Following North Korea’s string of nuclear and ballistic missile tests last year, various US national security figures have argued that, at some point in the near future, “preemptive” strikes on military targets within the North would be justified.
In a 2000 book entitled “The America We Deserve,” President-elect Donald Trump boorishly expressed his readiness to launch a surgical strike against the North’s nuclear facilities declaring “Am I ready to bomb this reactor? You’re damned right.” On Jan. 2, Trump tweeted, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!”
In October, an essay published by 38 North observed that certain influential persons within the United States advocate that a “‘surgical’ or ‘pre-emptive’ strike almost certainly must take place” to halt Kim Jong-un from acquiring the capacity to reach the US with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile.
The article by John Delury went on to caution: “In the furious military retaliation that Pyongyang would muster after a US strike, South Korea and the United States ... may face Chinese intervention on the peninsula, as in October 1950. ‘Surgery’ would rapidly descend into a bloodbath.”
JoongAng Ilbo reported within the same month that according to diverse simulations, “400,000 people will immediately die — and 220,000 more will subsequently die — when a nuclear bomb as strong as the one dropped on Hiroshima falls on central Seoul.” Many believe the ensuing war would result in several millions of casualties together with the fall of both Koreas.
It’s vital to clarify that North Korea has long been deemed to have the offensive capability to strike South Korea and Japan with a nuclear warhead via both short and midrange missiles, so the “preemptive” measure in question is exclusively a matter concerning US domestic security. Civilians in the south and north — in devastating numbers — would be the primary victims under this scenario, as was the case during the 1950-53 Korean War.
A senior Korean government official communicated to members of the media last April the widely-held determination that North Korea possesses a “mid-range nuclear capability” which could impact the whole of Korea and nearly all of Japan. Thereafter, on Aug. 3, North Korea test-fired a midrange ballistic missile reported to have been launched from western Hwanghae province; it jetted across the region before landing in the sea amid the Korean Peninsula and Japan.
At a Council of Foreign Relations debate in September, Adm. Michael Mullen conveyed that if North Korea obtains the “ability to attack the United States and makes a threat, a preemptive strike on the North is a self-defense option” as reported by the JoongAng Ilbo last October.
The newspaper then pointed out that what is being suggested in actuality is a “preventive” — striking an enemy without an indicator of an imminent incoming attack — rather than a “preemptive” strike.
In principle, on the basis of this precariously ambiguous “preventive” strike concept — obviously put forth within the context of North Korea’s specific situation — nations such as China and Russia which possess the wherewithal to strike the US with their nuclear arsenal and are not regarded as US allies, could justifiably be attacked by America forthwith as a self-defense measure, even if there is no imminent incoming strike.
The aforementioned 38 North piece notes that “if the United States launches a pre-emptive strike not to prevent a specific, imminent missile attack, but rather to prevent North Korea from perfecting an intercontinental nuclear strike capability, it is unlikely to meet Beijing’s standard for jus ad bellum (‘right to war’). ... a strike of this nature could likely drive Beijing to side with the North in accordance with their 1961 treaty.”
As was astutely outlined by The Korea Herald in October, the proposed action may also violate international law: “Under international law, anticipatory self-defense requires two elements to be carried out: necessity and proportionality. Its necessity should be ‘instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.’”
Moreover, the notion is not operable pursuant to its proponents’ stated aims, as Western intelligence on North Korea’s weapons systems has proven to be tenuous. For instance, in 2010 Stanford professor Siegfried Hecker — formerly director of US nuclear weapons laboratories at Los Alamos National Laboratory — was reportedly shocked by the progress North Korea had manifestly attained in enriching uranium during a visit per their invitation. The uranium enrichment facility Hecker was presented by North Korean officials was far more advanced than he envisaged could be achievable.
David Albright, head of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, commented at the time: “There is an anomaly in how rapidly this has been built. ... That raises the question of whether this plant was originally put together somewhere else and was moved to Yongbyon, or whether there is a parallel plant elsewhere.”
Albright acknowledged that the “sophisticated centrifuge plant” was not known prior to the occasion the North chose to disclose it to Hecker.
In a similar manner, North Korea contravened the once much-touted 1994 Agreed Framework nuclear non-proliferation deal by aggressively developing a furtive uranium enrichment program.
Thus, there are many relevant “military targets” that are likely undiscovered — North Korean missiles and fissile materials are broadly suspected to be concealed underground — meaning any “preventive” or “preemptive” attack could result in a nuclear retaliation by the agency of heretofore undetected stockpiles.
So what should be done? In my view, there is solely one group of “experts” — more than 30,000 strong within the South — who exhibit lucidity and hold legitimate, workable methods with respect to stopping both the North’s nuclear program as well as mass atrocities occurring in prison camps and elsewhere within the region: North Korean defectors, or, to put it another way, those who have had prolonged firsthand experience with the area of concern and maintain contacts with persons throughout the region.
Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador at the North Korean embassy in London, has in his recent interviews and remarks to the press affirmed what many among the defector community understand so well — that North Korea is more vulnerable than conceivably ever before. Discontent among even so-called “elites” and high-ranking officials is unprecedentedly high so that with better coordinated, better organized efforts emanating out of South Korea in particular a rapid and dramatic change analogous to Romania’s sudden overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989 is within reach. Ceausescu — who oversaw a cruel and repressive dictatorship — was a friend of the genocidaire Kim Jong-il’s family, and had been executed by his own army to Kim’s horror. The revolution happened very quickly in Romania’s case, and the parallels between North Korea today and Romania in 1989 are striking.
Thae has confirmed “North Korean elites are merely feigning loyalty to Kim” and that “By day North Koreans hail Kim Jong-un but at night under their bed covers they watch South Korean television shows and grow in admiration” of the more prosperous South. Thae has related that nearly all North Koreans — including, at this juncture, virtually all of the supposed “elites” — feel themselves to be slaves, trapped within an Orwellian nightmare of unending repression and are utterly disenchanted with the regime.
Since assuming power, Kim Jong-un has killed nearly 140 high-level government officials including Jang Song-thaek — his uncle and formerly the second most powerful regime figure. Just as explosive and revelatory, Kim executed his Defense Minister Hyon Yong-chol in 2015 because of words he spoke within his own home.
On Dec. 29, Thae told the Dong-A Ilbo, “The only way to curb Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition is to move the hearts of North Korean people, and thus prompt senior North Korean officials and citizens to stage an uprising against Kim Jong-un.”
Halting Kim Jong-un via this modus is within the realm of distinct possibility. In the face of such overwhelming evidence of a disintegrating regime, a “preemptive” or “preventive” strike — which would effectively cripple the whole of Korea for generations and sacrifice millions of lives (and fail spectacularly in the process) — would amount to a heinous and unforgivable crime.
South Korea must never acquiesce to this obscene and irresponsible project.
By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. — Ed.