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Escalating danger of an American nuclear first strike on North Korea


The escalating tensions over North Korea have brought the United States closer to war on the Korean peninsula than at any other time in decades. Yet Washington is just as likely as Pyongyang, if not more likely, to initiate the first strike — and would almost certainly use nuclear weapons to do so. Such a strike may be the only way to decisively end the North Korean nuclear program, but its incalculable effects would extend far beyond the devastation and destruction in Korea. Its political, economic, and moral consequences would permanently and disastrously undermine U.S. interests for generations to come — and must be avoided at all costs.

There are many reasons to believe a U.S. first strike against North Korea is now more likely than ever. First, the North Korean nuclear program has now achieved capabilities that previous U.S. administrations always insisted were dangerously unacceptable. The regime now has between 30 and 60 nuclear weapons, and recently tested one with the equivalent destructive power of a hydrogen bomb. Its long-range ballistic missiles can already deliver those weapons to Japan, Guam, Alaska, and Hawaii, and now may also be able to reach the west coast of the United States. Pyongyang has now threatened to test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean, elevating worries about the regime’s unpredictable and dangerous behavior even further. The United States has always reserved the right to use its nuclear weapons first against such compelling threats.

These very real threats would have confronted any president occupying the Oval Office in 2017, but President Donald Trump has chosen to react to this perilous situation in dangerously provocative ways……..

The possibility of a first strike against North Korea has long been discussed as one way to address its growing nuclear threat. Yet very few understand the grim military logic that only an overwhelming surprise nuclear strike provides a decisive option. There is simply no other way to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capabilities while minimizing the risk of massive conventional or nuclear retaliation.

There are two crucial reasons why a conventional first strike cannot be effective. First, the timelines involved are too long. It would require weeks or even months of preparation: building up troops, aircraft, and ships, as well as evacuating tens of thousands of U.S. citizens. Any of these highly visible preparations for war could lead Pyongyang to launch a preemptive strike of its own — including massive artillery and chemical attacks on Seoul, and nuclear strikes across the region, including against U.S. territory. The same logic would hold even if the United States could somehow pull off a surprise conventional attack, since most experts envision such an attack lasting days or weeks. In either case, Kim would have absolutely no incentives to hold back any of his military capabilities, including nuclear weapons. His regime’s survival would be at stake, leading to a classic “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario.

Second, and more important, a conventional first strike simply cannot destroy enough North Korean military capability to prevent a retaliatory second strike. North Korean nuclear weapons have been deliberately dispersed throughout the country, including on mobile launchers and in locations deep underground, to prevent this exact scenario. ……..

A nuclear first strike, then, may seem like an attractive military option to a president who has vowed to end the North Korean nuclear threat once and for all. Yet its political, economic, and moral consequences would be so devastating that it would be hard for any American to imagine, in retrospect, why this ever seemed like a good idea.

First and foremost, the human costs would be catastrophic. Millions of North Koreans would either be killed or grievously wounded from the effects of fires, blasts, and radiation. The radioactive fallout from such a strike could spread contamination thousands of miles, directly affecting South Korea, Japan, and China, as well as countries and populations across the region and beyond. Global or regional weather patterns could also be disrupted, affecting agriculture and the environment for years to come.

Even if those tragic human costs could somehow be set aside, the cascading range of other consequences would be sufficient to avoid such an attack. China could respond militarily, by moving forces into the parts of North Korea less affected by the strike, for example. This could result in a risky confrontation with U.S. forces seeking to confirm the complete destruction of North Korean nuclear capabilities. Chinese troops could also collide with a potential influx of U.S. and South Korean ground troops trying to establish civil order and provide humanitarian relief to the North Korean populace in the aftermath of the strikes. China might also respond to an attack on its ally more forcefully, by striking U.S. bases in the region or possibly even the U.S. homeland, especially since radiation would inevitably blanket some of its territory………

Is nuclear war on the Korean peninsula inevitable? No, but only if the Trump administration recognizes that a nuclear first strike cannot be a viable alternative, because its consequences are simply unfathomableDeterrence is the vastly preferable option. The United States faced similar challenges after World War II, when the Soviets and then the Chinese developed nuclear weapons and the ability to strike U.S. targets. In both cases, arguments for American first strikes to remove these threats were soundly rejected in favor of long-term policies of deterrence — which have successfully avoided a nuclear conflagration for many decades. Effective deterrence requires only an adversary who is rational enough to seek his own survival — a threshold that even Kim Jong Un meets.

Trump’s most trusted advisors and experienced veteran military men, John Kelly and James Mattis, should repeatedly make this argument to the president while there is still time. There is virtually no likelihood that North Korea can be pressured to give up its nuclear program at this juncture. Given that reality, the best way to advance U.S. national security and protect American lives is to publicly commit to deterring the Korean regime while privately removing threats to its survival. The alternative is a deadly nuclear first strike from which there will be no winners.


October 13, 2017 - Posted by | politics international, weapons and war

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