A recent article discussed the concern that, with nuclear weapons capable of being delivered reliably to the American homeland, Kim Jong Un could use them to threaten the U.S. in more than one way.
One premise was that North Korea would threaten an American city with a nuclear strike if the U.S. interfered when Pyongyang attacked Seoul with conventional weapons.
The U.S. would then be faced with three unpalatable options: (1) allowing the North to attack the South with no response, (2) committing American ground troops to South Korea’s defense with subsequent heavy loss of life, or (3) allowing Beijing to restrain Pyongyang, thus putting Seoul in China’s debt and reducing Washington’s influence in Asia.
The thinking is that a preventive strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities is required now before conditions worsen. However, instead of that, the focus ought to be on nullifying the threat, rather than starting a war or waiting for one to happen.
As it turns out, the U.S. has faced a very similar situation in the past and learned how to deal effectively with it – without resorting to a preventive strike.
LESSONS FROM HISTORY
Shortly after the Soviet Union developed its own atomic and thermonuclear weapons, the U.S. faced a dilemma in Europe: the USSR had massed conventional forces on its borders with NATO nations.
Washington could not afford to match Moscow’s conventional military but knew that it had far superior nuclear forces, including tactical nuclear weapons that could be stationed in the NATO countries themselves.
The thinking is that a preventive strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities is required now before conditions worsen
Thus, during the 1950s and 1960s, Washington employed a doctrine of “escalatory nuclear response” to defend its NATO allies. It was designed to prevent the USSR from attacking western Europe simply by letting it be known any such attempt would be met immediately by a nuclear response.
Washington tacitly admitted that its own conventional military forces and those of the NATO nations were inferior to those of the USSR. But since Moscow recognized that its fledgling nuclear forces were in turn outmatched by those of the U.S., the Soviet Union conceded defeat in that challenge. The immediate escalatory nuclear response doctrine worked.
There are striking similarities between the challenge facing NATO and the U.S. decades ago and the situation on the Korean peninsula today. The artillery and rocketry that North Korea has massed along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) with South Korea present a challenge to both South Korea and the U.S.
Those weapons are back-dug into mountains facing away from the DMZ and would be devilishly difficult to take out in any preemptive strike. It is the modern equivalent of those superior conventional weapons of yesterday’s USSR in eastern Europe.
It is clear that using conventional weapons alone to attack South Korea would doom the North to eventual defeat once the U.S. became fully engaged in defending the South. Before that victory came about, however, there would be horrible destruction and loss of life all around. That is the motivation for Pyongyang to blackmail Washington against interfering by the threat of a nuclear attack on an American city.
And that is the motivation for Washington to preventively attack. But since Pyongyang would certainly retaliate by striking at Seoul, that is motivation to not preventively strike the North.
That is not the end of it, since clearly something must be done, and a preventive strike does seem to be the least bad option – from an American perspective. However, it does not have great appeal. There is another option, not yet mentioned, that does.
TURN THE TABLES – BUT CAREFULLY
The solution to the canard that Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington are vulnerable to nuclear blackmail by Pyongyang is to take a page from the Eisenhower playbook of more than six decades ago.
Washington would need to ensure that Pyongyang understands the power of stand-off nuclear-equipped cruise missiles and other weaponry
The U.S. must make it abundantly clear to North Korea that, should it initiate a conventional weapons attack on South Korea – or any other U.S. ally such as Japan – the American response would be an immediate escalatory nuclear bombardment of the North.
However, such a statement requires two conditions for it to work.
One is that the promised response is seen as credible. In Europe that was done by placing tactical nuclear weapons in the European theater. That would not be necessary for the challenge of North Korea, and in fact it might be unwise to place tactical nukes on the peninsula.
There are reasons for not putting tactical nukes in South Korea. Seoul would insist on having co-authority, something similar to the “dual-key” provision that existed in Europe, wherein the NATO nation hosting the tactical nukes had to approve their use along with U.S. authorization, but such a requirement complicates timely battlefield response.
Further, after the upcoming OPCON transfer in which U.S. military forces in South Korea fall under the command of Seoul, Washington might lose some control over its most powerful weapon.
Instead of peninsular tactical nukes, Washington would need to ensure that Pyongyang understands the power of stand-off nuclear-equipped cruise missiles and other weaponry such submarine- and stealth bomber-launched nuclear weapons. Recent American shows of force provide an excellent model.
The second condition is that the message about immediate escalatory nuclear response is delivered by a credible source and in a credible manner. While Pyongyang admits that it has yet to figure out Trump, the U.S. president alone is not the one to deliver the message due to the difficulty allies and enemies alike have in deciphering him.
Such a doctrine needs to be announced emphatically by someone like Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who would speak with an introduction by and complete blessings of Trump.
To be sure, much of the world would excoriate the U.S. should Washington ever use – or even threaten to use – its nukes, but the riposte to that is something along the lines of: “What would you have us do, let Seoul go up in flames, or sacrifice our troops in the bloody fighting that would surely ensue? Your criticism is self-serving and unwarranted. If you do not want us to annihilate you, do not threaten us or attack our allies. We are done pussy-footing around.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Department of Defense
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