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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration, American Military University
It looks as if the United States is going to end the long-standing armistice on the Korean Peninsula sooner rather than later.
On March 22, President Trump tweeted that war hawk John Bolton will replace relative moderate Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster as his National Security Advisor on April 9. Bolton is a proponent of the Bush Doctrine of preventive attacks when they are considered to be justified.
However, the Bush Doctrine proved to be a disaster for both Iraq and the United States. As National Security Advisor, Bolton will once again advocate a preventive attack, this time against North Korea.
In a September 3, 2017, Fox News interview, Bolton declared that the only option left to address the North Korean nuclear threat is “to end the regime in North Korea” by striking first.
“Anybody who thinks that more diplomacy with North Korea, more sanctions, whether against North Korea, or an effort to apply sanctions against China, is just giving North Korea more time to increase its nuclear arsenal,” Bolton warned. “We have fooled around with North Korea for 25 years, and fooling around some more is just going to make matters worse.”
US-North Korea Relations Remain at Status Quo
Currently, the situation between the U.S. and North Korea is a status quo. There have been no North Korean ballistic missile launches, no North Korean hydrogen bomb tests or any combined military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea this year. These exercises are always perceived by the North Korean leadership as preparations for an invasion.
North Korea’s last ballistic missile launch was almost four months ago, a Hwasong-15 on November 30, 2017. The last hydrogen bomb test was conducted on September 3, 2017, almost seven months ago. The last U.S.-South Korean military exercise was Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, which was conducted from August 21 to August 31, 2017, almost seven months ago.
North and South Korean Negotiators Attempt Reconciliation
In a significant step toward peace, North and South Korean negotiators met earlier this year to work out a way for both Koreas to participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This collaboration was successful, and the Olympics went off without a hitch.
That success has led to further negotiations between the Koreas and even an official agreement by President Trump to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in May. However, it appears that all of this progress on the Korean Peninsula will soon be significantly disrupted with the next round of U.S.-South Korean combined military exercises starting on April 1.
One exercise, code-named Key Resolve, is largely a computer-simulated war game. The second exercise, code-named Foal Eagle, is a large-scale ground, naval and special operations field exercise that North Korea no doubt will perceive as preparations for an invasion.
Foal Eagle will involve some 23,000 U.S. troops and more than 300,000 South Korean troops. During previous combined field training exercises, such as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian and Foal Eagle, North Korea responded by conducting multiple missile launches. The U.S. and South Korea responded to those launches with new economic sanctions and condemnations, including support from the United Nations Security Council.
With Bolton advising President Trump, it seems likely that the response to any future North Korean ballistic missile launches will be different. Bolton is unlikely to advise more sanctions and resolutions condemning North Korea, but he may advocate a military surgical attack to take out North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. But preventive attacks have not worked in the past. As an example, see Iraq in 2003.
While a preventive military attack would likely involve just the U.S., North Korea would probably retaliate with an hours-long barrage of conventional and chemical munitions against South Korea. Such an attack would likely kill many hundreds of thousands of South Koreans. It would cause widespread panic and destruction in the capital city of Seoul and the port city of Incheon, which have a combined population of more than 13 million residents.
South Korea Has Military Might and Could Retaliate against North Korea
At this point, South Korea might retaliate with all of its considerable military might, even without U.S. support. North Korea could be completely overrun within a matter of days.
The key question then would be: Will China get involved, as it did in the Korean War of the early 1950s? If China does again become involved, we are looking at World War III with the potential use of nuclear weapons.
Smaller combined military exercises with South Korea would be a far better course of action. These smaller actions would appear less threatening to North Korea than continuing large-scale exercises that risk the start of another world war.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen received a Ph.D. in Public Administration and Public Policy from Auburn University in 2006. He served as a Defense Attaché in South Korea from 1995-1997.
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