For the bulk of my professional career, I’ve been studying maybe the most difficult and dangerous question in American foreign policy: how to handle a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons. During five of those years, my job at the U.S. Department of Defense was anything but academic. I was at the center of the Pentagon’s efforts to wrap our heads around what to do in a crisis; as part of that work, I advised Pentagon leadership through two real-world crises in 2010, and spent the years that followed figuring out how to prevent or overcome future North Korean attacks. The nature of the work inhibits me from talking about particulars. But suffice it to say that we examined the problem from every imaginable angle, from how to prevail in traditional war scenarios at an acceptable cost to how the U.S. military would manage the sudden collapse of North Korean regime. Meanwhile, the task of managing North Korea has grown only more difficult as the country has advanced toward being able to hit the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.
Now, I’m getting nightmare flashbacks as I read the fragmentary reports dribbling out in the media about what seems like an intense debate inside the Trump administration. A recent story in the Wall Street Journal suggests that some on the Trump team have floated the idea of giving a “bloody nose” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The action would be a preventive, limited attack on a North Korean missile facility, nuclear facility or missile launch site. The purported aim of giving Kim a bloody nose would be to “illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior,” according to the Journal.
Advocates of the bloody nose strategy are willing to make a bet: that if the U.S. attacks the North in an unprovoked but limited way, Kim will not retaliate with violence in kind—or worse. This assumption amounts to a sucker’s bet, and the price will be mass casualties. Hundreds of thousands of people could die.
To explain why a bloody nose is bound to cause a bloody war, I could point to reams of academic research, including evidence that shows states with small nuclear arsenals and conventional military inferiority have strong incentives to respond to an attack by launching nuclear first strikes. I could describe how unprovoked attacks create reputations for hostility but not resolve, making it a poor way of trying to teach an adversary a lesson. I could even highlight research that suggests attacking nuclear facilities only accelerates, not retards, a state’s scramble for nuclear weapons.
But scholarly knowledge can seem esoteric, and at any rate the Trump administration is normalizing the idea of a “bloody nose” attack against North Korea despite the mass of expert opinion counseling against it. So perhaps the most persuasive way to illustrate the utter folly of this fringe concept would be to engage in momentary strategic empathy with Kim and the situation in which he would find himself in the immediate aftermath of U.S. strikes. To truly understand Kim, we need to imagine what it’s like to be him.
First, let’s walk through the scenario and choices facing North Korea’s supreme leader. As you’ll see, there is no beneficial outcome to be had, and the downside ranges from a cycle of local retaliatory violence to outright nuclear war targeting U.S. territory—and once we’ve attacked, that choice rests mostly with Kim, not with us.
Phase 1: The Attack
If the United States aims to teach North Korea a lesson, as the Journal’s reporting suggests, it needs the attack to be public, which should rule out using special forces or clandestine means of destruction. The ideal target for sending a message to Pyongyang would also be the hardest to hit—a mobile missile, fired from a “transporter-erector-launcher.” Mobile targets are elusive, and made more so by North Korea’s recent use of solid fuel, which gives fewer advance indicators of a pending missile launch.
Successfully striking a mobile target located far from the South Korean border would show that no target in North Korea is out of reach of U.S. power projection, though in fairness, not even North Korea doubts what the United States is capable of; the hypothetical benefit of a demonstration strike is not in revealing U.S. capability but rather U.S. willingness to impose costs on Pyongyang.
Because most of North Korea’s missile sites are located in the northernmost parts of North Korea, a U.S. strike would most likely occur by sea or by air. By sea, the most sensible weapon would be what the Trump administration used to conduct strikes against Syria in April last year—the Tomahawk Land-Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM), fired from one of the many surface ships the U.S. Navy has patrolling in international waters off North Korea’s coasts. By air, the F-22 and F-35, flown in stealth mode, are the aircraft with the least risk of being shot down by North Korea’s network of surface-to-air missile sites.
Whether by sea or by air, the United States would take precautions to maximize the chances of success and minimize damage to the U.S. weapons system by, for example, conducting electronic jamming of North Korean command and control, or destroying secondary targets like air defenses. In the name of self-protection, minutes before the missiles hit, Kim would know that something was up.
Phase 2: Kim Weighs His Options
Now for the morbid and unsettling part. If the United States attacked a North Korean missile site, Kim’s immediate challenge would be trying to determine in realtime whether or not the United States just launched a full-blown war.
Keeping in mind that North Korean hackers stole alliance war plans last year, Kim will look for specific indicators to quickly render this judgment. He’s likely to ask a series of logical questions:
• Are North Korean radars, communications, or computer networks being jammed or disrupted?
• Are North Korea’s “strategic assets”—which includes its missiles and nuclear facilities—being targeted?
• Is a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula?
• Are U.S. nuclear-capable bombers present in Korea or Japan?
• Has there been a U.S. troop buildup in the region?
• Do U.S. rhetorical statements accommodate the possibility of it launching war?
• Are American civilians being evacuated from South Korea?
In conjunction with a U.S. first strike, only one of these seven questions needs to be answered affirmatively for Kim to presume that a war has begun, and the more that are answered “Yes,” the more confident (and swift) he’ll be in that judgment—with devastating consequences.
As of now, a U.S. bloody nose attack would occur in a context where the answer to the first six of these seven questions would indeed be “Yes” (and the hawkish Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has urged a “Yes” on the seventh question, too). Let me explain what I mean. Aircraft carriers and nuclear-capable bombers have become common features of U.S. military posture in Korea, just as they would if the United States were preparing to prosecute a war. The nature of a preventive strike would be to specifically target a North Korean missile site or nuclear facility, both of which are strategic assets. Trump administration officials—and especially Trump himself—have not simply left military options on the table, but actively and repeatedly threatened war. And, as a means of minimizing operational risk to the weapons platform delivering the strike, the U.S. military as a matter of procedure would probably engage in electronic and cyber warfare, disabling the enemy’s countermeasures as much as possible.
Mind you, this is for the most limited and isolated of preventive strikes, against a single target. If the United States were conducting additional attacks, or destroying North Korean air defenses, Kim’s war-decision problem becomes automatic.
Phase 3: Kim Responds
If Kim concluded that war were imminent, or that it had already begun, he would have no choice but to launch a devastating retaliatory response in hopes that it raises the stakes of conflict enough to cause the United States to back off. There’s added urgency, too: The more time passes at the start of a conflict, the greater the military disadvantage facing North Korea. So Kim won’t want to unnecessarily trigger a war himself, but as soon as he’s concluded the war is on, he must take drastic action immediately to maximize his chances of survival.
That immediate drastic action does not inevitably take the form of nuclear attacks, but the likelihood that it does is exceedingly high. Why? Because, facing the “fact” of war, Kim has multiple reinforcing incentives to launch a nuclear strike immediately. Nukes are Kim’s “ace in the hole”; if he doesn’t play them immediately, the U.S. might eliminate them in a first-wave attack. That’s the use-or-lose incentive for nuclear first strikes. And the reason he would use them at all follows what nuclear strategists call the Pakistan model—deliberately escalating to nuclear use in a crisis to strike fear into the enemy sufficient to induce restraint in them.
The targets at which Kim would immediately aim—whether with nuclear warheads or conventional missiles—are likely those that would make it harder for the U.S. and its allies to prosecute a war—the port of Pusan at the southernmost tip of South Korea, U.S. air bases or ports in Japan, or even Guam (home to U.S. nuclear bombers) and Hawaii (home to U.S. Pacific Command headquarters). We know this because North Korea has claimed it would strike such targets in the past, it’s consistent with what we expect from North Korean military strategy, and, if Kim wants to maximize the political advantage from his nuclear weapons, he needs to use them early in a conflict to blunt America’s ability to project power.
North Korean retaliation with nuclear strikes becomes even more thinkable because Kim can now conduct such strikes while holding the U.S. homeland hostage with ICBMs—intercontinental ballistic missiles—as well as Seoul with artillery and rockets, thousands of which are within striking distance of the vulnerable South Korean capital. Kim would be sane for believing that by not turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and not striking the continental United States but still raising the costs of hostilities with limited missile attacks against military targets, he could force the United States into suing for peace or otherwise backing down. Because if the United States refused to back down at that point, he could credibly threaten to attack the United States proper, or destroy Seoul.
Once North Korea launches missiles against U.S. and ally military targets, the body count will clear 100,000 in a matter of hours if those missiles have nuclear warheads mounted on them. And that’s a conservative estimate. Even strikes with conventional warheads would produce tens of thousands of casualties.
If any of this sounds suicidal and therefore implausible, it’s because you’re imagining all this going down in a peacetime context. If Kim concludes war has come—which he has every reason to do given the indicators above—he’s staring down death and the end of his family dynasty. In war, moves that might seem suicidal are actually those with the best chance of scaring the adversary into de-escalation of conflict.
The Alternate Scenario: What if Kim Recognizes the Bloody Nose for What It Is?
Advocates of the bloody nose theory believe that Kim won’t conclude that a single attack amounts to war despite the numerous indicators above that suggest he would. They’re wrong, but suppose a best-case scenario for the bloody-nosers—that Kim errs on the side of caution and decides that a U.S. preventive attack is not a war-launching action. Even then, though, there’s a second problem that directly undermines the bloody-nose assumptions—for reasons of domestic politics and strategic culture, Kim must respond to violence with violence. It’s hard to imagine he would just hunker down and take it, as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad did after Trump ordered airstrikes in response to his regime’s use of chemical weapons.
Kim leads a military and policy elite with a very specific set of beliefs about the utility of force and how the country has managed to survive—by responding to pressure with pressure, by resorting to brinkmanship in times of crisis, and by launching occasional unprovoked, limited attacks at times and places of its choosing. Pressure-for-pressure and deterrence-through-aggression have been North Korea’s modus operandi since the 1960s and endures today.
This highly aggressive strategic culture stems from the country’s history of being overrun by outside great powers, as well as concluding from the history of its rivalry with the United States that deliberate friction through provocations was the reason the United States hadn’t invaded Pyongyang. If Kim recognizes a limited attack as being limited, then he’s less likely to launch nuclear strikes but much more likely to launch a retaliatory campaign of violence at a time and place of his choosing. To do otherwise would open him to charges of weakness and risk a coup d’état that ousts him from power.
And that’s the best-case scenario—ceding the initiative for future military conflict to North Korea by forcing it to plan and execute a military campaign that grants Pyongyang maximum advantage. Bloodying Kim’s nose guarantees that, at minimum, North Korea will develop a military campaign that wreaks bloody havoc on its terms, in a manner that makes it hard for the United States to prevent or even respond. It launched such campaigns repeatedly in the 1960s, and it has an office today (the Reconnaissance General Bureau) dedicated to planning guerilla-style attacks, special operations raids and even terrorist actions.
Several important factors distinguish how and why North Korea would respond differently to being attacked than Assad did in April 2017, or Saddam Hussein when Israel attacked his nuclear reactor in 1981. Kim is ensconced in a strategic culture that doesn’t meaningfully distinguish between a bloody nose and an invasion. Kim has nuclear weapons; they didn’t. Kim has positioned artillery and rockets to continuously hold at risk a capital city with nine million people; neither Assad nor Hussein had any such military leverage. And Kim runs a country that’s on a war footing toward the U.S., while Assad and Hussein weren’t.
The United States has been a sworn enemy of North Korea for more than 70 years. Given the circumstances, Kim would find it difficult to tell the difference between a limited strike out of the blue and the opening salvo of a war. Even if he could, there is no way Kim and his advisers will accept a precedent of being bullied by its larger adversary, especially if they believe that adversary is pulling its punches to avoid war. A bloody nose attack is sheer folly, and President Trump should reject the advice of those pushing him to do it.