A Preemptive Strike on North Korea?

Does it make sense? What comes after? What comes before?


In the spring of 2013, former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey raised the specter of North Korea developing the capability to use an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) weapon against the United States with the prospect that it would destroy vast amounts of infrastructure that relies on access to electricity.   He called on the U.S. to prepare for a preemptive strike against North Korea to prevent it from developing this capability, just as former Secretary of Defense William Perry and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter argued for a preemptive strike in a 2006 Time editorial to prevent the North from developing an ICBM and nuclear capability that could threaten the United States.

None of these three distinguished leaders were making these calls lightly and each knew full well the potential consequences.  What comes after a preemptive strike must be considered and with this consideration important preparation can be conducted beforehand to either deter or defend against what comes in the aftermath.  The purpose of this essay is not to argue for or against a preemptive strike because that decision will be made by the President who has to weigh the cost in blood and treasure of such a decision.  It is solely to provide military advice and recommendations on the preparations necessary should the decision be made to conduct such a strike.

A preemptive attack against North Korea is not a simple operation.  It is not the same as the attack on Libya in 1986, nor will it be like the air operations over Kosovo and the Balkans or even cruise missile strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan in the 1990s.  It is not the same as Israel attacking nuclear facilities in Osirak in 1981 or Syria in 2007.  There will be much more at stake.

As most know, the vital national interest of North Korea is the survival of the Kim family regime.  The military is key to this regime’s survival and its nuclear and missile capabilities are critical not only for deterrence and defense, it is also crucial to North Korea’s “blackmail diplomacy” that relies on threats and provocations to gain political and economic concessions.  An attack against these critical capabilities would likely be interpreted as an existential threat to the regime and could result in a major attack on the Republic of Korea.  While this may seem like an irrational response from a U.S. and South Korean perspective because the North is unlikely to achieve victory against the ROK-U.S. alliance, we should recall Robert Jervis’ wise words from 1988: “It is rational to start a war one does not expect to win (to be more technical, whose expected utility is negative), if it is believed that the likely consequences of not fighting are even worse.”  The consequences of the loss of its nuclear and missile capabilities may be worse in the calculus of the Kim family regime.  Therefore, we must assume that what comes after a preemptive strike could very well be an attack by the North and we must plan accordingly.

A question we should ask ourselves before we conduct a preemptive strike is what actions would the ROK-U.S. alliance take if it knew the exact day that the North was to execute its campaign plan against the South in an attempt to unify the peninsula?  If we had such perfect intelligence then the obvious answer is that we would take every action possible to deter such an attack and at the same time we would bring the ROK-U.S. military forces to the highest state of readiness in order to defend against such an attack.  So what are those actions and how would we raise our readiness posture?

Once the decision is made by the U.S. President to conduct a preemptive strike, the first step is to consult our Korean allies to ensure we can initiate the full range of combined military preparations.  These will include raising the defense readiness condition to the appropriate levels, deploying in-country forces to defensive positions, and initiating ROK reserve mobilization.  In addition, the U.S. will need to deploy reinforcements from Japan, Guam, Okinawa and the continental U.S.; position the 7th Fleet for operations in the Korean Theater of Operations; and establish an air bridge in order to support flights of strategic aircraft conducting long distance strikes.  Most significantly, the U.S. will have to initiate a non-combatant evacuation order to move American citizens out of harm’s way.

While these may seem like extreme preparations, they are some of the most critical requirements that must be in place to support the strike, as well as to deter North Korea’s response.  All ROK and U.S. assets must be able to effectively defend against the so-called counter-fire fight, or the attack by the North Korean military that will fire thousands of rounds from hundreds of artillery and rockets systems capable of reaching Seoul.  Missile defense systems will need to be in place to defend key population centers and military installations from the North’s long-range missiles.  Finally, ROK and U.S. air forces will need to be prepared to attack and destroy the North Korean integrated air defense system to provide the freedom of action to conduct a preemptive strike and support defensive operations should the North retaliate.

Many will argue that making such preparations prior to a preemptive strike will take away the element of surprise.  That is true.  We will surely be showing our hand.  While this may seem counter-intuitive, these preparations also take away the element of surprise that the North needs to initiate its own campaign plan.  North Korea requires both surprise and an unprepared ROK-U.S. military alliance in order to have any chance of achieving success.  Denying the North these advantages may be a greater deterrence than any rhetoric from the South, U.S., or the international community. Further, ROK-U.S. military capabilities are so superior that the alliance can conduct a preemptive strike at the time and place of its choosing even without the element of surprise.

The decision to conduct a preemptive strike is not a simple matter.  The conditions on the peninsula must be taken into account with proper and prudent preparations executed.  We must also anticipate the North Korean response.  However, if policymakers consider these preparations to be too extreme, then the recommendation to conduct a preemptive strike should be re-evaluated.  If the assessed threat from North Korea does not warrant such military preparations, then the threat may not be dangerous enough to require a preemptive strike.  This is a decision for policymakers to recommend and for the President to make.  Before a decision is made, the best military analysis should be solicited.   The bottom line is if we are not willing to expend the treasure to conduct prudent preparations to reduce the chances of spilling military and civilian blood, then perhaps a preemptive strike is not appropriate.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.