The LA-based Jewish Journal asked me to write an essay about how to avoid a nuclear war with North Korea. Here’s the first part.
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea is often described as the most dangerous place in the world. It’s a no man’s land 160 miles long and 2 1/2-miles wide, wrapped with electrical fencing and laced with antipersonnel mines.
At the so-called Joint Security Area, North and South Korean soldiers stare holes through each other, with the South Koreans behind reflective sunglasses. Almost 30,000 American troops are stationed there as a tripwire. If the North invades the South — as it has in the past and for more than five decades has sworn to do again — its soldiers will have to go through ours. You can go there today as a tourist from the South Korean side, a mere 35 miles from the capital Seoul, and nothing is likely to happen to you; but if war breaks out, this place will explode so catastrophically it will make the Iraq War look and feel like a lazy afternoon nap.
In mountainsides just north of the DMZ, the North has buried thousands of artillery pieces that can pound Seoul’s urban area, home to more than 25 million people, with as many as half a million shells in an hour. More than a million people could be killed, practically in an instant, even if nobody on either side uses nuclear weapons.
We haven’t been this close to total war with North Korea since the 1950s.
The North’s tyrant leader, Kim Jong Un, has dozens of atomic bombs (no one is entirely sure of how many) and claims he’s ready to test an exponentially more destructive hydrogen bomb. And for the first time ever, his intercontinental ballistic missiles may be capable of striking mainland United States.
The North Korean missile crisis, which these days feels like the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion, already has taken us well beyond the most dangerous threshold. North Korea isn’t an aspiring nuclear power. It already has arrived. Kim can kill as many American civilians in cities from Seattle to Chicago as he can in Seoul. It is too late to stop him. During a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania in late September, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, said he believes there is a 10 percent chance of a nuclear war breaking out between the United States and North Korea, and a 20-30 percent chance of them engaging in a conventional war.
Kim also has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons and has proven that he’s willing to use them. In February, two young women — one from Vietnam, the other from Indonesia — assassinated his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the ultratoxic VX nerve agent.
South Korea and Malaysia have accused North Korea of being behind the killing. If that was the case, Kim removed a potential rival, reminded the entire world that he has chemical as well as nuclear weapons, and demonstrated to all that he’s willing to use them. And if he’s willing to use them against his own family, what’s stopping him from using them to kill complete strangers in the United States, Japan and South Korea?
In 1994, North Korea committed itself on paper to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the so-called Agreed Framework between Pyongyang and Washington, agreeing to replace its nuclear power infrastructure with light-water reactors that couldn’t be used to produce nuclear weapons. In exchange, President Bill Clinton’s administration agreed to deliver half a million tons of heavy oil each year. The purpose was to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons without going to war. It failed.
A Gallup poll released in September found that 58 percent of Americans favor military action against North Korea if diplomatic options continue to fail, including 37 percent of Democrats. The United States absolutely could mount a preventive war against North Korea and would certainly win. Let there be no doubt about that. Let there be no doubt also that the cost would amount to a textbook example of a Pyrrhic victory, where the price of victory would be so high that it would be indistinguishable from outright losing.
Millions could die in South Korea alone, mostly in and around Seoul. Hundreds of thousands could die in Japan, too, if Kim, in a fit of malicious pique, nuked the Japanese. There’s no telling how many would die on the northern side of the Korean border. That would depend, in part, on whether the United States used nuclear weapons. And we might as well write off most of the 30,000 American troops stationed near the DMZ as potentially lost right at the outset.