September 8, 2017–There is a troubling quality to the way this North Korea crisis is ballooning before our eyes. Kim Jong Un’s armaments program is not a phony issue, but neither was the Pakistani nuclear program, the Indian one, the Israeli or, for that matter, the Chinese or French. But, with the exception of the Pakistanis, with whom a few hotheads indulged in fantasies of SOF raids; and the Chinese, made the object of higher-level but equally unrealistic maunderings; no one has threatened anyone conducting weapons development with nuclear war. Those who are analogizing the North Korea matter to the Cuban missile crisis are pouring accelerant onto the pile and playing with matches. The Cuban crisis involved real nuclear-tipped missiles, not hypothetical (that is, technology currently still in R&D) ones, and reliable systems that without doubt put the United States in the crosshairs. The North Korean threat exists mostly in the rhetoric of Pyongyang’s ruler.
As if that were not bad enough, people who should know better are speaking of pre-emptive attack as a rational way out of this morass. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, apart from its many other defects, had the deplorable aspect of suggesting that pre-emption is an admissible form of war. In the bad old days of theorizing about nuclear conflict, analysts conceived pre-emption as a means of blunting the adversary’s nuclear attack by launching upon warning, but in those concepts the war was underway and the pre-emption effectively preserved forces. In its most urgent form this tactic was described as “launch-under-attack.” What we’re hearing today is people talking seriously about “launch-upon-test,” or “launch-upon-speech.” What we’re hearing is ridiculous.
One woman’s pre-emption is another person’s aggression. At Nuremberg an allied world sent people to the gallows for waging aggressive war. The United States helped create the framework of international law that criminalizes aggression. Today there exists an International Criminal Court that could sit in judgment of aggressors. A United States act of force against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would invite that kind of treatment. Moreover, taken together with Bush administration action against Iraq, it would brand the U.S. as a repeat offender. This is no place for us to be.
Just as bad, a pre-emption against the DPRK invokes the issue of war powers in U.S. law. I hate to add to the pile of things which Congress hasn’t done, but the muddled constitutional issue of authorization for war should be high on the list. The Constitution gives the Congress the sole power to declare war. Consider this: if Donald Trump launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea he will be making war, aggressive war–and if he uses nuclear weapons he will be breaking a taboo that has existed since the one time the nuclear threshold was breached–and that will be without any approval from the body with the constitutional authority for war. It will also be in the face of the War Powers Act. The way this is usually pitched in the U.S. is the president relies on his constitutional power as commander-in-chief of the military. So you can have an aggression, even a nuclear attack, unleashed without congressional approval, by a president with little skill or knowledge of foreign affairs, in “launch-upon-test” mode. What a mess!
Today’s papers contain more deplorable news. The New York Times actually discusses pre-emption as one of the possible remedies to the DPRK weapons program. But its casting of the action involves the idea that U.S. attackers would blow up single North Korean missiles on the launch pad, sort of like kicking over each ant hill as it is built. No doubt some dim official or military officer retailed that idea as an option for arresting the DPRK program. But how do you think Kim is going to respond when the DPRK is struck by force? When you’re speaking of military “practicality,” it is clear that the only feasible option is to simultaneously destroy all North Korean test facilities, all nuclear plants, command centers, air bases, potential weapons bunkers, and more. Since the DPRK’s missiles are road-mobile, the pre-emption would have to include total area destruction of all potential deployment zones for Kim’s missiles. The only way you accomplish that is with nuclear weapons. This is not “tank plinking” in the Gulf War it is massive aggression.
Not to be outdone, today’s Washington Post carries a piece by former CIA deputy director Michael Morell that argues the DPRK already has a functional intercontinental nuclear attack capability. He suggests that former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. shares that view. Readers of this space will know we have long labeled Clapper the “Fearful Leader” for his propensity to maximize the perceptible threat. He may be hedging against the CIA being accused of an intelligence failure in the case of North Korea–I was asked just yesterday whether I thought such a failure has occurred. Morell correctly argues against a pre-emptive attack–but he comes out saying that pre-emption may lead to just what Americans want to avoid, a nuclear strike on a U.S. city. There are two points to be made about that statement–first, Morell is thinking of pre-emption as nuke-plinking (as above); second, he confirms our sketch of the “practical” pre-emption option. You can see why we have the Pyongyang Blues.