President Trump stood before the UN General Assembly this week and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea just as a new NPR poll suggested that three-quarters of the population are unaware that he has the sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. It should also come as no surprise that the public is in the dark about what exactly the ever elusive “military option” even entails, despite its frequent cameos in press conferences and on Twitter. News coverage hasn’t really helped, either. Most of the commentary just asks the reader to trust that the options exist but are all bad.
So what are the actual options and why are they bad? We’re not dotards here, so let’s have a look at the big three and the very troubling consequences of each.
1: The US could continue its military buildup in the hopes of convincing North Korea to sit tight.
This would mean increasing the presence of naval assets, ground forces, heavy weaponry, and even controversial missile interceptors. However, South Korea has already raised objections to this tactic, which they fear might piss off the North. Plus, a military buildup may lead to a miscalculation which could escalate to full-scale war. To make matters worse, US missile interceptors have a rather poor success rate even in tightly controlled tests. Relying on interceptors that may miss a target at such a crucial moment is not a very good way to conduct a science experiment – or national security.
2: The US could bomb key locations in North Korea.
This would most likely be carried out with tomahawk cruise missiles and airstrikes. One problem with this approach is that the North Korean military has employed mobile missile sites. If tomahawks, which are not very accurate over long distances, or airstrikes missed even one nuclear weapon, it could be aimed at US forces or our allies, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life. Additionally, if the intelligence community has under-estimated the missile’s range, it could conceivably reach the continental US. One could also expect a massive conventional military response from the North similar to the response that our third option would elicit.
3: The US could launch a full-scale invasion.
No one doubts that North Korea would lose in a conventional war; however, its military could still inflict enormous damage before its defeat. While its massive artillery stockpile probably won’t destroy Seoul as some have suggested, it can easily be aimed elsewhere. The North Korean military has based its entire strategy around repelling a potential US invasion. Many important locations are well defended, and it would be difficult for US ground forces to advance on them. Strong air defenses would limit the effectiveness of airstrikes on these locations as well. When backed into a corner it is entirely possible that the North may even bring its nuclear weapons to bear to destroy as much as possible before an inevitable defeat. The US and its allies would probably win the war, but the cost would be enormous. While it’s impossible to truly determine the potential loss of life from a full-scale war, many estimate that hundreds of thousands of people would die on both sides.
The unfortunate truth is that as the situation continues to deteriorate on the Korean Peninsula the prospect of there being any “good” options deteriorates with it. It’s doubtful that the US will simply tolerate a nuclear North Korea in the long term. However, the only viable option that doesn’t guarantee massive casualties seems to be a combination of deterrence, diplomacy, and a lot of hope – hope that no one in the White House has the brilliant idea of carrying out a nuclear first strike that would undermine national security for decades to come.
Cody Wilson is a graduate student focusing on international relations and national security policy.