So let’s get right into this North Korea thing . . .Posted: April 15, 2013
Well, we all know that the rhetoric coming from North Korea has reached seemingly new heights of crazy aggressiveness over the past few weeks. This has included overt threats to preemptively attack the United States with nuclear weapons. Most analysts seem to see this as the new young leader Kim Jong-un trying to show his domestic audience, as well as to perhaps a lesser extent the international audience, that he’s a big strong man; which is kind of ironic since he bears a rather striking physical resemblance to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters – a more apt comparison than it might first appear, given the movie plot.
Anyway, I know that a lot of analysts are saying that we’ve seen this kind of thing before, and it’s probably just bluster without any serious intention or desire to start a real physical fight with the US. I personally think, though, that the big difference between this time and previous times is that this time NK is considerably further down the technological line toward actually having a deliverable nuclear weapon with which to realistically threaten at least Japan and South Korea, if not the US itself.
I know that estimates of NK’s technological capability differ, and I can’t credibly comment on them. Though I did see this story about a rather embarrassing reveal of a DIA analysis. If it’s true that North Korea has achieved the capability to put a nuclear warhead on a missile, this is a game changer in my view. And even if they haven’t yet, the amount of time left before they acquire this capability seems to be shrinking quickly.
Julian Ku over at Opinio Juris asks the sort of obvious next question in this post: Should the US bomb North Korea before it launches its missile?
I’ve written about North Korea and how much it concerns me – much more than Iran – a number of times on this blog. I think the current situation is extremely worrisome and dangerous. It’s the kind of situation in which misjudgments could be made on either side that could lead to open military conflict. I think this is especially true with the callow Kim Jong Un in charge in NK.
I often criticize US officials when they say that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. Of course, in the case of NK we are way beyond that point now. NK has nuclear weapons, we know that. And we know they have long range missiles capable, or nearly capable, of reaching the US. It is only a matter of time before they progress development of both, and put the two together to have a weapon capable of striking both Japan and the US. Also unlike the Iranian case, I have no confidence – zero – in the rationality and prudence of decisionmaking by NK officials. I think they are incredibly unpredictable, and are just genuinely nuts. This regime possessing nuclear weapons capable of striking Japan or the US is, in my opinion, absolutely unacceptable.
What do I mean by that? I’m still trying to think it through. I know what an ugly mess it would be to actually engage in military force against North Korea to forcibly disarm it of its nuclear weapons stockpile, and stop its development programs. I know the proximity of Seoul, and the presence of thousands of US troops around the DMZ. My uncle and his family live in Seoul. So it’s not something that I would want done unless absolutely necessary. I’m not a military planner, so I don’t know exactly how it would all work out. But I’m sure there are no good options for such a campaign.
But on the other hand, I do not want to live in a world in which North Korea has nuclear weapons deliverable at its psychotic whim against the US. Again, this isn’t Iraq 2003. This isn’t Iran 2013. This is a country that we know has nuclear weapons, and that we know is closing in on the capacity to deliver them against the US. And the rhetoric, whether to be believed 100% or not, is just not something I think we can ignore.
Where, then, is the “red line” here? Where is the point at which it will be necessary for the US and South Korea to take the extreme step of preemptively attacking North Korea? I don’t know, but I think it’s coming soon. And if/when it does, I think it will be both legal under international law, and morally justifiable. I agree with Julian Ku’s legal analysis generally, and while of course the principles of the jus in bello would have to additionally be met (most importantly proportionality and discrimination), I think North Korea presents the strongest case we have ever seen for the satisfaction of the Caroline criteria for anticipatory self-defense in the jus ad bellum. In this case I unfortunately see few other realistic options.