The United States Must Contain North Korea

The United States Must Contain North Korea

Harry J. Kazianis

Security, Asia

The strategy worked against the Soviet Union, and it can work here too.

Key Point: With war too catastrophic to consider, and the status quo untenable, containment and diplomacy is the only solution to the Korean Crisis.

WHEN WE consider the possibility of a military operation against North Korea, it is helpful to take a step back and consider from Pyongyang’s perspective how it might respond. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not wish to counter such a strike by using the full range of his military options, fearing such an attack could unleash his worst fear: regime change.

This is where U.S. military planners begin to get nervous, as North Korea—even despite having an army that looks more like it was outfitted in the 1950s—has many ways to keep us guessing militarily. Kim could opt for less conventional means to instill fear and panic, attacking in an asymmetric manner that would be hard to counter.

For example, Kim could order an attack on South Korea’s vast civilian nuclear infrastructure, unleashing deadly plumes of radioactive fallout. Seoul operates twenty-four nuclear power plants that could all come under various forms of North Korean attack, though they are relatively far from the North. With many of these facilities lumped together, Pyongyang could fire a salvo of missiles at these plants, creating an immediate humanitarian crisis.

The North Koreans could also use their special forces. They could infiltrate the South from existing tunnels to launch terror attacks against such facilities. If North Korea were to destroy just a few reactors, a disaster eclipsing Chernobyl could occur, killing tens of thousands and leaving millions of acres of South Korea an uninhabitable wasteland for generations.

THE ABOVE example is just one of the most basic ways in which North Korea could respond asymmetrically. If we broaden our consideration of what a total war would look like, we find ourselves staring into the nuclear abyss.

Several years ago, I took part in a series of computer-based war games at a reputable think tank in Washington to examine what might happen if North Korea and America engaged in a nuclear conflict. Over the course of a few days, we simulated three scenarios to explore what a war with North Korea would look like, focusing on nuclear-weapons use, and conducting one full war per day in a fast-paced exercise.

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