News - The Economist

Donald Trump May Be Bluffing Over a Pre-Emptive Strike on North Korea

  • David Rennie
| Jan. 25, 2018

But do not count on it

The last time that America almost risked a pre-emptive strike on North Korea the gamble offered a spectacular pay-off. Ashton Carter, a leading architect of that plan, recalls that his scheme for bombing the Yongbyon nuclear facility in 1994 assumed that in one or two days the entirety of the regime’s nuclear programme could be levelled and entombed in rubble. Mr Carter, who went on to become defence secretary in the Obama administration, now thinks that an American first strike would only put “a significant dent” in North Korea’s arsenal of nuclear devices and bombmaking sites. “The difference today is that the North Koreans are very good at hiding, burying and moving around their nuclear infrastructure,” says Mr Carter, now at Harvard University.

If the potential upsides of a strike have shrunk, the risks have grown hugely. The crisis of 1994 saw Kim Il Sung thwart international inspections and threaten to put plutonium from Yongbyon into half a dozen primitive bombs. Since then power passed to the despot’s son and in 2011 to his grandson, Kim Jong Un, a young man in a hurry who has to date never met a foreign leader, even from China, the closest his all-but-friendless kingdom has to an ally. North Korea has tested six nuclear devices between 2006 and 2017, including what appeared to be a hydrogen bomb, and produced enough plutonium and uranium for possibly dozens more warheads. Its missiles credibly threaten American territory in Guam, Hawaii or even the continental United States, even if officials do not believe a North Korean nuclear-tipped rocket can yet reach an American city.

Just because war in Korea would be unspeakably dangerous does not mean that it will not happen. Sober officials with long careers in Asia policy talk of being more fearful than at any time in recent memory. America is governed by Donald Trump, who revels in matching North Korea in bluster. He has called Mr Kim “Little Rocket Man” and a “sick puppy”, and promised that continued North Korean threats to America “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Mr Trump has at times called diplomacy with the Kim regime “a waste of time”. He is also scornful of allies and alliances, causing one Japanese expert to identify a grave concern: “that Trump will come up with a military option and not take the costs seriously.” It is not just Mr Trump. The generals seen as a steadying influence on the president have given warnings that the Kim regime cannot be permitted to build weapons that threaten American territory.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rennie, David. “Donald Trump May Be Bluffing Over a Pre-Emptive Strike on North Korea.” News, The Economist, January 25, 2018.

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