This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on April 2, 2013.
When North Korean dictator, movie lover, and tracksuit enthusiast Kim Jong Il died, foreign observers briefly wondered if the next leader of the DPRK would moderate his government’s anti-American rhetoric.
Such speculation has proven erroneous, for North Korea under Kim Jong Un has maintained, and arguably increased, its vitriolic stance towards the United States. Indeed, in recent weeks, the DPRK has threatened a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. and missile attacks against American military bases. Our government, while downplaying the threat posed by North Korea, has quietly begun increasing missile defense programs as a precautionary measure.
The DPRK is smaller than New Jersey, yet has repeatedly threatened us and may soon have the nuclear technology to turn words into action. Sanctions, threats, and even the carrot of economic aid have failed to make the rogue state conform to standards of international law. Whereas most of the world has moved past the Cold War — neighboring China has abandoned pure communism in favor of robust capitalism — North Korea remains resolutely devoted to communism and antagonistic rhetoric.
What is to be done about North Korea?
The kneejerk response to the recent threat of nuclear warfare would be to hit North Korea before they hit us. A big stick mentality has been part of our foreign policy since the late 1800s; we have staged many prior preemptive interventions in places as disparate as Grenada and Iraq. Right now, there are probably enough hawks (not exclusively in the GOP) in Washington to drum up support for a strike on the DPRK, were the threat deemed sufficiently grave. And we clearly have the requisite military technology — American bombers have been flying over the Korean peninsula in the past few weeks as a reminder of our formidable strength. So it is clear that we can hit the DPRK with relative ease. But should we take the offensive, rather than the defensive?
The United Nations would most likely oppose a preemptive attack upon North Korea, for the U.N. wants to rein in North Korea through the use of sanctions, rather than military force. This preference for diplomacy is a 180-degree change in policy from the last major U.N. intervention in Korea, the American-led Korean War of 1950-1953. Back then, in the heyday of the Cold War, the U.N. was virtually an extra arm of the American State Department. Military intervention in Korea was deemed acceptable so that the whole of East Asia might not be lost to the supposedly godless communists. Unfortunately, what was meant to be a short police action devolved into a protracted stalemate, and both the U.S. and U.N. were left embarrassed. Given this disastrous historical record, it is logical that the U.N. wants to avoid a second Korean War at all costs. Today, the U.S. still donates considerably to the U.N., but unlike in the days of the Korean War, the U.N. is not in complete lockstep with American foreign policy.
Consider, too, the U.N.’s recent opposition to the American-led Iraq War. The U.N. used sanctions in the late 1990s and early 2000s to rein in Iraq. When George Bush opted for an invasion of Iraq in 2003, he went ahead with his plan largely against the wishes of the U.N.’s delegates. To be fair, Iraq made fewer threats against America than North Korea has made of late. Nonetheless, it is highly likely that, were America to strike North Korea preemptively, undermining U.N. attempts for a peaceful resolution, the U.N. would condemn America once more.
The U.N. would not be the only quarter to lambast the U.S. for an attack on North Korea. Recall that the Vietnam War drew the ire of intellectuals around the world, divided families here at home, and even drew condemnation from the Vatican. An attack on North Korea, when the North Korean high command has done nothing but rattle sabers, would have similar effects to Vietnam. Polarized, divisive rhetoric would come from religious groups, intellectuals and ordinary citizens, both domestically and overseas. The potential backlash from a preemptive strike on North Korea could be substantial, and could even cause the current administration in Washington to lose public support.
Even so, despite criticism from abroad and at home, Vietnam and Iraq dragged onward. If those wars are any indication, our government is quite willing to ignore international opinion and domestic dissent. Ergo, if our government wants to hit North Korea, then our government will go ahead and do so.
This attitude — Damn our critics; we know what’s right! — is, of course, the arrogant mindset of an imperial power. The Second Iraq War — sold with falsified evidence, and carried out despite the nearly unanimous opposition of the U.N. — was the most recent apex of imperialistic hubris; Vietnam was a past apex. An unprovoked strike on North Korea would send a clear message that the U.S. has still not learned about the limits of invasion.
In virtually every country where the U.S. has launched a major intervention — the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and so on — a counterinsurgency has formed to harass the American occupying force. Attempts at nation building and spreading democracy have generally failed to do anything except make the locals hate us. Undoubtedly, the citizens of the DPRK would actively resist an arriving imperialist army.
Besides, warfare is the most glaringly obvious symbol of imperial power — there is nothing subtle, and certainly nothing democratic, about a preemptive missile strike or invasion. As William Appleman Williams once observed, “The tragedy of American diplomacy is not that it is evil, but that it denies and subverts American ideas and ideals.”[i] Therefore, if America wants to stand for some sort of moral righteousness, then it must not strike the first blow against North Korea.
Still, for the sake of argument, what would it take for a preemptive strike on North Korea to be advisable? For one thing, if we had substantial evidence that a North Korean attack would occur within days or hours, then a preemptive strike might be justified. America would probably still be accused of acting imperialistically, but the imminent threat would win world sympathy. However, the odds of getting such reliable data in time to mount an offensive are slim. In all likelihood, an attack against the DPRK would either be entirely preemptive or entirely defensive (i.e., after a missile strike against, say, Hawaii).
Alternatively, if the U.N. suddenly decided to abandon sanctions and attack North Korea with a united international coalition (ala the 1950 approach), then a preemptive strike by the Americans might evade much foreign criticism. The recent campaign to destabilize Muammar Gaddafi in Libya saw Americans working in concert with foreign allies. As stated previously, though, it is unlikely that the U.N. would get behind an unprovoked military action.
We would be justified in striking North Korea if North Korea attacked us first. In that case, attacking North Korea would be neither an act of imperialistic hubris nor another ill-advised attempt to remake a non-democratic state in America’s image. Rather, America would be acting in self-defense, as after Pearl Harbor. There is a serious catch to waiting for North Korea to throw the first stone, though — many Americans might die in a North Korean missile attack. America would then have justice on its side, but American citizens would have died in the name of acting justly.
In conclusion, North Korea may develop into a real military threat, but preemptively striking North Korea would invite condemnation from around the world. Given how badly America’s reputation suffered because of Iraq, and given the slight progress toward restoring that reputation (e.g., the collaborative Libya campaign), the United States does not need another serious blow to its international prestige. If the historical precedents of Vietnam and Iraq (not to mention our Latin American incursions in the 1970s and 80s) hold true, a preemptive strike will also be divisive not only overseas, but also here at home.
Besides, in all its years of saber rattling, the DPRK has never launched a major offensive against America or South Korea. There have been border incidents and some assassinations, but Kim Jong Il, even at his most erratic, never authorized a full-fledged attack on the West. This physical restraint, despite rhetorical excess, suggests that the DPRK high command is not completely irrational.
However, Kim Jong Un’s administration has ramped up the anti-American rhetoric, even by North Korean standards, and is making genuine strides toward full nuclear capability. The DPRK is also as obstinate as ever, refusing to conform to international codes regarding nuclear weapons, banking, and human rights. There is a dangerous streak of unpredictability in that regime. I cannot say with certainty that the DPRK will not attempt a preemptive strike on us.
As such, even though a defensive strategy is best in regard to North Korea, it is impossible to know (a) how the DPRK will act, and (b) what our imperial government will do to the DPRK. Will we strike North Korea if the rogue country’s rhetoric remains warlike, despite the inadvisability of a preemptive attack? Would a preemptive offensive anger China? Would China accuse us of imperialistic overreach and ally with the DPRK against us? Or, should we ask China to discipline North Korea for us, so that we don’t have to launch a preemptive strike? And if we do take the offensive against North Korea, will we once again lose the backing of the international community? Indeed, would our headstrong government even care about a symbolic slap on the wrist from the U.N.?
When the tipping point in Korean-American relations comes, the solution hashed out by the American political elite will probably satisfy no one, and may very well lead to bloodshed.
For Further Reading: Dominion From Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power by Bruce Cumings; Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History, Updated Edition by Bruce Cumings; Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present by Julian Go; Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism by Greg Grandin;The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam; Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy by Andrew Preston; The Tragedy of American Diplomacy by William Appleman Williams.
The cover photo is archived from the original web layout. Source: