The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib reports that the Trump administration is considering a limited missile strike against North Korea. The “bloody nose” strategy would be to: “React to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior.” The idea would be to destroy as much of North Korea’s nuclear capability as possible in an effort to convince Kim that negotiations are the only viable path forward. But, that is a huge gamble that could end in an open conflict on the Korean Peninsula neither side wants.
A U.S. Missile Strike Could Not Defang North Korea
A missile strike is unlikely to seriously diminish North Korea’s nuclear capability. The North has taken steps to minimize the vulnerability of its nuclear infrastructure. Much of it is hidden underground in hardened bunkers where cruise missiles alone would be ineffective. Larger bunker-busting bombs dropped from aircraft would probably be necessary. While much of North Korea’s military assets are outdated, many analysts believe its air defense systems are surprisingly capable. There’s no guarantee that U.S. aircraft could operate over North Korea without risk.
And this assumes we know where all of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure is. America’s intelligence services do not have a wealth of assets inside North Korea. North Korea has several mobile erector-launchers that could be easily moved into hardened bunkers or otherwise hidden to survive an initial attack.
Limited missile strikes cannot realistically be expected to remove the threat of a North Korean retaliatory response and raises serious risks of igniting an open conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The consequences of a war with North Korea in terms of lives and treasure would be enormous.
North Korean Retaliation Very Possible
The pressure on Kim to respond would be enormous. The Kim family hangs its legitimacy on: 1) the purported threat of the “imperialist Americans”; and, 2) the idea that only the Kim family can protect against the American threat. Kim cannot allow that artifice to be punctured.All things being equal, a North Korean response that risks a more powerful American reply may seem foolish, but you cannot discount the importance of internal political calculations.
Young Kim Jong-Un is still consolidating power. It was never supposed to be him. He’s only leader because his brothers couldn’t cut it. He killed his older brother last year, his uncle before that. Old guard North Korean officials are still disappearing. It’s not certain that Kim is comfortable in his control.
Kim does not want an escalation with the U.S., but if his internal position is still not fully secure, he will be more willing to take that risk. Kim may calculate that not responding would make him appear weak, and thus threaten his grip on power. In North Korea, losing power is a death sentence.
A Lot to Gain
Kim Jong-Un is neither stupid nor crazy. It’s possible that he will conclude that hitting back is not worth it, but he’s got a lot to gain by staring down the Americans. His best-case scenario is a de-escalation counterstrike. Something big enough to convince the U.S. that further military action will come at too high a cost. Ultimately, the “bloody nose” talk will most likely be interpreted by Kim as a reminder of why a credible nuclear deterrent is a vital state priority.