Numerous stories are circulating once again, both in the media and in the halls of policy and punditry in Washington, Seoul and Beijing, that the United States is considering a "bloody nose" strike against North Korea. By some accounts, the U.S. administration withdrew backing from its candidate for ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, because of his opposition to a limited strike against Pyongyang. Other reports suggest there is an emerging cadre of "hawks" on North Korea who are expanding their influence over U.S. foreign policy, raising the likelihood of at least some form of military action. The challenge in deciphering the signals is that, with or without a planned strike, there is strong logic not only in keeping the option on the table, but also front and center in the minds of all actors in Northeast Asia.
In our 2018 Annual Forecast, we identified the myriad risks of military action on the Korean Peninsula, asserting that the longer-term risks of the North's nuclear weapons program are unlikely to outweigh the costs of military action in the near term. Our baseline assessment is that the United States ultimately will establish a more robust management structure on and around the Korean Peninsula to contain Pyongyang but that it will not strike North Korea this year. But, as we have noted several times, this is ultimately a political decision that rests upon advice from different quarters, as well as cost and benefit assessments, force structure, risk perceptions, the balance of long-term strategic considerations and nearer-term political and security concerns.
The Benefits of a Bloody Nose
A bloody nose strike, however, is something that conceivably could straddle both options — military action and enhanced containment. According to this idea, Washington needs to demonstrate its clear and unwavering willingness to use military means to achieve its goal to convince the North Koreans of the seriousness of the U.S. position on nuclear proliferation. This does not negate dialogue or containment; instead, it's a way to ensure North Korea is not misreading U.S. signals — either willfully or inadvertently. For nearly three decades, Pyongyang and Washington have engaged in an on-again, off-again standoff over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
But Pyongyang has crossed several "red lines" by launching satellites, testing intermediate and long-range missiles and conducting six underground nuclear tests. It is clear that North Korea's leadership questions the U.S. willingness to use force to stop the nuclear weapons program, and Pyongyang continues to see the program, at least in part, as a means of ensuring Washington never overcomes its reticence to pursue another Korean War. Unlike Syria, Libya or Iraq, North Korea has pursued weapons of mass destruction for decades, and the international community has offered only stern words and imposed limited (until recently) economic constraints in response.
To U.S. proponents of the bloody nose strategy, Pyongyang has dealt Uncle Sam a black eye by undermining Washington's credibility.
U.S. proponents of the bloody nose strategy often cite Pyongyang's continuing WMD program as proof of the weakness and ineffectiveness of U.S. policy toward North Korea. To them, Pyongyang has dealt Uncle Sam a black eye by undermining Washington's credibility internationally, brushing off U.S. threats and cajoling and, in the process, proving that the United States is weaker than it tries to appear. In addition to repaying a black eye with a bloody nose, advocates of a limited strike against North Korea's missile and nuclear infrastructure argue that Kim Jong Un and the rest of North Korea's leaders are rational actors who know they could never win a war against the United States, ensuring that any U.S. strike would, at a bare minimum, force the North Korean government to cease its missile and nuclear tests. In the best-case scenario, proponents suggest a limited strike would so shock the North Korean elite that they would rebel against Kim to save their own skins or that it would persuade China to take physical action to effect "regime modification" and halt the North's confrontational attitude out of fears of unmanageable conflict and destabilization on the Korean Peninsula.
Opponents, however, posit that such a strike is just as likely to trigger an all-out war on the peninsula as it is to persuade the North to retreat from its confrontation with the United States. North Korea is a small country surrounded by larger powers, and much of Pyongyang's defensive posture lies in a combination of striking first before falling back into the mountains to try and outlast the larger opponent. A strike against a North Korean missile or nuclear facility, for example, could convince the North that it must strike out with all available systems to disrupt any U.S. facilities and logistics to complicate any further U.S. action. Even in the absence of a full escalation, North Korea may feel compelled to respond to a limited U.S. strike with similar action to re-establish a sense of deterrence. As a result, tit-for-tat responses to aggression could precipitate a larger conflict. In either case, the North could respond to a limited strike by firing at U.S. bases in South Korea, the port infrastructure in Pusan (from which the United States would likely bring additional materiel into Korea) or even Japan, Guam and Hawaii.
Grappling With the Unknown Unknowns
Perhaps more than in other cases, the problem is that it is nearly impossible to accurately intuit the North's likely response, although expecting North Korea to act as a "responsible" nuclear weapons state is equally difficult. Repurposing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's maxims for a new conflict, there are perhaps even more unknown unknowns in North Korea than there are known unknowns. This situation heightens the risks of any course of action — as well as inaction. Known unknowns include the quantity, range and accuracy of the North Korean missiles (even though some of these are known knowns). Other known unknowns include the hierarchy of authority to use tactical and strategic systems (and it remains unclear whether a so-called decapitation strike that kills or disrupts the leadership would automatically trigger a military response instead of dissuading one). Regardless of a possible U.S. strike, the known unknowns certainly also apply to the assumption of North Korean leaders' rationality — and just what form of rationality that is.
Unknown unknowns are, by their very nature, unquantifiable. They may relate to apparently known assumptions or questions but they rest on faulty or outdated logic, as well as on intentional or natural misinterpretations and misunderstandings. There may be aspects of North Korea's internal leadership organization, flow of information and intent that few have explored, largely because of the paucity of knowledge of the North Korean government's inner workings. And then there are the assumptions regarding the relation between the North Korean people and their leadership, between the military commanders and the forces, and, more concretely, between the basic elements of production and consumption. For decades, the United States has grounded its core North Korea policy on the idea that the regime is on the brink of collapse. This may have been wishful thinking or completely inaccurate — or maybe the country really is a mere accident away from complete implosion.
Repurposing former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's maxims for a new conflict, there are perhaps even more unknown unknowns in North Korea than there are known unknowns.
North Korea has been a notoriously difficult intelligence target because of linguistic difference, the closed system that limits operatives' ability to hide in plain sight, the outdated communications system and infrastructure, as well as the intentional misinformation campaigns often propagated by South Korea, China, Japan, Russia or the United States. Near-term intelligence assessments on the pace of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, for example, proved woefully insufficient until very recently (and may now risk swinging too far in the opposite direction). There are also many questions about the future of North Korea's relations with China, its economic activities and its ability to provide domestic services. It is, quite simply, a tall order to gather meaningful intelligence about the North, leaving many unknown unknowns to accompany the known unknowns.
All this brings us back to the debate over whether to deal North Korea a bloody nose. One could make the case that a North Korean leadership acting rationally could respond to a bloodied nose with two diametrically opposed reactions: It could reasonably seek conciliation or it could reasonably put all hands on deck in preparation for a major war. Each has its own logic, and it may be that even Kim doesn't know which way he would sway if push came to shove. But inaction is just as clearly problematic. Economic sanctions and political isolation appear to have little coercive effect on Pyongyang. In fact, they may even be reinforcing the perception that the leadership must swiftly complete the nuclear and missile programs — and even demonstrate their capacity in a live-fire test over the Pacific. There are reports that some members of the elite are feeling the pain of sanctions, but it is unclear whether they have the intent or capability to alter the regime's course, particularly as North Korea is so close to achieving the technical aspects of its goals after so many sacrifices.
If the United States conducts a targeted strike against some aspect of North Korea's nuclear or missile infrastructure (and even some Chinese scholars and strategists have advocated such a move) and the strike triggers a change in behavior — if not regime — in North Korea, it not only would lead to a more stable situation in Northeast Asia, but also remind the rest of the world of the United States' intent to stem nuclear proliferation and willingness to take risks to counter challenges. Even if the North doesn't come to the negotiating table, a demonstration of military action would further reinforce Washington's containment strategy against Pyongyang. The minimum cost of miscalculation in such action, however, is war on the Korean Peninsula — if not a larger conflagration that would draw in Japan, China and Russia, disrupt the global technology supply chain, result in mass casualties and damage much infrastructure. Few models of a new Korean War offer anything less than major destruction and death, even if the United States ultimately emerges victorious.
The Cost of Inaction
But the cost of inaction is not trivial. If North Korea completes and demonstrates its nuclear missile program, it would seriously undermine the reliability of the United States in halting proliferation, perhaps encouraging others, whether opponents or allies, to race down the nuclear path themselves. Even if there isn't a nuclear domino effect, trust in U.S. assurances may diminish rapidly, weakening the United States' security posture. In addition, North Korea is not merely pursuing nuclear weapons to secure the government from U.S. military action; it is doing so to exploit such a situation to shift the strategic calculation in South Korea. Pyongyang has made no secret of the fact that it considers its nuclear capability the precondition to reshaping the overall security situation in Northeast Asia and ultimately undermining the U.S. alliance structure. A North Korea with nuclear arms may not lash out with such weapons, but it could feel more confident using conventional weapons against South Korea to demonstrate Washington's unwillingness to back its allies through thick and thin.
In the end, the question of a bloody nose strike is not so simple. U.S. credibility is on the line, and that credibility is the backbone of Washington's global security posture. After all, despite its military might, the United States is outnumbered no matter where it goes. If the willingness of others to host U.S. forces and be the first line of defense begins to wane, the United States ultimately may find itself forced to retreat all the way to its own coasts. That is, of course, a rather far reach from the current North Korean standoff, but in strategic terms (and looking at past global powers) it is not an unreasonable fear. The debate now is whether to give North Korea a bloody nose in return for the black eye it has given the United States, or whether Pyongyang can simply be bottled up — even if it is too great a nuisance for any powers, China included. Because after all, Beijing is sporting a bit of a shiner from the North too.