Scary risk of ‘bloody nose’ attack
US PLANS for a "bloody nose" attack on North Korea could have unintended consequences that lead to "all-out war", a Korea expert has warned.
Sue Mi Terry, a former director for Korea affairs at the National Security Council under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, argues that the Trump administration's preliminary plans considering a targeted military strike against the rogue regime opened the region up to "greater retaliation".
Reports emerged in December that the Pentagon was drawing up options to show that it was serious about stopping North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile program, such as bombing a missile launch site or destroying a weapons stockpile.
"When we keep hearing about this 'bloody nose' or limited military strike, they're not kidding about this," Dr Terry told New York's Korea Institute last week.
"This is a policy option that is being considered. And if North Korea's provocation is beyond a short-or medium-range missile but let's say at the other end of the escalation - a potential atmospheric nuclear test - I think that's going to be a serious problem for Washington."
Dr Terry, who now works for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, explained that a limited strike was intended to send the message to North Korea that "this is not acceptable, this is a different administration, we're not going to just sit here and play out the same policy over and over, that we are serious, that we're showing a serious intent by hitting something".
The strategy assumes that the North Korean leader would respond to any attack in a proportionate manner. But Dr Terry says Kim Jong-un could "call Mr Trump's bluff".
"The hope is Kim Jong-un understands that we're not going after North Korea in terms of all-out war," she said.
"He may respond in a limited way back, but they will force them to come back to the negotiating table because they understand that the next course of action might be more wide-scale conflict.
"The problem with this thinking, though, is that we are assuming that Kim Jong-un understands exactly what our intent is - that we're not going after something more.
"I'm just not comfortable thinking that we know what Kim Jong-un is going to do. I'm concerned that there's a risk of a greater retaliation back, which would then lead to an escalation and then all-out war."
As the nuclear crisis has heightened, world leaders have recognised that the North Korean leader is not a madman; he is a rational leader out to ensure his regime's survival.
"The danger here is that there are some folks who actually think when they're thinking about a limited military strike that Kim Jong-un might not retaliate or would just retaliate in a very limited way and that's going to take us back to the negotiating table. There are people who actually make this argument, using Kim Jong-un's rationality as a reason," Dr Terry said.
"The problem is, we do not know that. That's an assumption. I don't think anybody really knows what Kim Jong-un will or won't do.
"If North Korea retaliated in a massive way, unleashed chemical weapons in Japan and there were millions of casualties, I think it's going to be hugely problematic for the region, in terms of everybody's response and our relationship with all the regional powers.
"So it really depends upon how things unfold, which nobody knows and that's my point. I don't think anybody can say for sure how things will unfold."
The risks are greater for North Korea's adversaries South Korea and Japan because there is a "serious concern" that weapons could misfire and cause widespread casualties.
"North Korea's own missile could fail and just land in Japan or somewhere and then it will lead to a huge problem," Dr Terry said.
"And this is why I have an issue with Trump's rhetoric, that kind of language - 'totally destroying North Korea' and 'rocket man on a suicide mission' - because it's not helpful."
Meanwhile, Dr Terry said she welcomed the "slight thaw" in relations in inter-Korean relations in the lead-up to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games.
North Korea is expected to halt any nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests for the duration of the Olympics and Paralympics, and the US and South Korea have also paused their joint military exercises on the peninsula.
It will send a delegation of athletes, cheerleaders and musicians to the Games in what Dr Terry said was designed to be a "complete image makeover on the world stage".
"There's nothing to lose from the North Korean perspective," she said.
But she added it was unlikely the Games would lead to broader negotiations once the athletes went home.
"I do think we have to be very clear-eyed about this and I do think we should temper our expectation that this is somehow going to drastically improve the nuclear and missile crisis," she said.
"My concern is once the Paralympics are over … and if there is a falling apart between North and South conversations, we might be back to where we were last year - back to crisis mode."
Dr Terry said the key question on security on the Korean Peninsula was whether or not the world could live with a nuclear North.
She said North Korean experts were split between those who say we need to accept a nuclear North Korea and continue to squeeze it through sanctions, and those who say a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un cannot be allowed.
"There are some folks who think we seriously cannot [live with a nuclear North Korea], that somehow North Korea is different than China, than Russia. That in some sense, because North Korea is not a status quo power … that somehow Kim Jong-un is different, that there is some sort of offensive component to Kim Jong-un's intention or motivation," she said.
"On the other hand, there are many Korea watchers, scholars and experts who do argue that we have to live with it because military strike or preventive military action, kinetic action, would have unthinkable consequences."
WHAT WAR WILL LOOK LIKE?
In a new and revealing report published by respected Washington think-tank 38 North, author Robert Jervis details the options and consequences of using force against the secretive state.
The Adlai E Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University argues it remains unknown what the outcome of an attack on North Korea would be, adding there are a number of factors, dilemmas and trade-offs that need to be considered.
Prof Jervis said it wasn't just the objective of such action that planners needed to think about but more importantly what would happen if "our measures fail to have the intended results."
He also highlights the huge risk if any move did not go according to plan.
"The war must be kept limited if the American victory is to be worth the gamble," he goes to say.
"The enemy gets more than a vote; he gets to decide."
Unpacking a US Decision to Use Force Against North Korea also details how North Korea will not take any use of force lying down and a positive outcome for the US is not a done deal.
"The fact that the US has much greater military and economic capability than North Korea does not mean that it can prevail," he warns.
The report also goes on to suggest Pyongyang will pay a price and run risks in order to maintain its nuclear program, something which the Kim regime sees as vital to its survival.
"Of course, should the conflict end in all-out war, the North would suffer much more than the US and its allies," he writes.
"But this does not necessarily mean that it would fold in a contest of wills: an all-out context would be disastrous for the US as well."
Prof Jervis also reveals how the North could easily retaliate against such a use of force with a chemical attack on Seoul which would further reduce America's capabilities.
He also questions how much allies including South Korea and Japan would support any use of force, leading to a risk the information could be leaked which would allow Pyongyang to prepare for such an outcome.
- with Debra Killalea