Rolling the Iron Dice

Can Kim Jong Un use his nukes and get away with it?

The rushed deployment of American missile interceptors to Guam last week, buttressing those already in place at Fort Greely, Alaska, makes for good politics but reflects poor strategic vision. The apparent threat posed by North Korea -- that Kim Jong Un might lob a lone, long-range missile toward the United States -- is illusory. Pyongyang has no missile with that kind of range, and almost surely no nuclear warhead small enough to fit on such a delivery vehicle anyway. As to striking closer to home, say against Japan, the North Korean history of faulty, inaccurate missiles suggests they'd have a hard time even hitting land at all, much less any specifically designated target. More to the point, though, any one-off attack of this sort would invite an absolutely devastating response to which North Korea would have no adequate defense.

Rather than behaving in such suicidal fashion, Kim could be thinking more creatively about the strategic utility of his small nuclear arsenal across the spectrum of bad behavior open to him. The simplest and safest path he can pursue is to persist in his bluster while refraining from any kind of serious military provocation. When the current furore dies down, he can declare victory in this latest confrontation. Or, ratcheting up the action just a little, he might order something like the 2010 artillery bombardment of the border island Yeongpyeong, during which some South Korean soldiers were killed. Both large-scale bluster and small-scale bombardment are more than adequately supportable by the North's nuclear capacities. Nobody is going to war against Pyongyang on the basis of harsh rhetoric or mild skirmishing. So stand by for more churlishness, and maybe even a little violence.

But there is also a possibility -- to be taken quite seriously -- that North Korean strategists believe that they could mount a larger, but still limited, military action against the South. An incursion several tens of kilometers deep that imperiled Seoul, say, and/or the American troops in the Chorwon Valley. The attack on the ground might be supported by cyber-strikes designed to disrupt South Korean and U.S. military command and control. Recent cyberattacks on the Republic of Korea, seemingly coming from the North, suggest that Pyongyang may have such a capability. Overall, the idea would be to mount a limited offensive, halt in place, then seek economic and other concessions -- for example, an end to sanctions, perhaps more aid -- in a negotiated peace settlement. The idea is that the North's viable nuclear escalatory threat, small as it is, would nevertheless deter a large-scale American response, allowing this strategy to succeed. Chancy, but doable.

At the peak of the risk spectrum, Kim Jong Un could decide one day -- surely not now, as alert levels south of the 38th Parallel are too high -- to mount a full-scale invasion with the North's million-man army. If he were to "roll the iron dice" (the phrase that German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg used to describe going to war in 1914), the North's nuclear capacity could come into play in two ways. The first would be limited to trying to deter a counter-blow by American-led forces, something akin to the amphibious "left hook" that Douglas MacArthur mounted at Inchon in September 1950. Indeed, it would take a very steely resolve in Washington to send large numbers of troops to fight in what might become an irradiated battle zone -- where millions of Korean civilians would be among the most vulnerable.

The second, and far riskier, option Kim could choose would be to detonate a nuclear weapon at the outset of an invasion of the South. Not on the ground, but at very high altitude. Nobody would be killed, but the explosion would generate a highly disruptive electromagnetic pulse. This would fry or block almost all South Korean and American communications, and many other computer systems, greatly diminishing defensive capacities for days, probably weeks. It would greatly complicate efforts to deal with a blitz from the North, an assault perhaps to be led by Kim's roughly 100,000 special forces, many of them infiltrating via tunnels or on radar-evading Colt II biplanes. The chance Pyongyang would be taking -- that President Obama would refrain from nuking the North in retaliation -- is enormous. But, given that a high-altitude detonation would not have killed anyone on the ground, the American response might well be limited to conventional counterattack. If so, the great early advantage enjoyed by invaders less dependent on the kinds of communications that would be disrupted -- and the latent threat of holding South Koreans hostage to nuclear attack -- just might give the North a chance to prevail.

This would be especially true if the international community felt impelled to try to mediate a ceasefire. It would be quite ironic were near-friendless North Korea to see the United Nations -- the organization that authorized the "police action" against Kim Il Sung in 1950 -- come to its rescue. Short of substantial international peacemaking efforts, there would always be the North's "China card." Beijing saved North Korea the last time war broke out on the peninsula; how China would respond to a major new conflict would no doubt determine the outcome yet again.

With all the foregoing in mind, may I suggest that we stop focusing on the illusory threat of North Korean long-range missiles attacking the United States? There are far more pressing matters to consider at the unruly lower end of the spectrum of conflict. And far more serious concerns at the higher end as, one day, perhaps soon, a faltering North Korean economy may prompt a tottering regime to take the chance that it just might roll a seven or an eleven, allowing it to win with the iron dice of war.

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National Security

Would Captain Kirk Intervene in Syria?

What 'Star Trek' teaches us about international relations.

From the early stirrings of modern international law in the mid-1700s, there has been a norm of military non-intervention in others' affairs -- a kind of real-world version of Star Trek's Prime Directive -- but it has been routinely violated. Beginning with Emerich de Vattel's Law of Nations (1758), continuing with John Stuart Mill's "A Few Words About Non-Intervention" (1859), and on to John Vincent's Non-Intervention and International Order (1974), a steady stream of philosophers, scholars, and statesmen have affirmed the right of nations to determine their own fates without foreign militaries coming in to settle their hash. Still, this great weight of logical argument has been overturned again and again by nations keen to intervene and spread their influence, control natural resources, or, possibly more nobly, to "improve" other peoples' lives. As the late Hedley Bull observed back in the 1980s: "[T]he gap between the rule of non-intervention and the facts of intervention [is] now so vast that the former has become a mockery."

In the decades since Professor Bull made his assessment, the United States has been one of the world's leading practitioners of intervention, often prompted by a growing willingness to use force to spread democracy. Even before George W. Bush's military misadventures in the Middle East, Bill Clinton had ratcheted up an aid mission in Somalia into an effort to tip the scales in an ongoing civil war, an intervention that ended badly on the chaotic streets of Mogadishu in 1993. The next year he ordered an invasion of Haiti -- a threat that was good enough on its own to send dictator Raoul Cedras running. Clinton also intervened twice in the Balkans, largely on humanitarian grounds -- both times only with air power, even in that pre-drone era. When it came to Rwanda, though, where nearly a million innocents were hacked to death in a few months, Clinton demurred -- an inaction that he notes in his memoirs is "his greatest regret."

Barack Obama has taken up the cudgels of intervention as well, but with much more subtlety than his immediate predecessors. In Libya, for example, he both cultivated allied participation and limited the American role to combat support. Same with Mali. Even his drone attacks on the sovereign territory of other nations have come at a slow pace -- only a few dozen have been launched this year -- and with much stealth. Now he calls for the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but he has so far limited the notion of intervening to stepped-up support for "good rebels." This is something like the position Ronald Reagan took with regard to arming the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s -- but that action is more properly labeled a "counter-intervention," as there were over 100,000 Russian soldiers occupying Afghanistan at the time. Obama's biggest test will come over Iran, where he could argue that self-defense compels intervention to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.

The United States has hardly been alone in "making a mockery" of the norm on non-intervention. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided considerable support for wars of national liberation -- often with the assistance of Cuban soldiers, who punched way above their weight on the world stage. These were the sorts of wars that, ironically, the Russians are now opposing by helping to prop up Assad in Syria. After the collapse of the USSR, Russian troops intervened in several of its successor states also, in the so-called "near abroad." But Moscow has seemingly tempered its appetite for intervention and now serves as a leading voice in the United Nations, along with China, against such ventures -- though, assistance to Bashar aside, Russian forces also remain in Abkhazia against the wishes of the Georgian government.

All these actions should prompt us to ask whether the principle of non-intervention should simply be jettisoned. When one looks back at American history, though, there may be at least some support for non-intervention. Yes, Americans must acknowledge that independence from Britain was won in part because of French military intervention. But it was Britain's decision not to intervene in the Civil War -- a choice London made after many stern Russian warnings to stay out of the conflict -- that contributed mightily to the Union prevailing. To these events one must add the clear preference of the founding fathers to avoid wars overseas. Indeed, in the wake of the Revolutionary War, and for some time after, the "standing army" was kept under 1,000 soldiers, most of whom patrolled the frontiers. Foreign intervention was something in which the Founders had little interest.

These sentiments were profoundly felt among the body politic, and American intervention came in World War I only after German U-boats began to wage a particularly savage form of unrestricted submarine warfare. In World War II, the United States stayed out until directly attacked at Pearl Harbor; even then, after the day of infamy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt could get a declaration of war only against Japan. War with Germany had to wait the few days it took for Hitler to declare war on the United States.

The American ethos of non-intervention began to erode during the Cold War, when decisions were all too often taken to intervene in nations where the Russo-American rivalry was being played out. But after the collapse of communism, and even now in these times when there seems little that can stand in the way of American interventionism, cautionary voices are still heard. Ron Paul may have received far too few votes to make a difference in American presidential politics, but his message of non-intervention still resonates deeply throughout the land.

So maybe it's a good idea to hold on to the non-intervention principle. After the debacles American foreign policy has suffered over the past decade, the notion of non-intervention offers important ethical and intellectual handholds for those who would urge caution upon their political and military leaders. The principle also keeps pace with the sense of the vast majority of other nations -- who prefer non-intervention -- which will help to shore up the kind of unity that will prove crucial if progress, prosperity, and peace are to have a chance in the future. Such unity will also be much needed on those (hopefully rare) occasions when intervention is appropriate -- as in keeping another Rwanda-like genocide from ever occurring.

In the world of Star Trek, the Prime Directive served as a check, but not an unthinking ban, on intervention. And so there were many interventions and counter-interventions. My favorite was in the original series, the episode "A Private Little War," when Captain Kirk ordered Scottie to make some flintlock muskets for the bow-hunting hill people of a planet where he had once tarried because the Klingons were arming the other side with these relatively advanced weapons. Kirk intervened, but only after much soul-searching, and in a proportionate way that established a balance of power and at least kept the Prime Directive in mind.

Would that all interventions in our world were undertaken as thoughtfully.