Congressman Tom Reed posted his thoughts on the North Korea Summit recently on Facebook. The last line of his post justifiably raised some eyebrows.
This is alarming for several reasons. Few experts believe Kim will actually give up all his nukes. He believes that they are an insurance policy that will deter us from attacking him. President Trump has given him his assurances that we will not attack North Korea if Kim gives them up. But why would Kim believe Trump? John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, said North Korea should follow something like the Libyan model of disarmament. Libya gave up its nuclear weapons development program in 2003 in the hopes that doing so would prevent a U.S. attack on them after we finished attacking Iraq. Unfortunately for Colonel Qaddafi, the U.S. joined a coalition that overthrew his regime and Qaddafi was killed upon being captured. Sarah Sanders denied within hours that the White House wanted North Korea to follow the Libyan model for denuclearization. Apparently SOMEONE at the White House realized that invoking a model that led to Qaddafi’s gruesome death would not be the most enticing model to get Kim to give up his nukes. But Kim is unlikely to feel totally reassured so long as John Bolton remains Trump’s National Security Advisor and is able to whisper sweet nothings of North Korean destruction in Trump’s ears. Kim may seem like he is on the road to trusting Donald Trump, but one question is likely lurking in the back of his mind—“Why won’t Trump fire Warmonger Bolton?"
There is another reason Kim is unlikely to give up all of his nuclear weapons. He has seen Donald Trump withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal. He knows America does not keep its word, especially under Trump. And Donald Trump is the most dishonest President in history. Asking Donald Trump to stop lying is like asking a whale to walk a tightrope while playing a kazoo and juggling eels. Kim won’t give up all his nukes, and he is unlikely to open up the most secretive society in the world to an inspection regime as rigorous as the one that Trump just trashed when he threw out the Iran nuclear deal. The best we can hope for is that Kim will permanently halt ICBM and nuclear testing, that he will dismantle SOME of his weapons, and that he will alow some sort of inspection regime, though it may not be as intrusive as the regime negotiated in the Iran deal.
So in effect, Kim is unlikely to meet the maximalist demands of Congressman Reed. And if Congressman Reed has his way we will start a war with North Korea when President Trump finally realizes that total denuclearization is not in the cards. Such a war will kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions in the Koreas and possibly in Japan. Apparently Reed is willing to risk millions of lives in Asia, including the lives of more than 28,000 American soldiers in and around South Korea to avoid the possibility of North Korea launching an attack that could cripple or destroy America. But there is no guarantee we can avoid a crippling blow if we attack North Korea in the hopes that our attack will prevent a crippling blow. Sure, North Korea has not tested a reentry vehicle for its warheads, so it cannot guarantee that its warheads will land on U.S. soil. But it could explode warheads above the atmosphere. Experts disagree on what would happen next. Some, like Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, laugh at the idea that such an explosion would have a major impact. (See the Daily Mail's report on Lewis here). On the other hand others, like William Graham, who served as Ronald Reagan’s Science Advisor and Chairman of the Congressional EMP Commission, and his colleague, Dr. Peter Pry, warn that the resulting electromagnetic pulse would likely fry electronics through large sections of the U.S., leaving us without electricity for an indefinite period of time. Graham has written a blistering criticism of Lewis’s work and he, along with Pry, claim a North Korean EMP attack could kill 90% of Americans. That is why Graham and Pry submitted a statement last October to the House Committee on Homeland Security saying
We recommend that the President declare that EMP or cyber-attacks that blackout or threaten to blackout the national electric grid constitute the use of weapons of mass destruction that justify preemptive and retaliatory responses by the United States using all possible means, including nuclear weapons. (Emphasis theirs. Pay attention to the words "preemptive" and "retaliatory". I'll discuss their meaning below.)
Some potential adversaries have the capability to produce a protracted nationwide blackout induced by EMP or Combined-Arms Cyber Warfare by the use of nuclear or non-nuclear means. A Defense Science Board study Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat (January 2013) equates an all-out cyber-attack on the United States with the consequences of a nuclear attack, and concludes that a nuclear response is justified to deter or retaliate for cyber warfare that threatens the life of the nation: “While the manifestation of a nuclear and cyber-attack are very different, in the end, the existential impact to the United States is the same.” (Emphasis mine).
What Graham and Pry mean when they advocate a "preemptive" strike is unclear. Note the word he used was “PREEMPTIVE” and not “PREVENTIVE”. The difference between these words is subtle, but when discussing nuclear strikes it makes all the difference in the world. Most experts in international relations use the term “preemptive strike” as a strike against an enemy to prevent the enemy’s imminent attack. A “preemptive strike” is not a strike to prevent an enemy from developing a weapon that he may, at some point in the future, use against you. A “preventive strike”, on the other hand means a strike to prevent the enemy from launching a possible, though not imminent, strike against you some time in the indefinite future. Unfortunately, many people—politicians especially, use the terms interchangeably, so it is unclear exactly what Graham and Pry meant.
Note the words “deter” and “retaliate” that I emphasized in the second part of their quote. These are not words one would use when advocating for a preventive war. Graham’s and Pry’s statement to the House Homeland Security Committee also contains short-term, mid-term, and long-term recommendations for mitigating the EMP threat. This again suggests—though does not prove—that they are advocating a preemptive, and not a preventive war with North Korea.
On the other hand, this column by Dr. Pry clearly states that we can not live with a nuclear North Korea and calls for a preventive war. Whether Dr. Graham shares this view is uncertain.
Whatever Graham's and Pry's true recommendation on the circumstances under which we should attack North Korea, we must consider several points.
First, just how bad would the impact from an EMP be? I don’t have the expertise to evaluate competing claims so I’ll let you decide who to believe. I do urge you to read this article at Wired for a good take that falls between these two extreme views. Then ask yourself if we really should launch a war that WILL kill hundreds of thousands if not millions because we are uncertain of the effects of an EMP attack. Keep in mind that just as we are uncertain whether an EMP attack will cause wide-spread damage to the power grid, Kim will be uncertain of the effectiveness of his attack. And more importantly, his survival in the face of a likely U.S. retaliatory strike is even more uncertain.
Second, knocking out North Korea's nuclear weapons is likely to be more difficult than Graham and Pry believe. North Korea has military bases and nuclear facilities buried deep underground in the mountains. Rear Admiral Michael Dumont wrote an October 27, 2017 letter to Congressman Ted Liu stating "The only way to 'locate and destroy --with complete certainty-- all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs' is through a ground invasion." This suggests that the Pentagon might not even know where all of North Korea's nuclear weapons are stored. Anyone even thinking about attacking North Korea should read Yochi Dreazon's detailed article discussing just how ugly and messy a war with North Korea would be.
Third, some may think our Antiballistic Missile system would make it safe for us to attack North Korea. Donald Trump said our ABM system works 97% of the time. This is a very dangerous misconception for the Commander-In-Chief to have. Not even the most enthusiastic proponents of our ABM system believes this. Our long range missile defense system has hit its target in only 10 of 18 tries since its program began in 1999 and it has only been tested once since 2014. Most importantly, our system has never been tested under realistic wartime conditions. And Graham points out that our ABM system is only designed to intercept missiles coming over the North Pole. It would be totally ineffective should North Korea use its satellite launcher to hurl a nuke at us from over the South Pole.
Fourth, unexpected consequences from a preventive nuclear attack are impossible to predict. What is certain is that if we unilaterally launch such an attack, especially if such an attack is against South Korea's wishes, world outrage and hatred towards the U.S. will be inflamed as never before. How will this rage manifest itself? Will it foster deeper anti-U.S. cooperation between terrorists and state and non-state actors eager to get revenge on the U.S? Will, for example, a soldier who is responsible for guarding Pakistan's nuclear weapons give one to a terrorist group to smuggle into the U.S.? Might a rogue Russian or Chinese scientist give some uranium to a terrorist group? No one knows with certainty. At the very least, we should expect a bigger world-wide economic boycott against the U.S. than ever seen before. And given that the Trump Administration still hasn't been able to restore full power to Puerto Rico 9 months after Hurricane Maria hit, there is little reason to be confident it is capable of managing the backlash from an angry, furious world.
What is certain is that there is no guarantee that the U.S. will not be crippled from a nuclear attack if we launch a preventive war against North Korea. It appears that Tom Reed wants us to launch such a war if North Korea does not fully denuclearize. Reed needs to be honest with us and tell us that we may suffer a national catastrophe should we roll the dice and follow his plan. And he needs to explain to us why we shouldn't rely on deterrence if North Korea merely reduces its weapons and takes a less aggressive attitude towards the U.S. and its neighbors as appears likely to happen.
Explaining why we should go to war--with a certain outcome that hundreds of thousands or millions will die--rather than rely on deterrence to prevent a war might be a tough argument to make. It is true that deterrence does have its risks. There were several times during the cold war where technical glitches or miscommunication almost caused disaster. But despite the dangers inherent in deterrence, we still rely on it to prevent attacks from Russia and China. Scott Sagan, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, wrote an important essay arguing why deterrence is the least bad strategy for dealing with North Korea. I highly recommend reading it, but it is behind a paywall. If you set up an account with Foreign Affairs they will let you read one free article a month.
Here are a few key passages from the article. The article is rather long and this taste is no substitute for reading the whole thing.
The world has traveled down this perilous path before. In 1950, the Truman administration contemplated a preventive strike to keep the Soviet Union from acquiring nuclear weapons but decided that the resulting conflict would resemble World War II in scope and that containment and deterrence were better options. In the 1960s, the Kennedy administration feared that Chinese leader Mao Zedong was mentally unstable and proposed a joint strike against the nascent Chinese nuclear program to the Soviets. (Moscow rejected the idea.) Ultimately, the United States learned to live with a nuclear Russia and a nuclear China. It can now learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. . . .
Some Trump supporters, including former UN Ambassador John Bolton and Trump's evangelical adviser Robert Jeffress, have argued that a U.S. strike to assassinate Kim is the best solution. Any attempt to "decapitate" the regime, however, would be a gamble of epic pro portions. The history of unsuccessful U.S. decapitation attempts, including those launched against the Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi in 1986 and the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, warns against such thinking. Moreover, Kim may well have ordered his generals to launch all available weapons of mass destruction at the enemy if he is killed in a first strike--as did Saddam before the 1990-91 Gulf War. There is no reason to think that the North Korean military would fail to carry out such an order.
U.S. leaders should also resist the temptation to hope that limited, or "surgical," conventional attacks on North Korean missile test sites or storage facilities would end the nuclear threat. Proponents of this course believe that the threat of further escalation by the United States would deter North Korea from responding militarily to a limited first strike. But as the political scientist Barry Posen has explained, this argument is logically inconsistent: Kim cannot be both so irrational that he cannot be deterred in general and so rational that he could be deterred after having been attacked by the United States. Moreover, even a limited attack by the United States would appear to North Korea as the beginning of an invasion. And because no first strike could destroy every North Korean missile and nuclear weapon, the United States and its allies would always face the prospect of nuclear retaliation. . . .
In 1947, the American diplomat George Kennan outlined a strategy for the "patient but firm and vigilant containment" of the Soviet Union. Writing in this magazine, he predicted that such a policy would eventually lead to "either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." He was right. In the same way, the United States has deterred North Korea from invading South Korea or attacking Japan for over 60 years. Despite all the bluster and tension today, there is no reason why Kennan's strategy of containment and deterrence cannot continue to work on North Korea, as it did on the Soviet Union. The United States must wait with patience and vigilance until the Kim regime collapses under the weight of its own economic and political weakness.
Dr. Sagan wrote his article during the height of saber-rattling between Trump and Kim. If deterrence was the best option when tempers were hot, it is even more likely to work now when tempers have cooled down. I hope I am wrong in doubting Kim will give up all his nuclear weapons.. I hope that President Trump scores an unexpected victory and our nation becomes safer as a result of his leadership. But we are unlikely to know whether Kim will commit to total denuclearization and keep his word to that commitment before the midterm election. Therefore, it is urgent for Tom Reed to be honest with us and tell us why he is willing to risk a potentially nation-crippling war should Kim not meet his maximalist demand.
Update 6/27:We have just received satellite imagery that suggests that North Korea is upgrading a nuclear testing facility. We really need to have a debate about the wisdom of attacking North Korea versus that of containment and continued sanctions. Tom Reed needs to come clean with us and let us know just how risky his advocacy of war with North Korea really is.
Update 6/30/18: Officials at the CIA and other intelligence agencies say that North Korea has been ramping up its production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months. Perhaps Kim will rapidly change course and finally decide to give up his nukes, but there is very little reason to assume that he will. This underscores how important it is for Tom Reed to level with his constituents about the possible ramifications of the war he seems to be advocating for if North Korea does not get rid of all of its nuclear weapons.