A preemptive strike on North Korea? Contingency planning may be gaining currency

Drastic measures in response to North Korea’s missile-and-nuclear program may be needed. If the North persists in testing missiles and fabricating nuclear warheads, should South Korea and the United States respond in kind? And would preemptive strikes really forestall potential North Korean missile strikes on the South?

Those questions are central to the confrontation between North and South Korea and in the campaigning for a new president of South Korea in the March election. The candidate of the conservative People Power Party, Yoon Suk-yeol, has talked about striking North Korea preemptively; the candidate of the ruling Minjoo or Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, has demanded that Yoon retract the controversial statement.

This exchange is largely abstract. No one at this stage expects South Korea to launch an attack on North Korea simply to stop the North from testing missiles. An attack on the North’s nuclear facilities is even less likely, considering they’re largely underground at the Yongbyon complex and scattered elsewhere around the country. Concealed in caves and tunnels, they would not be easy to target.

The topic of a preemptive strike, however, is gaining currency as the North continues testing missiles and building up its nuclear stockpile, as well as other weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological. Retired Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who commanded the U.S. Forces Korea and the Combined Forces Command that includes South Korean troops from 2013 to 2016, revealed in an online discussion that “we have been working on the intelligence capabilities needed for preemptive strikes.”  

That comment means that the U.S. and South Korea are studying how much they need to know about exactly where and how to destroy the North’s missile and nuclear complexes. It does not mean they’re about to conduct strikes, just that they’re engaging in serious contingency planning. In fact, Scaparrotti acknowledged: “We’re not advancing with the sense of urgency with which we should be advancing.” The North Koreans, he said, are “moving faster than expected.” Obviously, commanders should be ready to strike — whether preemptively or in retaliation — even if they’ll never put their carefully devised plans into practice.

Actually, any preemptive strike at this stage would be risky for several reasons. Most immediately, China, defending North Korea, its old Korean War ally, might jump into the fray as it did in 1950, when Chinese forces poured into North Korea after U.S. and South Korean troops had reached the banks of the Yalu River. The U.S., leading United Nations forces, including South Koreans, had foolishly believed they were on the way to reuniting the two Koreas several months after North Korea’s leader Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the present leader, Kim Jong Un, had ordered the invasion of the South in June 1950.

Yet another risk factor is the disarray of opinion in the South. Lee Jae-myung appears more committed to reconciliation and dialogue with the North than the liberal President Moon Jae-in, who cannot run for a second five-year term. They both believe in appeasement, calling for an end-of-war agreement that could compromise the alliance between the U.S. and Republic of Korea. Lee aspires to co-existence and mutual cooperation, though North Korea has made clear it will stick to its demands for an end to U.S. and UN sanctions and U.S.-South Korean military exercises before even sitting down for talks.

Also weighing against a preemptive strike is the mood in the U.S. and the outlook of President Biden and his aides. They may righteously denounce North Korean missile tests and impose more sanctions, but the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula is way down the list of concerns in Washington. Biden has enough on his hands worrying about what Russia might do in Ukraine or when China might advance on Taiwan.

The Biden administration can afford to wave off suggestions by military minds about a preemptive strike on North Korea. Let the generals plan for any contingency, but the policymakers at the State Department and National Security Council aren’t interested right now. Freed from U.S. constraints, South Korea is advancing from short- and mid-range missiles to long-range models capable of devastating targets in North Korea and beyond.

As for South Korea fabricating nuclear warheads to compete with the North, as some conservatives in the South have suggested, South Korean physicists and engineers no doubt have the technology and expertise but are far from making South Korea a rival nuclear power. That idea is not a topic for discussion.

U.S. and South Korean commanders, however, are sure to continue thinking about a potential preemptive strike on the North. To them, the question is, what if Kim seriously escalates the threat level, tests intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S., develops the technology to affix a warhead to a missile and even conducts another nuclear test?

So far, Kim has ordered four nuclear tests since taking over in 2011 from his father, Kim Jong Il, who ordered the North’s first two nuclear tests. The North Koreans conducted their sixth, most recent nuclear test in September 2017, when what may have been a hydrogen bomb exploded much of the mountain in which it was buried, reportedly killing about 200 people. Since then, the North has continued to make warheads and is estimated to have stockpiled about 60.

To U.S. and South Korean strategists, the terrible question will be whether to let the North strike first or beat them to the punch with a blow intended to cripple Kim’s grandiose dreams of intimidating the South while fighting poverty and pandemic at home.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

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