Recently, Republican Senator James Inhofe, a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, weighed in on the growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula by endorsing a preemptive strike against North Korea.
“We should be prepared to do it right now,’’ he declared. “In terms of the capability we have out there with the F-22s and the battleships … a preemptive strike from something like that would get their attention.”
Inhofe is well known for his hard line and sometimes controversial positions, so it might be easy to dismiss his remarks if it were not for the fact that other voices, including some from more traditionally restrained sources, have started making similar arguments. Jeremi Suri, one of America’s leading diplomatic historians (and, in the interests of full disclosure, one of my closest friends), recently joined this chorus, writing in a New York Times op-ed, entitled “Bomb North Korea, Before it’s Too Late,” that the U.S. should preemptively destroy a North Korean missile before it could be tested, a step he described as an act of self defense against a “clear and present danger.”
Public opinion seems generally critical of the idea, but there is a growing minority that is clearly warming to the proposition. An Ohio newspaper recently asked its online readers if they believed the U.S. should “launch a preemptive strike” against the DPRK; 31% of the over 1,300 respondents replied in the affirmative.
It is understandable that a growing number of Americans are frustrated with what seems like a never-ending stream of Northern belligerence, and with the seeming inability of American policymakers to deter the reclusive state. And yet, the argument for preemption rests on a flawed understanding of North Korea that makes this option not only ill-advised, but also potentially disastrous.
There are many shortcomings in the preemption argument. First, it reflects a failure to recognize the realities and continuities in DPRK diplomacy, where threats, insults, and relatively minor shows of force are simply the first step in the negotiation process. The motives that underlay this strategic approach are still debated, but the fact is that over the last half-century, North Korea has beaten the drums of war not as a prelude to conflict but as a way to capture the world’s attention and, hopefully, create a pretext for meeting at the negotiating table. Over the past decade, North Korea has warned of “a sea of fire,” and a “sea of flames,” has promised a “Holy War,” and an “all out war,” and threatened to “mercilessly wipe out the aggressors.” None of them, obviously, ever happened.
During earlier crises in 1968, 1976, and 1994, the North threatened the U.S. and its allies in similar language, but never took actions to match their rhetoric. Instead, their bluster appears to have been intended to create a crisis that could then be easily solved at the diplomatic table. There is no reason to think that the current threats are any different. Most North Korea watchers expect another week of verbal pyrotechnics followed by the North suddenly declaring a brilliant victory for its domestic audience while simultaneously begging for aid from those it was so recently threatening. Such a diplomatic game may be frustrating, but it is certainly a better option than the potentially devastating war that might result from an American first strike.