Not long ago, I had the opportunity to discuss the perilous threat that is North Korea with David Stuckenberg, founder and chairman of the American Leadership Policy Foundation, entrepreneur, decorated combat veteran, and a longtime friend.
David asked, “Why do you think we allowed North Korea to be able to get to this point?”
At the time, he was referencing the July 4 missile launch, which had writers from The Atlantic, numerous intelligence analysts, as well as the executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and author of "Blackout Wars," Dr. Peter Vincent Pry, deeply concerned. The test demonstrated that North Korea could potentially strike targets as far away as our East Coast.
The most recent test, conducted Nov. 28, has confirmed that fear. So how did we get here?
More to the point, what stops us from preemptively striking North Korea and eliminating this threat?
One answer is an old adage: “mutually assured destruction.”
The DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is the most fortified location on earth. Conservative estimates put the number of artillery and missiles in the thousands, with both borders constantly manned with thousands of personnel on both sides. Any movement is monitored – ala the North Korean soldier who recently defected. Moreover, it is what lies just south of the DMZ that concerns both the U.S. and South Korea alike: The greater Seoul metropolitan area, home to more than 25 million people.
These individuals will be the first on “our side” to face the retaliatory fury of any kind of U.S. military action against North Korea. It’s common knowledge that anyone stationed at Yongsan Garrison, or anywhere else near the DMZ, faces poor odds of survival in the event of an assault from the North. A Stratfor assessment from January 2017 estimated:
If every one of Pyongyang's 300-mm multiple rocket launcher systems were directed against Seoul, their range would be sufficient to rain fire across the city and beyond. A single volley could deliver more than 350 metric tons of explosives across the South Korean capital, roughly the same amount of ordnance dropped by eleven B-52 bombers.
That would constitute catastrophic loss of life and property. Herein lies the problem. Could we take out North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile capability? Absolutely. The problem is that there would be little, if any, ability to stop the North from launching a counterattack sufficient enough to do untold damage to Seoul. Our policy of strategic patience really revolves around this unavoidable fact, that any attack on the North would risk the annihilation of Seoul and would potentially sign the death warrants of millions of people, including American troops and their families.
The North is thought to have thousands of artillery batteries and missile sites aimed at the South's capital, and the simple truth is that no matter how much we want to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, there is no clear-cut way to guarantee that the North would not take Seoul down with it. Any preemptive strike would have to consider the massive number of these batteries. Furthering these grim odds, many of these weapons are thought to contain biological or chemical warhead stockpiles, meaning that even a small number of hits could kill many thousands if not millions of people in an extreme HAZMAT environment.
Is there a chance that North Korea may cower in the face of a preemptive strike, and would not respond? Sure, but it is unlikely and not worth the calculated risk. Until a sitting president is willing to risk 25-plus million people with near certain death in order to end this threat, we will most likely continue to see a policy of “strategic patience.” The North is not only well aware of this fact, but it is counting on it as it continues head-long to enhance its ICBM and nuclear weapons programs.
The most viable solution is either a true blockade of trade conducted by the Chinese to truly force compliance with United Nations Resolutions, or a forced regime change carried out by China. The latter could take many forms, from assassination to negotiated resignation.
There is no easy answer. However, not acting is simply no longer an option. The U.S. cannot tolerate an ICBM and nuclear–capable North Korea. It is not only a threat, but it establishes a dangerous precedent of non-action and would embolden our enemies. As Americans we must understand that this could result in a war with casualties unlike any we have seen since World War II. However, fear of a reaction by our enemies is paralyzing good decision-making. The time for doing nothing has run out.
Herschel Campbell is a senior fellow at the American Leadership and Policy Foundation and global security analyst in the energy industry. He served as a mission intelligence coordinator in the U.S. Air Force from 2011-14.