U.S. ‘preventive’ strike against North Korea: Once the shooting starts, anything could happen

Such a deadly strike would actually feed North Korea's "paranoia" and could have "absolutely catastrophic" consequences.

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (Top) flies with South Korean jets over the Korean Peninsula during a South Korea-U.S. joint live fire drill on July 8, 2017. (CREDIT: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images.)
A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber (Top) flies with South Korean jets over the Korean Peninsula during a South Korea-U.S. joint live fire drill on July 8, 2017. (CREDIT: South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images.)

There are fears in South Korea that the United States will launch “preventive” strikes against North Korea, reports CNBC, quoting Bruce Klingner, former chief of the CIA Korea division.

Klingner, currently at the Heritage Foundation, said South Korean officials recently told him that “…the U.S. is thinking of hitting two or three targets, and that North Korea would likely respond proportionately.”

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The news comes as President Trump continues to engage in heated rhetoric with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, from name-calling on Twitter to flat-out threats of all-out destruction on the floor of the United Nations. And while repeatedly saying that diplomatic talks — pursued by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — are a waste of time, Trump nonetheless demanded that Seoul give him credit for recent diplomatic gains with North Korea, which include the re-opening of a phone line between the Koreas.

With the participation of North Korea in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, there’s some optimism that tensions can be eased, and South Korean officials have urged both sides to engage in talks. Behind closed doors, however, Klingner said “Seoul has very strong concerns about the potential for a U.S. ‘preventive attack’ on North Korea.”

This pause, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, is the time to look into more structured talks over North Korea’s nuclear program.

“Serious military planners and responsible generals will understand that there’s no ‘preventive military operation’ that won’t risk becoming an all-out war with North Korea,” said Kimball. “This administration does not seem to have a strategy for how to halt and reverse North Korea’s nuclear missile program … they have not been able to express whatever strategy they have in a consistent way,” he said.

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But if this “preventive” strike is actually a strategy, what message would it send, and how likely is it that North Korea’s response to such an attack would be proportional?

A “preventive strike,” Terence Roehrig, professor and director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College, told ThinkProgress, is intended to take out a threat, and is not to be confused with a pre-emptive strike.

Pre-emption, he said, is sanctioned by international law as: A state does not have to absorb an attack before it can respond if it sees an imminent — and that’s the key word, imminent — possibility of an attack. “But preventive is when you decide before something is imminent, that you will remove that threat, and that is what would be the case for a U.S. strike at this point,” he added.

This strike — which might also be a “bloody nose” — or a warning — would be a “massive military operation” said Roehrig. “You are taking huge risks, in regards to what you might be starting, where escalation might go, and to what end?” asked Roehrig, adding that the United States is not 100 percent certain of where all the North Korean weapons facilities — nuclear, ballistic, chemical, and biological weapons — are located.

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A preventive strike would be intended to take out or diminish North Korea’s nuclear capability or take it out entirely, which, said Roehrig, is a “very unlikely” outcome and a “huge mistake.”

“The concept of a preventive strike on North Korea by the U.S. to slow or blunt their nuclear and missile pursuits is pure fantasy because the North Korean nuclear missile program exists for the stated reason in North Korea to deter an American attack,” said Kimball.

He added that even a “limited strike will reinforce North Korea’s paranoia and lead them to believe that they need to hit back at the U.S.”

“Serious military planners and responsible generals will know that there’s no ‘preventive’ action that does not risk all out war with North Korea,” said Kimball. The consequences of that sort of exchange, which could involve nuclear weapons, could be “absolutely catastrophic” for North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China, he added.

Indeed, the preventive strike Roehrig describes sounds an awful lot like war: It would most likely involve a lot of cruise missiles, with Stealth Bombers hitting North Korean targets. North Korea is likely to respond, although when and how is unknown, said Roehrig.

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They could respond immediately, striking at South Korean targets or U.S. bases there or in Japan. They could wait, calibrate the risks, and strike at later date.

“Once the shooting starts, there’s no guarantee that one or the other side won’t miscalculate, misinterpret — especially on the North Korean side — and launch a disproportionate counter-strike,” said Kimball.

And while there are an awful lot of variables to consider, the time frame for that decision will be tight because the North Koreans — who Roehrig said are “not suicidal” — will have to figure out whether the strike is really just intended to take out weapons capabilities or “if it’s the start out of an all-out regime change operation.”

“If you have been putting any hope in trying to dialogue and have a reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, that is going to be completely off the table,” said Roehrig.

“Despite what you’re seeing with the Olympics, the language that you hear from the [Trump] administration is still that military options — all options — are on the table … a huge mistake in my view,” he added.

“I am very concerned that this administration is much more willing to use military force than any other administration has been willing in the United States,” he said.