A 'preventive' war with North Korea would be total hell. Here's why

As the Trump administration continues to rattle sabers at North Korea with rhetoric eerily similar to the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the possibility of a preventive U.S. war with North Korea may be more real than foreign and defense policy experts recognize.

It would be both foolish and naïve to think that all the tough talk coming out of the Trump administration is simply meant to intimidate North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un into giving up his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

The three so-called “adults in the room” who are apparently the strongest voices influencing President Trump’s foreign policy are National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

McMaster is an active duty lieutenant general in the Army. Mattis and Kelly are retired Marine Corps generals. Their common experience is commanding ground forces in the Iraq War. If they are shaping the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, it stands to reason that their views would have a decidedly military tilt.

If President Trump decides to take military action, what might it look like?

Needless to say, the nuclear option would be a big gamble. If we were not 100 percent successful, we would have to expect that North Korea would retaliate with its full range of conventional and nuclear weapons.

Any unprovoked U.S. military action would be a preventive strike. That is, a military strike intended to prevent North Korea from acquiring a future capability to attack the U.S. That is different from a preemptive strike that is launched to stop an imminent military attack from an adversary.

So what military options are truly available to President Trump?

Option 1: Preventive nuclear strikes.

It’s impossible to completely rule out the possibility – however remote – that the U.S. might use nuclear weapons in a preventive strike against North Korea.

If North Korea’s nuclear program and weapons are in deeply buried and hardened bunkers, nuclear weapons might be the only way to destroy them with a high rate of confidence. A relatively little-known fact is that the United States has a nuclear bunker buster: the B61-11 low- yield nuclear gravity bomb.

About 50 B61-11 bombs are believed to be deployed. Theoretically, the B61-11 could be mated with GPS guidance to make it a precision strike weapon. Also, the B61-11 could theoretically be outfitted with the BLU-113 hardened steel-tipped warhead to penetrate more than 30 feet of concrete.

But wouldn’t using nuclear weapons be beyond the pale?

Under ordinary circumstances, yes. But the Trump administration may not believe these are ordinary circumstances.

If the administration assumes military conflict with North Korea is inevitable and views North Korea as 1945 Japan, the rationale would be very similar: Using nuclear weapons would bring about a quick resolution and would save thousands of lives that would otherwise be lost in a conventional conflict. As a point of reference, more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Korean War.

Needless to say, the nuclear option would be a big gamble. If we were not 100 percent successful, we would have to expect that North Korea would retaliate with its full range of conventional and nuclear weapons.

While the U.S. homeland would not be threatened, both South Korea and Japan would be. And the nearly 35,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in South Korea would certainly be at risk – as would the estimated 200,000 or more U.S. citizens living in South Korea.

Option 2: Decapitation strikes by bombers or submarines.

Another big gamble would be a decapitating air and missile strike. This would be military action based on the belief that if North Korea’s leadership – Kim Jong Un and his most loyal top military and civilian leaders – could be killed, the regime would implode and collapse.

Success would depend on near-perfect intelligence about all the targets’ whereabouts. Moreover, we would have to assume that many of them – including Kim himself – would be in deeply buried and hardened bunkers that would be difficult to destroy, even with precision conventional missiles and bombs.

And we know from experience that we were not able to immediately take out Saddam Hussein and the other 54 “most wanted Iraqis” when we invaded Iraq in 2003.

If a decapitating strike failed, we would have to assume that North Korea would retaliate and we would be drawn into a protracted ground war.

At a minimum, North Korea would likely unleash a conventional artillery barrage on Seoul, which has a population of 10 million. While such an attack might not level Seoul, it would still cause significant damage and extract untold casualties. Kim might launch his nuclear weapons, believing he had nothing to lose.

Option 3: Conventional ground attack with hundreds of thousands troops.

So that leaves a conventional ground attack, which would likely be preceded and backed up by air and missile strikes.

Given the experience of McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly – as well as the fact that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is a Marine – such an option makes sense and seems more likely. After all, expeditionary war is exactly what these generals know how to do.

However, almost all the experts believe that any such war would be drawn out and costly –perhaps as many as 20,000 deaths per day in South Korea.

And remember, Kim Jong Un would have the nuclear option at his disposal, along with his chemical and biological weapons. Such is the risk of any military action against a nuclear-armed country.

Option 4: Deterrence.

But the U.S. does have another military option. It just doesn’t involve the actual use of military force. It’s called deterrence.

North Korea has had nuclear weapons for at least a decade and has not used them against either South Korea or Japan. Presumably this is because of the threat of a U.S. nuclear response looms over Pyongyang’s head. If that’s the case, even in the worst case scenario of North Korea having the ability to launch a missile at the continental United States, deterrence would still hold.

Deterrence worked when America and the Soviet Union had thousands of warheads pointed at each other. Supposedly crazy or irrational leaders with nuclear weapons – such as Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China – were successfully deterred.

Indeed, Kim Jong Un would have to be suicidal to actually attack the U.S., knowing that we could respond with utterly devastating force that could result in his death and the total annihilation of his country. However, the Kim dynasty has repeatedly demonstrated its larger interest is its own survival and perpetuating the regime.

Ultimately, the larger problem is that President Trump’s policy objectives are unattainable.

Denuclearization is a non-starter from North Korea’s perspective because Kim believes – not without reason – that nuclear weapons are a matter of regime survival, having seen what happens to leaders in countries like Libya when they give up their nuclear programs.

As long as President Trump insists on “complete, verifiable and total denuclearization,” Washington is walking America down a path that leads to (likely nuclear) military conflict.