The United States and Canada just concluded a meeting of the United Nations Command Sending States and allies in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Sending states” refers to the belligerents acting under the authority of the United Nations that originally signed the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 with the Korean People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers.
Every sending state is jointly and severally responsible for upholding the Armistice, and should war resume, will by default join the war until such time as a formal peace treaty is concluded.
The goal of the Vancouver meeting is to improve and enhance the pressure campaign on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and to push for diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
The key to maximizing the chance of success for diplomacy is to convey unambiguously to the People’s Republic of China, Russia and the DPRK that the US has good military options and, if necessary, will use them.
Bluster by US President Donald Trump is assumed to be just that.
But what if the Trump administration and US Congress are not kidding when they say they will not accept a nuclear North Korea?
The baseline for what constitutes a good military option starts with the worst case of a nuclear war between the DPRK and the USA.
Without a doubt, a successful nuclear attack on the US would result in nuclear retaliation that would cause mass casualties in both countries, not to mention damage to surrounding countries such as China, Japan, South Korea or Canada.
The dynamics driving DPRK require North Korea’s capacity to inflict damage on the US to exponentially increasing over time.
On the other hand, US capabilities to defend against such threats are diminishing in relative terms for the foreseeable future.
Defense or deterrent only posture for allies have poor math for those playing defense vs. offense.
It is far cheaper and easier to add missiles, penetration aids and decoys than it cost to shoot them down with existing or foreseeable ballistic missile defense technology. North Korea can also resort to highly destabilizing and difficult to counter options like orbiting nuclear weapons on satellites.
They have flouted international conventions and treaties before, why not the ban on weaponizing space?
This calculus favoring offense may change in another generation, but for now, a credible defense against a major nuclear weapons power like Russia or China is out of the question.
Missile shields are only good for minor threats like DPRK.
DPRK will not be a minor threat within a few years at the rate their arsenal is improving qualitatively and quantitatively.
What about deterrence?
If nuclear armed parties can be deterred, there is the prospect of a stable mutually assured destruction relationship.
But what if North Korea does not accept the status quo and cannot be compelled to do so?
What if they are not deterred?
North Korea can by just threatening to use nuclear weapons be in a position to compel many states either to surrender or to pay tribute. South Korea is the most vulnerable of these targets, followed by Japan.
The DPRK establishing a tributary relationship with American allies enforced by nuclear arms would deaden then cripple the liberal internationalist order. They can win, proverbially, without firing a shot.
Extended deterrence will be history when this happen.
The extant international political and economic system cannot survive the rise of a nuclear armed extortionist. Yet this is precisely North Korea’s stated intent – to expel the US from South Korea, unify the Koreas, and then extort “compensation”.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong stated these intentions at the UN last September 2017.
This perspective suggests North Korea cannot be deterred.
If they succeed, others will follow.
North Korea will almost certainly export the method and means to others.
The US and allies now recognize that North Korea is never going to become a “normal” nuclear power like the ones that came before.
Living with DPRK as a nuclear armed state at best, means a new cold war but without the security of it staying cold bar accidents and miscalculations.
Before North Korea, the primary or sole purpose of a nuclear arsenal was deterrence, guaranteeing regime survival, and defense.
Post DPRK, a new international dynamic – war for profit or tribute – suppressed since the early part of the 20th century, is about to be re-established alongside other motives for war.
If diplomatic efforts fail, the US and its allies have to make up their mind soon as to whether to defeat North Korea now, or face a far costlier war in the future, as allies did in World War II, become DPRK tributary states or to spend and risk even more to fight a new cold war.
The liberal internationalist political and economic order is at stake, not just the fortunes of a few countries. Our existing order cannot survive the rise of DPRK, let alone many other copy cat extortionists all pursuing agendas that we have long though extinguished beside war for profit.
Imagine the return of wars over religion, ideology, race, creed, old scores, rather than just old fashioned garden variety territorial disputes, imperial conquest or peer competition. All of this will be enabled by North Korea selling WMDs as they have historically been more than willing to do, unless they are stopped now.
What makes for a good military option? A good military option has to be, at least, on paper, feasible with low to moderate risks to allies compared with other alternatives such as all-out nuclear war. It has to achieve the goal of permanent denuclearization of Korea. Allied casualties including South Korea and Japan must be kept to a minimum. North Korean casualties, likewise, have to be necessary and proportionate and minimized.
Military options that fit these parameters have been identified and are in an advance stage of implementation by the US and allies. As with any military campaign, there are grave risks and no one can forecast with certainty that the US and allies will not lose. But it is a risk that may have to be taken compared to the alternatives.
What might a good option look like?
Military options would not involve just a “limited” air campaign that would, at best, slow down the DPRK by a few years, or at worst, immediately trigger a North Korean nuclear attack, because not all DPRK weapons of mass destruction would be destroyed for certain.
Regardless, a major air and sea campaign will be required no matter what the options.
A good military option will necessarily require an allied ground and / or amphibious campaign that include occupation of North Korea and systematically cleaning out all WMD capabilities including facilities, materials, infrastructure, data, equipment, etc.
That is the only sure way to eliminate WMDs when the regime is hostile. Such a campaign imply the termination of the DPRK regime whereas a diplomatic solution now offer the prospect of regime survival.
While some argue that South Korea will not permit military options, by not supporting allied use of force South Korea will leave the US with worse and likely more harmful alternatives including countervalue nuclear strikes on DPRK population centers that will inflict significant fallout on nearby ROK cities.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has demanded a veto on a military option like those of China and Russia.
It is hard to see how such a veto fits in with every state’s inherent right of self-defense.
Self-defense against a DPRK nuclear strike on the US or its allies means nuclear retaliation with or without Seoul’s input.
Or Russia’s and China’s.
That is the simple message behind American extended deterrence.
No US President / Administration or Congress will survive “turning the other cheek” after a successful nuclear attack on an American city. Considerations of “proportionate response” will be very different after hundreds of thousands of US casualties.
While it is understandable how war is an emotional issue for South Korean leaders that is a close US ally, it has to be kept in mind that an all-out nuclear war between the DPRK and the US will likely leave the South and surrounding countries severely damaged or destroyed by fallout.
A good military option today would avoid this, compared to the default outcome if deterrence failed and nuclear war broke out between the US and DPRK.
Things are coming to a head.
The longer North Korea’s WMD problem persists, the more likely it is for mass casualties somewhere to be unavoidable as the cost of ending the DPRK nuclear threat as it spreads around the world.
The window for good military options is 2018. Thereafter, they may not exist for a generation.
Let’s hope North Korea, China and Russia take this opportunity to join with allies to achieve peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – a goal that Russia and China claim they support.
It may be their last chance.
The lights are dimming, but not out all over the world.
Let’s give peace a chance.
This piece was first published on January 21, 2018.