LONDON, September 25 — Last week’s presidential speech at the U.N. General Assembly conclave in New York City was marked in particular by Donald Trump’s threat “to totally destroy North Korea” if the United States and its allies were attacked or threatened by Kim Jong Un. Aside from the poor grammar, this declaration is not without precedent. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that “we will bury you” many decades earlier. However, Khrushchev was referring to the ideological and strategic competition between east and west and not a fight to the death in a war that almost certainly would have seen the use of thermonuclear weapons.
Given North Korea’s aggressive and defiant actions to test both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles in the face of overwhelming condemnation by the international community, including Russia and China, the promise by the United States to “keep all options on the table” certainly has not removed the threat of military of force from consideration. National Security Adviser Lt.-Gen. H.R. McMaster made that clear in televised interviews two Sundays ago. Secretary of Defense James Mattis noted, but did not elaborate on, military options that could prevent North Korea from making devastating strikes on the South.
Since all options are seemingly on the table, if only as leverage to hasten diplomatic solutions, one question must be asked and answered. If war were to come, what would the Korean peninsula look like once hostilities ended? Of course, how the war started and whether mass destruction weapons were used or not must be part of any answers.
One possibility is the Korean War (1950-53) model. The North could launch a sudden attack and overwhelm the defenses. South Korean and American forces could find themselves forced to retreat to the equivalent of a Pusan Perimeter in the southeastern-most tip of the peninsula gathering strength to repel the North Korea forces.
Equally, even if the North attacked first, the huge firepower and technological advantages of U.S. and South Korea forces could rout the offensive, plunging the North Korean army into full retreat as occurred after the famous Inchon Landing encircled the enemy in late 1950. But where would the combined forces stop? Remember, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur ignored China’s repeated warnings to halt the rush to the Yalu River that marked the border with Korea. A million Chinese intervened and the war drew to a stalemate around the 38th parallel.
Make no mistake: Nuclear and chemical weapons could also be used. To the degree that the United States must destroy North Korea’s nuclear, missile and artillery capabilities in any war, conventional weapons might be insufficient. That would lead to employing so-called tactical nuclear weapons to obliterate Kim’s capabilities, as well as the massive 20,000-pound MOAB or “Mother of All Bombs.”
Nuclear fallout would spread north to China.
North Korea understands these strategic and military interactions. Hence, its nuclear arsenals no doubt are secured in deep underground facilities that might not be totally destroyed or even greatly damaged. Nor does Kim need an ICBM to strike America. The equivalent of using FedEx would work. Smuggling a nuclear device into the United States — a recurring security nightmare and plot for countless television shows and movies — is not impossible. And the same applies to using nuclear weapons against the United States and South Korea militaries and the cities in the South.
By all accounts, the United States and South Korea would “win,” if winning means annihilating the Kim regime and imposing a peace on the North. However, China would have a huge stake in this outcome. So would Russia. And Japan would not like to be excluded, particularly it Kim had been able to hit it with missile strikes.
Would a new and democratic North Korea be created? Would a U.N.-administered regime be put in place? Or would Korea be united? And who would pay for reconstruction as the peninsula would surely be devastated, especially if nuclear weapons were used.
In Vietnam and of course in Iraq in 2003, the “what next” question was not asked or answered. As North Korea continues along its nuclear path and all options are indeed on the table, the next-day question must be addressed. If there is a war, what would the peace look like? If we refuse to address this question and find a suitable answer, then all options should not and cannot be on the table.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His next book, “Anatomy of Failure: Why America has Lost Every War it Starts,” will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.