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War With North Korea

Kim Jong-un and President Trump appear to be on a collision course to war. Last week North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. Experts believe North Korea will be capable of placing a nuclear weapon on such a missile sometime in 2018. President Trump has frequently asserted that he will never allow North Korea to have such a capability, and that “all options are on the table.” Since economic sanctions and pressure from China so far have not deterred Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions, President Trump may have no choice except a preemptive attack on North Korea if he is to stop its nuclear capability. But can that be a moral option?

A preemptive attack on North Korea would severely damage North Korea but not disable it immediately. North Korea has massive and well-defended armaments pointed at Seoul, Korea–a city of ten million people. Without a doubt, in the event of an attack, the North Korean government would feel like it has nothing to lose, and so it would unleash all of its conventional weapons on Seoul and American bases. It would also likely launch whatever nuclear weapons it has–use them or lose them. The likely result would be millions of deaths in Seoul, including American troops (nearly 30,000 of them) and their families stationed in South Korea.

If North Korea did fire its nuclear weapons, I think it is likely the United States would then fire some of its own–and the death-rate in North Korea would also be in the millions.

The United States could somewhat lessen North Korea’s retaliation capability by using its own nuclear weapons in a first strike. But if the U.S. ever used nuclear weapons in a first strike, it would be condemned by the world and greatly increase the chances that our future enemies would strike us preemptively with nuclear weapons.

The only realistic way to avoid the deaths of millions of innocent people is not to launch a preemptive war on North Korea.

Which means, the United States government must do what it did with the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War: containment. Containment allows our opponents to develop nuclear weapons (if we can’t otherwise prevent it), but deters our enemies from ever using those weapons against us through the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD is a horrible way to keep the peace, but it’s better than preemptive war with millions of deaths. MAD at least gives us the time to let other options develop–such as the internal disintegration of communism which befell the Soviet Union. Containment makes it possible to win the peace through “soft power” and without firing a shot.

The argument against applying containment and MAD to North Korea is that Kim Jong-un is not rational. Mutually Assured Destruction will not deter him–he will launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the United States even if it means the utter annihilation of himself and his country. I think that argument is completely screwy. The reason Kim Jong-un is risking everything in order to develop nuclear weapon capability is so that he will survive! He doesn’t want to end up dead like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein who did not have nuclear weapons. If he can threaten nuclear retaliation against the United States, he believes he can prevent the U.S. government from trying to take out his regime.

Kim Jong-un is not stupid. He can see the facts of history: no nation with a nuclear capability has ever been invaded. That is his hope. He wants to survive.

The United States launched a preemptive war against Iraq in 2003 using exactly the same argument that some are now using against North Korea: Saddam Hussein is irrational and we can’t wait until he launches nuclear weapons (or some other weapon of mass destruction) against us. But Hussein was not irrational (and he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction either; nor did his government have anything to do with the 9-11 attack). Our preemptive war on Iraq turned out to be entirely unnecessary and unjustified–as well as an ongoing disaster of instability and death.

It is true that Kim Jong-un, unlike Saddam Hussein, has made numerous threats against the United States. He is certainly more dangerous than Saddam Hussein ever was. But that does not change the calculation that a preemptive war would be highly immoral–resulting in the deaths of millions of innocents–and likely unnecessary.

The central reason we are at the brink of war–possibly nuclear war–with North Korea is because we have a president who wishes to solve all complex problems with brute force. Perhaps President Trump is bluffing–perhaps he’s been playing chicken with Kim Jong-un in order to scare him into not developing nuclear attack capabilities. If so, the bluff has not worked, and we can only hope that Trump will soon back down from his commitment to destroy North Korea.

But I don’t think Trump is bluffing because I don’t think Trump cares that much about the lives of Koreans–North or South. I fear that Trump has a limited conscience. Power and narcissistic self-attention are what matter to him. I certainly hope I’m wrong.

But if we see the U.S. taking definite steps leading up to preemptive war–such as removing the families of our troops from South Korea (as Senator Lyndsay Graham suggested this weekend)–then the time has come for massive protests against the unconscionable course we are on.

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