"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." ~ Foreign Affairs magazine
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I had a brief crush on a pretty classmate named Paulette, although I was too shy to let her know it. Now, some five decades later, she's a Facebook "friend" living in Guam and worried that North Korea might carry out its recent threat to nuke her island paradise.
I posted a comment to reassure her that even the craziest leaders of North Korea weren't crazy enough to bring devastating reprisal on themselves, and, besides, they probably couldn't reach Guam with a nuclear tipped missile even if they wanted to. At least not yet.
She hasn't responded, so I don't know if I allayed her fears, but I'm guessing that I probably didn't. If I lived in Guam or one of the other threatened territories, I probably wouldn't even be able to allay my own fears. Reason can soothe jangled nerves only so much in the face of nuclear threat, however small that threat might seem to be.
And "seem to be" is the operative phrase, because we don't really know the full extent of North Korea's nuclear capabilities or of its inclination to utilize them. We can only make intelligent guesses, and I read an article last night in Foreign Affairs magazine that offers some of the most intelligent guessing I've seen recently. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to calm anyone's fears.
For the gist of the article is that even though North Korea's leaders almost certainly don't want to initiate military conflict with South Korea or the USA by using nuclear weapons, they could quickly escalate to it if their backs were against the wall after being overwhelmed by superior U.S. and South Korean forces in conventional warfare, just as NATO planned to do in Europe if it were overpowered by Warsaw Pact troops during the Cold War, and just as Russia and Pakistan plan to do now if they're attacked by superior conventional forces.
The article explains that what makes this escalation even more likely is the way advanced militaries such as the USA's conduct modern warfare against less advanced nations by immediately targeting their leaders, command and control systems, and communications infrastructure with "shock and awe" destruction. Were the U.S. to do this against North Korea, it would likely panic its threatened and isolated leadership into using nuclear weapons to save themselves, and God only knows what would happen then.
So, the article urges that the U.S. do everything possible to avoid conventional war with North Korea and if, failing that, it has to attack, that it do so in the most limited ways possible, leaving North Korea's leadership with a sense of some control over their fate and a way out.
I hope President Obama and his cabinet have read Foreign Affairs' incisive analysis and taken it to heart. And I hope my childhood sweetheart sleeps easier tonight.
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