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US seriously considering ‘bloody nose’ strategy: US experts

Analysts warn preventive strike may prompt North Korea to retaliate and risk all-out war

With the White House abandoning its plan to nominate Victor Cha as US ambassador to Seoul allegedly over his objection to the “bloody nose” strategy, speculation is rising on whether the Trump administration is seeking to conduct a limited military strike against North Korea.

In an email interview with The Korea Herald, US security and military experts said Cha’s removal indicates that Washington is giving “serious consideration” to the option of demonstrating its seriousness about preventing North Korea from achieving full-fledged nuclear capability.

However, analysts added that the “bloody nose” strategy is still a “poorly reasoned” operational concept because the scheme carries the risk of prompting North Korea to retaliate in response and expanding a narrow strike into an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.

The decision to drop Cha’s candidacy “suggests that a preventive strike on North Korea is being seriously considered by the Trump administration,” said Abraham M. Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia during the Barack Obama administration. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tours trolleybus factory in Pyongyang. (Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un tours trolleybus factory in Pyongyang. (Yonhap)

“It is unclear what may drive President Trump to order such a strike, but it is a possibility that should be taken seriously,” added Denmark, who now serves as a director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

According to the Associated Press on Thursday, US officials confirmed the withdrawal of Cha, who had raised concern about the “bloody nose” strike -- both privately and publicly. The officials, however, did not spell out the reasons for dropping Cha and who might be in the running to take his place.

Frank Aum, a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, also noted Cha’s removal seems to confirm that the “bloody nose” option is being seriously considered, though the White House has not appeared to make up its mind yet

“It does suggest, at the very least, that the White House is giving very serious consideration to this option,” said Aum, who served as a senior adviser for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that US officials were considering the “bloody nose” strategy -- a scheme which involves reacting to nuclear and missile tests with a targeted strike against North Korean facilities to show the high price the regime could pay for its behavior.

The primary goal of the strategy is to mount a limited military strike against North Korean sites without igniting an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, a scenario that has prevented the US from envisioning viable military options against nuclear-armed North Korea.

Since North Korea startled the international community with its nuclear program in the early 1990s, there have been talks of a “surgical strike” in Washington against North Korea’s nuclear facilities. But the idea was scrapped eventually because such an action would bring about another major conflict on the peninsula.

“The main goal of a surgical strike is to diminish an adversary’s military capability by, for example, destroying an airfield. The main aim of a ‘bloody nose operation’ is the will or intentions of another state (or its allies),” said Robert Powell, a Berkeley political scientist who studies game theory and war.

“In this particular case, it would be an effort to signal to North Korea (or the Chinese) that the US is willing to pay a high price in terms of future escalation in order to stop the development of the North’s nuclear program.” 

US President Donald Trump (left) and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. Yonhap
US President Donald Trump (left) and his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in. Yonhap

Van Jackson, a former strategist at the US Defense Department, who now serves as a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, said the “bloody nose” strategy is an offensive, preventive surgical strike that can be carried out without being provoked by adversaries.

Given the danger of “unprovoked” preventive strikes, analysts expressed concerns that there was no guarantee that North Korea would not retaliate in response -- particularly toward South Korea -- as Syria did when the US attacked a Syrian airfield with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Syria’s military was already stretched thin fighting a civil war and Islamist terrorist groups, and the strike went virtually unpunished. But that would be most unlikely if the US attacks North Korea, which has positioned a massive standing army and artillery close to the border with South Korea.

“Actually, there is every reason to believe it would cause North Korea to retaliate against US or South Korean forces. … Once you step onto the escalation ladder, there is no assurance you can get off again.” said Adam Mount, director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientist.

The most worrisome is that the decision whether to retaliate or not is up to North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un, who threatened the US, claiming to have a “nuclear button” on his desk in his New Year’s address.

In his article in the Washington Post, Victor Cha said that if the US believes Kim is an unpredictable, impulsive actor undeterrable without the “bloody nose” strategy, there is no assurance, too, that such options would prevent retaliation from North Korea and escalation into an all-out war.

In addition, the US would face enormous difficulties in taking out North Korea’s missile and nuclear facilities, which are hidden deep in mountain caves or underground. The North has recently put its missiles on mobile launchers, making it harder to track and intercept the missiles.

“The facilities, missiles, and retaliatory capabilities … there are simply too many to strike. … We’re now forced to deter a nuclear-armed North Korea. It’s not the world anybody wanted, but it’s the one we live in,” Mount said.

Despite the controversies, analysts recognized the need for the US to come up with viable military options against North Korea, given the regime’s relentless nuclear ambition as demonstrated by its capability to send intercontinental ballistic missiles toward the continental US.

Frank Aum said certain North Korean provocations -- such as an ICBM test with a live warhead and an atmospheric detonation over international waters – could increase the rationale for the US to conduct preventive strikes on North Korea.

But in the absence of North Korea’s flagrant and dramatic military provocations, it would be extremely difficult for the Trump administration to implement such an offensive first-strike without any risk, said Van Jackson.

“The problem with the ‘bloody nose’ (strategy) is it turns the US into the bad guy and it won’t achieve what the US wants,” said Van Jackson.

“Military retaliation in case North Korea conducts a first strike is viable and necessary. It matters who strikes first, and a US first-strike will be catastrophic whereas a US second-strike would bolster deterrence,” he said.

Professor Robert said the idea of the “bloody nose” strategy can be seen as efforts to create coercive pressure on North Korea and help the regime abandon its nuclear program, but carrying it out is a mistake as it is uncertain how North Korea would react.

“A way to impose still more pressure is to head down a path that raises the risk of a major war. A ‘bloody nose operation’ would be a big step down this path. But carrying it out, would confront the North with the question of whether to try to carry out its own ‘bloody nose operation.'"

By Yeo Jun-suk (
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