Escalating tension between the United States and North Korea has prompted fevered public focus on the possibility of war — even nuclear war — on the Korean Peninsula. The risk is real, and observers are right to emphasize it. Amid the debate, however, another potential scenario remains underexplored: That American use of military force against North Korea might not change much at all. This troubling possibility is not as unlikely as it may seem and would damage U.S. influence in East Asia and around the world. Washington would find itself back where it started, but with a less credible military threat to drive North Korea and other rogue states to the negotiating table.
Washington’s recent posturing aims to force North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to decide once and for all whether his nuclear and missile programs are worth the mounting cost. It attempts to present Kim with a binary — almost apocalyptic — choice: back down immediately and engage with the United States on Washington’s terms, or risk an all-out war that brings down his regime.
To sharpen the decision point, President Donald Trump has prodded China to increase economic and political pressure on Kim and has signaled that he will address the North Korean threat unilaterally if necessary. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the toughening U.S. stance this week in Seoul, declaring that the “era of strategic patience” is over. He pointed to U.S. airstrikes earlier this month in Syria and Afghanistan as demonstrations of American “strength and resolve.”
But what if Kim — who has tied his legitimacy to the success of his nuclear and missile programs and casts them as guarantors of the country’s survival — instead chooses a third path? What if he gambles that he can weather the immediate damage of a punitive strike and avoid a precipitous escalatory spiral while preserving both his regime and his weapons programs?
Perversely, Pence’s Syria and Afghanistan examples suggest such a strategy could work. The attack on a Syrian military airfield in response to the use of chemical weapons drew praise from across the American political spectrum. However, by eschewing immediate escalatory retaliation, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad avoided more severe or protracted U.S. action, and despite involving nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles, the attack apparently did not cause lasting damage to the Syrian military or undermine Assad’s regime. It also did not eliminate the regime’s chemical weapons program or stop its attacks on civilians. And rather than prying away Russia, Syria’s primary benefactor, the U.S. attack prompted Moscow to double down on its support for Assad.
Similarly, the U.S. military’s use of a large air-dropped conventional explosive — the “mother of all bombs” — against an Islamic State cave network in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province drew positive media coverage. However, the United States has used vast firepower — and lost scores of service members — fighting militant groups in the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan for more than 15 years without resolving the underlying challenges to U.S. national security.
It is an almost foregone conclusion in American public debate that a U.S. strike against the North would escalate in knee-jerk fashion to all-out, regime-ending war. But an August 2015 crisis in which South Korea fired artillery across the Demilitarized Zone showed that Pyongyang may not escalate even a tense armed confrontation to a broader conflict.
A U.S. strike that leaves the North Korean regime and its weapons development programs intact could undermine, not reinforce, U.S. credibility and deterrence. A demonstration that force is ineffective in resolving the underlying threat could draw Seoul and Beijing away from cooperation with Washington and encourage them to engage independently with Pyongyang before new, tougher economic measures have a chance to work. It also could weaken America’s ability to deter other states — like Iran — that pursue nuclear or missile programs in the future.
Trump of course should not hesitate to use force to counter specific, imminent, direct threats to the United States or its allies. And despite the potentially horrific costs, he also should be prepared to use broader force against North Korea — in full coordination with South Korea and Japan and in a deliberate way that mitigates risks and plans for the aftermath — if diplomatic and economic options fail.
But Trump should avoid the temptation to launch a high-profile yet limited strike in response to a North Korean provocation. If he does, instead of demonstrating American strength, he could inadvertently underscore its limits.
Daniel Amick is deputy director of analysis at Crumpton Group LLC, an intelligence-driven strategic advisory firm based in Arlington, VA, that advises Fortune 500 companies on worldwide geopolitical and security risks.