Focus on beefing up missile defense, not a preemptive strike, against North Korea
© Getty images

The most urgent military question facing our country is what military response should be made to North Korea’s seemingly unstoppable drive to develop sophisticated nuclear warheads and the missiles that could deliver them to Seoul or Tokyo, or even to cities in mainland America.

Certainly U.S. diplomatic power should continue to be fully exerted. But the U.S. and its allies have sought a diplomatic solution, employing both economic sanctions and financial incentives, for more than two decades. Despite those efforts, North Korea continues to press forward on its nuclear weapons program.

This frustrating history is no doubt the reason President Trump said that “talking is not the answer” to the problem. Defense Secretary Gen. James MattisJames Norman MattisThe GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction Mission near impossible: Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon Overnight Defense: Biden administration pausing UAE, Saudi arms sales | Pentagon making climate change national security priority | VA secretary nominee sails through hearing MORE has said that the U.S. has “many military options” regarding North Korea. But, if diplomacy fails, what military options does the U.S. in fact have?


Influential voices have suggested that, if diplomatic efforts continue to prove futile, the U.S. should consider a preemptive military strike. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton is one such voice. Others have suggested that North Korea may actually be inviting a war. Indeed, our current U.N. Ambassador, Nicki Haley, has said that Kim Jung Un seems to be “begging for war.” This observation at least suggests that the Trump administration is considering giving the Kim regime that for which it is begging.


Nevertheless, it would be the gravest mistake to strike North Korea preemptively. Here is why.

The single most striking fact about the government in Pyongyang is that the Kim family — the family of ruler Kim Jong Un — has ruled in North Korea for three generations, beginning in 1948 and continuing without interruption for the next sixty-nine years until today. Think about this: the Kims have ruled North Korea since Harry Truman was president.

Westerners cannot predict Kim Jong Un’s actions. But, over seven decades, Kim’s grandfather, his father, and now he himself have always preserved their family’s control over North Korea. This has been a constant. Rule by one family for three generations does not happen by accident.

Thus, the most salient fact we know about the Kim regime—the fact that it seeks to preserve its power forever—implies that its nuclear weapons will not be used offensively. It is overwhelmingly more likely that, just like the nuclear weapons Moscow possessed during the Cold War and continues to possess, they will function as deterrents rather than as offensive weapons.

Unless Kim Jong Un is out of touch with reality, he must realize that his use of nuclear weapons against the U.S. or its allies would unleash a counter-strike that would end the Kim regime and almost certainly Kim’s life. There is no reason to believe the current Supreme Leader is out of touch with reality. He regularly makes outrageous statements, but he acts with much greater caution. This behavior strongly implies that he sees nuclear weapons as deterrents that discourage preemptive strikes, rather than as offensive weapons.

Moreover, although a preemptive military strike could probably eliminate a substantial part of Pyongyang’s military forces, some of those forces certainly would survive. (There are some 1.2 million active-duty North Korean service members.) The North Koreans were fierce combatants in the last Korean War.

If Kim Jong Un were eliminated as leader, how would a new leadership respond to our attack? How would China react if its next-door neighbor were attacked by America? How would the ten million residents of Seoul, South Korea, who live within range of North Korea’s heavy artillery, fare if the U.S. were to attack? These are serious questions that demand thoughtful answers, but we simply don’t know those answers.

No one favors a nuclear-armed North Korea. There is always the danger that Pyongyang could transfer nuclear weapons, or highly radioactive material, to other countries or terrorist groups. But, how could we be certain, after a preemptive military strike, that every one of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and every bit of weapons-grade nuclear material, had been eliminated? Would it be necessary for us to put troops on the ground to conduct a search? How many thousands of troops would be required to pacify and search North Korea’s 46,000 square miles of territory?

We lived, and continue to live, with the threat posed by the nuclear arsenal of first the Soviet Union and now Russia. And, of course, other nations (not all of them models of political stability) now also have nuclear weapons. No one is happy about these potential threats, but we accept them.

I believe that the best military option available to the U.S. is to enhance to the highest possible degree the missile defense systems we deploy against North Korea. We should urge our regional allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, to accept our anti-missile weapons on their soil. If appropriate, we should ask them to pay some part of the cost of those deployments. We also should maximize the sea-based anti-missile systems we station around the Korean peninsula. And at home we should increase our defense budget for the development of improved anti-ballistic-missile technologies.

A preemptive military strike against North Korea carries risks that far outweigh the potential benefits. A much more realistic approach would be to build and deploy more missile defense systems, and to develop more sophisticated and reliable systems than the ones we already have. Better missile defenses would provide more protection against missiles fired from anywhere, including North Korea.

David E. Weisberg is a longtime civil litigator and appellate lawyer, specializing in state and federal securities laws, antitrust laws, commodities laws and U.S. constitutional law. He has been published in the The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post. David's scholarly work is published on the Social Science Research Network.

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