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The Next Korean War
Conflict With North Korea Could Go Nuclear -- But Washington Can Reduce the Risk
KEIR A. LIEBER is an Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of Government at Georgetown University.
DARYL G. PRESS is an Associate Professor in the Government Department at Dartmouth College and Coordinator of War and Peace Studies at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.
As North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un issues increasingly over-the-top threats -- including intimations that he might launch nuclear strikes against the United States -- officials in Washington have sought to reassure the public and U.S. allies. North Korea, they say, may initiate cyberattacks or other limited provocations, but the leaders in Pyongyang wish to survive, so they are highly unlikely to do anything as foolhardy as using nuclear weapons.
Despite those assurances, however, the risk of nuclear war with North Korea is far from remote. Although Pyongyang’s tired threats are probably bluster, the current crisis has substantially increased the risk of a conventional conflict -- and any conventional war with North Korea is likely to go nuclear. Washington should continue its efforts to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula. But equally important, it must rapidly take steps -- including re-evaluating U.S. war plans -- to dampen the risks of nuclear escalation if conventional war erupts.
Ironically, the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength. If war erupted, the North Korean army, short on training and armed with decrepit equipment, would prove no match for the U.S.–South Korean Combined Forces Command. Make no mistake, Seoul would suffer some damage, but a conventional war would be a rout, and CFC forces would quickly cross the border and head north.
At that point, North Korea’s inner circle would face a grave decision: how to avoid the terrible fates of such defeated leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Kim, his family, and his cronies could try to escape to China and plead for a comfortable, lifelong sanctuary there -- an increasingly dim prospect given Beijing’s growing frustration with Kim’s regime. Pyongyang’s only other option would be to try to force a cease-fire by playing its only trump card: nuclear escalation.
It’s impossible to know how exactly Kim might employ his nuclear arsenal to stop the CFC from marching to Pyongyang. But the effectiveness of his strategy would not depend on what North Korea initially destroyed, such as a South Korean port or a U.S. airbase in Japan. The key to coercion is the hostage that is still alive: half a dozen South Korean or Japanese cities, which Kim could threaten to attack unless the CFC accepted a cease-fire.