The odds of a nuclear war with North Korea are growing inexorably, such that eventually a war is probably inevitable. Once you accept that premise, the only logical conclusion is that America must strike North Korea and destroy the regime of Kim Jong Un, and we must do so now. The choice is not between peace and war, it is a choice between tens of thousands of casualties in the nearest future or tens of millions of casualties in the not so distant future. And the window for action is closing rapidly.
According to a new assessment by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, North Korea will by next year be able to field a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile. And once they have perfected the technology for putting nuclear weapons on ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States, there is nothing to prevent them from building an arsenal of hundreds of these weapons.
People are notoriously bad at estimating risk. Most people are afraid of terrorism. I’m not. I’m afraid of taking a shower in the morning. Well, not afraid, but cautious, because statistically a person in America is far, far more likely to slip and suffer a fatal fall in the shower than to be a victim of terrorism.
And people are especially blithe about the risks of nuclear war. It is, over the short run, a highly improbable event, but catastrophic beyond imagination if it happens. Catastrophic in the sense of tens of millions dead, maybe billions, and the end of modern civilization. I am amazed that while many people don’t trust the government to deliver the mail efficiently, they trust in governments to possess devices which can in less than an hour kill them and everyone they have ever known and loved, and put an end to 4,000 years of civilization.
During most of the Cold War, only the two superpowers had massive nuclear arsenals. And both the Americans and the Soviets were cautious, felt relatively secure, and had highly reliable technology for command-and-control. But nonetheless, thanks to a political miscalculation by Nikita Khrushchev, America and the Soviet Union almost stumbled into a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Less well known, but perhaps much scarier, are the several incidents when technical failures or intelligence mistakes almost lead to large-scale nuclear launches.
There is a widespread myth that Kim Jong Un is coldly calculating and altogether rational, and that developing nuclear weapons is merely his strategy for political survival. And many people assume that his regime is stable and predictable. These are dangerous assumptions to rely upon, particularly when we are risking our survival as a nation.
Kim has been raised from childhood to be a God-King, ruling over his people with utterly complete and unrestrained power. He has ordered the execution of his own uncle and the murder of his brother. He routinely expresses homicidal hatred toward the United States. He doesn’t appear to have much knowledge or understanding of the world outside his carefully sheltered cocoon in Pyongyang. North Korea was not under any likely threat of attack, yet he has undertaken a dangerous and highly provocative course of action. Kim seems to me strikingly reckless, ignorant, paranoid and mentally unstable, i.e. not someone I would literally trust with my life.
His regime, and those of his father and grandfather, are among the most brutally repressive and criminal in modern history. And North Korea is among the poorest and economically backward countries on Earth, one of the few in modern times to suffer large-scale famine because of an inability to feed its own people. Brutally repressive regimes, like Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, seem to be rock-solid, until the moment they completely collapse.
Kim’s personal character, the militarism of North Korean society, the primitive state of North Korea’s command-and-control systems, and the inherent instability of the Pyongyang regime are all enormous risks, magnified a thousand-fold the moment North Korea has a nuclear-capable ICBM. And Kim clearly will not be content with a handful of ICBMs capable of striking the United States. Once his nuclear assembly line gets rolling, he will not stop short of a massive arsenal.
The consequences of war now are difficult to predict, but undoubtedly profound. Maybe a decapitation strike would end the war before it really got started. And the United States, Korea, and China would have to negotiate a reunification of Korea and find a trillion or so dollars to finance it.
More likely, South Korea would have to endure massive artillery bombardment from the North, American soldiers would have to go into combat, and tens of thousands will die. I would hope at least that with anti-missile defenses against North Korea’s still relatively small collection of rockets, Tokyo, Seoul and American bases would be spared nuclear devastation. But the war would, with the full application of American military might, be over in days.
But once Kim achieves his goal of acquiring nuclear-tipped ICBMs, there is no going back. And I do not think he will be content with mere regime security. He will prod and provoke and demand, and we (America and our Asian allies) will be at Kim’s mercy. And when some crisis spins out of control, or when Kim’s internal demons take over, or when there is a failure of command-and-control, or when the Pyongyang regimes faces collapse, we may well be looking at tens of millions of dead, and the destruction of the American homeland.
This is not a decision we can put off for much longer, the clock is ominously ticking, and time is not on our side.