If the US starts a war with North Korea, China won’t be on our side

KCNA via Getty Images

The normally prudent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and some officials in the White House have begun to talk about waging preventive war against North Korea. A preventive war is a war in cold blood, a war of choice, a war where we make the first strike, as opposed to preemptive or defensive wars where you fight an opponent who is about to attack or has actually attacked the homeland. It is almost never the best course of action. The downsides of a preventive war with North Korea would be enormous.

Graham told the Atlantic, “Trump has to choose between homeland security and regional security.” If there is a war, better it be in Northeast Asia than on the West Coast of the United States, and better the casualties be in the region, and not in California.

{mosads}To prevent North Korea from achieving intercontinental nuclear capabilities, the recommended course of action is preventive strikes, which, make no mistake about it, would be the first blow in a destructive war with North Korea. It would entail thousands of casualties in South Korea and Japan. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, a megalopolis of nearly 20 million people, is within artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the divided nation.


Graham’s argument — assuming it’s not an elaborate ruse to enhance deterrence — is reminiscent of many cases where statesmen contemplated the false choice of war now or war later. The real choice today is between conducting a war of aggression or managing an unsteady peace.

In our last foray into preventive war, we attacked Saddam Hussein in Iraq in part to prevent him from becoming a nuclear power. We were tactically successful, but the war — crippled by bad intelligence and the difficulties of occupation — turned out to be all cost and little benefit.

In the case of North Korea, we are already dealing with a primitive nuclear power with emerging intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities. The situation that we wanted to prevent has already come to pass. Nipping the bud before it flowers is fraught with risk. The situational variables argue against preventive war in favor of other forms of statecraft.

Here are some of the downsides. Most people who study war would consider a preventive war to be an unjust war — it would rip the ethical fabric of our nation. In Washington, a war with North Korea would require congressional approval. Every representative and senator would have the Iraq example on his or her minds. It would be a much harder sell than repealing ObamaCare, but with the same likelihood of success in the short term. 

Even if Congress could be brought on board, the president’s team would have to also persuade South Korea and Japan, which would suffer most of the casualties and destruction. The pacifist strain in both nations could severely disrupt alliance efforts. The prospect of tens of thousands of civilian casualties in South Korea and Japan would be an incredible obstacle to overcome.

China is angry at North Korea but is still its ally. Rarely mentioned in public, China does not want an exodus of Koreans onto Chinese soil. It also does not want a South Korean or, even worse, a U.S. occupation force on its borders. Still conscious of its decades of humiliation, how would China perceive a surprise direct attack on one of its few declared allies? If the United States began the conflict with a first strike, China could join the conflict on the side of North Korea. More likely, Beijing would adopt a policy of belligerent neutrality, arming and fueling the North Korean war machine, blasting us diplomatically and working for American defeat.

With Congress, the allies and China involved, can anyone believe that we could keep a potential preventive war a secret? Could we successfully conceal our reinforcement activities before the conflict? Leaks might cause North Korean preemption. Warning would also make a devastating first strike less successful than it otherwise might have been.

Further complicating an attack is the secretive nature of the North Korean regime. They have many nuclear and missile facilities, and much of their infrastructure is below ground. Could we get to the point where the head of the CIA could tell the president that we are confident that the case for a first strike on North Korea was a “slam dunk?” We studied the Iraqi case very hard and didn’t know what we didn’t know. Secretive North Korea would be a more difficult case. 

While the final outcome of such a conflict — allied victory — is not in doubt, after our initial strikes there would be an air, land and sea war, complicated by the existence of over 80,000 North Korean special forces. With so little actual North Korean operational experience, it is difficult to know just how difficult the defeat of the North Korean Armed Forces would be. Dogged resistance by the North Korean armed forces, however, would be the safe bet. 

A preventive war with North Korea would be akin to the story of the poor soul who committed suicide out of a fear of death. For both the poor soul and the United States of America, there are better options. North Korea is unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, but diplomacy, sanctions and continued pressure from China would be a start. Later, military demonstrations, partial blockades and more anti-missile forces at home and on the Korean peninsula, could help to bring them around at the bargaining table. Offensive cyberattacks and other covert actions could reinforce our diplomatic efforts.

In the end, a nation with thousands of nuclear warheads should be able to handle a poor nation with a few of them. We have better policy options than to conduct a preventive strike on North Korea, but it will take patience, leadership and vision to restrain the North Korean threat and maintain peace in Northeast Asia.

Joseph J. Collins is the director of the Center for Complex Operations at the U.S. National Defense University. The author of several books on recent wars, he is a retired Army colonel and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration. This column represents his own thoughts and not necessarily the policy of NDU, the Joint Staff or the Department of Defense.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Foreign relations of North Korea Joseph J. Collins Lindsey Graham

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