News analysis

Concerns mount over possible 'bloody nose' strike on N. Korea

Concerns are mounting over the possibility of a targeted strike by the United States on North Korea, with analysts warning that Washington will face major dilemmas if it were to order such a "bloody nose" strike.

Miscalculations and flawed assumptions could trigger an all-out war, analysts told The Straits Times.

Discussions over the risky move have intensified after Dr Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor and senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, was abruptly dropped this week as the White House's pick for US ambassador to Seoul.

Reports said he had counselled against a military strike. Ina commentary in The Washington Post on Feb 1 - seemingly a few hours after his nomination had been dropped - Dr Cha cautioned against a "bloody nose" military strike on North Korea. And Dr Cha is by no means a moderate on North Korea. It suggests that hawks rule the roost in the Trump administration.

"The administration's interest in striking the North appears to be all too real," Dr Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Paul Tsai China Centre at Yale Law School and an adjunct senior fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, wrote in The Atlantic on Wednesday.

But such a strike on North Korea would trigger "cataclysm", she warned.

That the US has the resources and ability to mount a targeted strike in short order is beyond doubt. But a strike would trigger an unpredictable chain of events.

"The US can control what it does, but not what the North sees and believes," warned Dr Robert Jervis, professor of international affairs at Columbia University, in a piece published on the website 38 North.

One of the biggest dilemmas the US faces in striking, say, a North Korean missile facility, would be whether to evacuate American families from Seoul and other places in South Korea within range of retaliation from North Korea.

Dr Jervis estimated that the US Defence Department officials he had spoken to put the probability of a military strike higher than he had assumed.

But he was "not sure how carefully people had thought things through", he told The Straits Times.

One of the biggest dilemmas the US faces in striking, say, a North Korean missile facility, would be whether to evacuate American families from Seoul and other places in South Korea within range of retaliation from North Korea.

Starting such an evacuation would send a powerful signal to the North that the US was preparing to strike. But it would also take away the element of surprise.

On any given day, there are 230,000 Americans in South Korea and 90,000 or so in Japan, Dr Cha wrote in The Washington Post commentary.

Projections of an all-out war put the potential death toll in the hundreds of thousands in just a few days.

President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser, General H.R. McMaster, has emerged as one of the administration's most hawkish voices on North Korea.

Mr Matt Pottinger, Mr Trump's top adviser for Asia on the National Security Council, is widely seen as backing Gen McMaster.

Gen McMaster has since last summer been building a case for the use of preventive force against North Korea, Dr Rapp-Hooper wrote.

Administration hawks believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cannot be deterred.

They see North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics as a move to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. They see Mr Kim's long-term plan as waging conventional war - under the threat of his own nuclear umbrella - to drive US forces off the Korean peninsula, and they fear he will proliferate nuclear weapons technology.

"Nuclear deterrence and US military superiority, in other words, would not be enough to halt Kim's mission of peninsular conquest," Dr Rapp-Hooper wrote in The Atlantic.

Dr Cynthia Watson, professor of strategy at The National War College, told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: "The administration believes it must convince Pyongyang that it will act if North Korea does not move to reduce its nuclear threat."

"I believe President Trump and his team genuinely believe they must alter the current trajectory the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) nuclear programme is on," she wrote. She stressed that she was expressing her personal opinion.

But she added: "I don't think the military is anxious to launch a strike as they do know well the implications. These are sane, rational professionals who are weighing the relative dangers differently than many people discussing the Korea problem."

As the US had discovered in Vietnam, the "willingness to suffer is a source of power", Dr Jervis warned in his piece published on 38 North.

"The likelihood of the success of our use of force therefore depends on North Korea's will."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2018, with the headline 'Concerns mount over possible 'bloody nose' strike on N. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe