Features | Security | East Asia

Patience, Not Preemption, on the Korean Peninsula

“The history of North Korea suggests that its leadership acts with greatest vehemence when it is internally weak, as a way to justify its economic failures by blaming a foreign conspiracy…”

By Mitchell Lerner for

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.

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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.

In fact, preemption supporters not only misunderstand the way the DPRK uses its rhetoric, but they misunderstand the actual rhetoric itself. Pointing to the North’s “flurry of threats to attack,” preemption advocates insist that the U.S. has the right to defend itself and its allies. The problem is that the reporting by Western media regarding these threats has been sloppy, and has ignored the vital fact that most threats are accompanied by explicit statements that an attack would come only in response to provocation.A Korean Central News Agency story on April 11warned, “If the U.S. and south Korean war maniacs finally ignite an anti-DPRK war, we will smash provokers with merciless nuclear strike.”A similar story on April 8 had the North promising, “If they [Americans] finally start a nuclear war, the DPRK will set fire to the dens of crimes and bases of aggression with its powerful and sophisticated nuclear strike means and completely wipe them out on the earth” (sic).

Most of the other statements cited as evidence of “threats” carry similar qualifications. The point is not that the DPRK claims of a solely defensive motivation are accurate or even true. They aren’t. Nor do all of their statements carry such qualifiers, although most do. But a close reading of the evidence actually suggests an orchestrated effort by DPRK leaders to prevent war by providing quiet assurance that this is just business as usual, rather than a serious offensive threat. Launching a preemptive strike based on legitimate threats of attack is one thing; launching a preemptive strike based on promises to respond to provocation with devastating force is clearly different.

A third shortcoming of the preemption argument involves the recent change of leadership in the North. Kim Jung-un, runs this line of thought, is young and inexperienced, and hence more likely to act rashly and take steps that deviate from the traditional playbook. Yet, this argument oversimplifies the country’s decision-making process. Most evidence suggests that Kim has not yet solidified his power as his grandfather did, and that there are other, more experienced, voices of influence inside the regime. Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle, is widely assumed to be the most powerful figure next to Kim, and he has been involved with DPRK policymaking in various capacities since the 1970s. Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, is another long time figure of influence in policymaking circles, who remains a critical and experienced voice in the current Kim regime.

Other veteran DPRK leaders who appear to have some influence include Choe Ryong Hae, director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army and a member of the party’s Politburo Presidium; Kim Ki Nam, the 80 year old director of party propaganda;and the recently re-appointed Premier, Pak Pong Ju. These are leaders who have spent decades practicing the art of bluster and compromise (and who give every indication that they wish to avoid being vaporized by American attacks). Launching a strike against the country because an allegedly unpredictable young leader might suddenly lash out hardly seems justified when one considers the reality of the government overall.

Beyond the makeup of the leadership lies another shortcoming of this strategy: the exaggeration of DPRK strength. Despite the country’s bombastic rhetoric, the North is more of a paper tiger than a serious military threat. Many of its 4,000 tanks are Cold War era relics that date back to the 1950s and 1960s, as are most of its 800 fighter jets, and fuel shortages have severely limited the number of training exercises the military has been able to conduct with both. It is strong believed to have a stockpile of chemical weapons, but such agents are notoriously difficult to deliver. The North has successfully detonated a nuclear device, but it has not demonstrated the ability to miniaturize and weaponize them. None of their missiles can reach the United States, and its longest range one, the Taepodong-2, has been tested five times, only one of which was considered successful. Even if North Korea can successfully launch this missile, there are serious questions about its accuracy.

The nation’s short-range missiles can likely hit South Korea, but even under those circumstances, it seems reasonable to question the appropriateness of an American strike that would leave its ally to suffer the retaliation, particularly since residents of Seoul do not seem to be particularly alarmed. This is not meant to minimize the DPRK threat to the South completely. The North could definitely launch a number of different strikes that would cause significant damage across the parallel. But doing so from such a clearly inferior strategic position would be committing national suicide.

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The biggest failing, though, of the preemption argument, is that it ignores the likely motivation behind DPRK bellicosity. The history of North Korea suggests that its leadership acts with greatest vehemence when it is internally weak, as a way to justify its economic failures by blaming a foreign conspiracy, to purge its internal political opponents for being insufficiently vigilant, and to rally the people behind the alleged brilliance of the leadership.

The “Second Korean War” of 1966-68 offers a case study, as Northern leaders brought the peninsula to heights of tension not seen since 1953, and then used the tension to cement their rule. “The spreading military psychosis had other functions,” noted a Czech official in the North, “like distracting people from the existing economic difficulties, justifying stagnation of the standard of living, demanding the strictest disciple and obedience, and preventing any criticism.”

Again in the-mid 1990s, at the very depths of economic despair, DPRK leaders begged for (and received) pledges of outside aid, and then escalated their provocations against the very people who had promised to help. Such policies make little sense by Western standards, but within a Korean construct predicated above all else on a uniquely Korean version of self-reliance (juche), combined with the strong influence of modern Korean nationalism and ancient Korean paternalism and Confucianism, it has remained a central tool in the arsenal of a dictatorial elite determined to cling to power.

Signs over the past year thus suggest that Kim’s true audience is domestic, and that the recent spate of aggressive behavior is designed to solidify his regime without provoking war. We can only speculate about the nature of any internal challenge, although various rumors about both popular and military unrest have emerged. Regardless of the specific reason, however, Kim’s actions in the current crisis at least appear to be historically consistent with the regime’s strategy of generating a foreign crisis as a tool to perpetuate its control. Launching a strike, then, is not only unnecessary but would play directly into Kim’s hands by offering him even more evidence for his domestic propaganda.

There are other failings of the preemption argument that deserve mention. The U.S would have a difficult time justifying its actions in the court of world opinion, as many would no doubt harken back to a time not so long ago when another American president claimed the right to attack another tyrannical regime in self-defense, because it supposedly harbored dangerous weapons and an intent to use them. Supporters of this strategy also overstate the ability of China to restrain North Korea, as recent evidence from former communist bloc states––and even more recent materials from Wikileaks––suggests that the North was always more independent (and more frustrating) than the Communist superpowers wanted. A Chinese decision to cut off aid would certainly hurt, but Kim and the elites would likely be able to survive through such already existing practices as drug trafficking, weapons sales, and counterfeiting; clearly, they do not care if the rest of the nation suffers.

Advocates of an attack also argue that a strong stance will send a deterring message to Iran, but it seems equally as likely that the opposite will occur as the mullahs would see American actions as a reason to expedite their own efforts, since the U.S. would have attacked the DPRK shortly before it could fully weaponize their nuclear deterrent. I also admit to having doubts about the ability of the American military and intelligence communities to execute a perfectly coordinated strike, perhaps rooted in the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Finally, there is something in the logic of preemption that seems internally contradictory. For preemption to be justified, policymakers must believe that Kim’s threats are sincere and his intention to strike legitimate, despite the overwhelming firepower mustered against him; yet, at the same time, they must also believe that a single surgical strike is more likely to convince him to cancel such an attack than it is to convince him to launch it. Clearly, one might argue that accepting the first premise instead leads one logically to conclude that Kim’s planned strike would only become more likely.

The bottom line, then, is that a preemptive strike on North Korea, even an extremely limited one, fails the cost/benefit analysis. It risks sparking a major military conflict with a heavily armed nation that might have devastating consequences for the U.S, Korea, and beyond; destabilizing East Asia and rupturing U.S.-China relations; damaging the U.S in the eyes of world opinion; and even reinforcing the repugnant regime that is at the very heart of the crisis, all in the name of preempting an attack that is extremely unlikely to happen. An old Korea proverb holds: “an empty cart rattles loudly.” At this moment, Kim Jong-un is rattling his cart as loudly as he can. The U.S needs to be careful not to give him anything to put into it.

Mitchell Lerner is associate professor of history and director of the Institute for Korean Studies at The Ohio State University.