mind as you imagine it to. Threats and sabre rattling come natural to nuclear powers. US policy specifically targets North Korea for regime change, and the threats that issue from North Korea are to deter an attack. A nuclear arsenal is not worth anything as a deterrent if your opponent doesn't believe you've the resolve to use it.

  • Captain Malthus Reynolds||

    In just the last 15 years, North Korea has agreed to halt nuclear testing in exchange for:

    • 2 million kilowatts of South Korean electricity
    • Unfreezing North Korean assets in Macao
    • 500,000 tons of fuel oil per year + 50,000 tons paid up front
    • An additional million tons of fuel oil
    • Japanese energy aid

    In addition to this ransom, food and money are delivered to Pyongyang each time talks begin anew, just for consenting to talk. In a famine state of rolling blackouts and stunted people, who would be surprised at this tactic?

    "A nuclear arsenal is not worth anything as a deterrent if your opponent doesn't believe you've the resolve to use it."

    It isn't the just the posturing of the North with regard to blowing up Seoul or Tokyo or Honolulu or San Francisco that troubles me though. It's the incompetence with which every missile test and rocket launch has been conducted. It is entirely possible that when North Korean scientists actually press the ignition switch of the newest iteration of the Taepodong, they have only the most general idea of where it's going.

    If they're that bad at regular missile tests, how much worse could it be if a nuclear detonation goes similarly haywire?

  • mtrueman||

    "In a famine state of rolling blackouts and stunted people, who would be surprised at this tactic?"

    I don't think there's a famine in North Korea now or for some years. In fact, from what I;ve been able to make out over the internet, their economy is growing, which may account for blackouts. The economic growth is attributed to Kim's turning a blind eye to the thriving black market in the country, You check your own sources to see the famine situation. Don;t make the mistake of simply parroting the propaganda you are fed on FOX or CNN or whatever,

    "If they're that bad at regular missile tests, how much worse could it be if a nuclear detonation goes similarly haywire?"

    Typically you underestimate North Koreans. If Americans, Indians or Chinese can master nuclear missile tech, so can the Koreans.

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