North Korea has played its pair of twos better than any other county in history. To reclaim the upper hand, we have to stop their nuclear weapons program. If we use force to do so, we must be ready to go the distance. I am not advocating for total war with the DPRK, but I am pointing out that this horrific outcome is becoming increasingly likely and, if it comes, will involve millions of troops, thousands of pieces of artillery and missiles, hundreds of aircraft and ships, and, cost tens of thousands of casualties and untold amounts of treasure.
North Korea’s goal is to develop nuclear weapons that can reach the United States. Our posture of strategic patience has worked in their favor. They get closer with every missile launch and nuclear test. What we thought would take decades is now more like a couple of years, if we are lucky.
The DPRK having this capability is a significant security threat. Their ability to get away with provocative actions because they can threaten our allies is well established. They have killed South Koreans with no real consequences simply because they hold Seoul hostage with 11,000 pieces of conventional artillery. What will they try to get away with when the hostage is Chicago?
These provocations are not irrational acts. They have been carefully planned and executed at the direction of the Kim family. I served four years in Korea with my last posting as the Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff (DJ3) for U.S. Forces Korea, and believe it’s a mistake to dismiss their behavior as maniacal; they are rational, cold, calculating, actors who know how to intimidate. The thought of them with nuclear weapons that can reach Chicago scares me.
We need to do three things before we use force to take away their weapons program.
First, we need to make sure we have the military forces in place to fight a major engagement with the North. This means bringing forces stationed in theater to their highest readiness state and commence flowing additional forces required for the full range of contingency plans. Though seemingly excessive, we need this to maintain escalation control. What if they respond by using those 11,000 pieces of artillery against the 26 million people—to include American families—in Greater Seoul? Allied forces need to be at the ready to mitigate that threat before any strike goes in.
Second, we need Allied consensus on any plan of action regardless of the level. A unilateral U.S. act is unlikely to cause the North to give up their weapons program and automatically gives them a diplomatic seam to exploit. To hit the necessary targets with the necessary weapons, we need to use bases and forces in both the Republic of Korea and Japan. And we can’t be prepared for the worst if their militaries aren’t equally ready. The U.S. and ROK forces fight as a team and have to be ready to defend the peninsula. Aside from the pragmatism of getting South Korea’s and Japan’s consensus, it’s just the right thing to do when it’s mainly their civilians who are at risk.
Third, this isn’t something we can do without the support of the American people—regardless of political party. If the worst happens, and that likelihood is high, it won’t look anything like any of the wars we have fought in the past 30 years. Its scope, intensity, duration, and, of course, casualties will be at a level the world hasn’t seen for a very long time. For us, that means a total commitment of our active, guard and reserve forces—forces that are already stretched. For the Republic of Korea it will require total national mobilization.
The American people need to be on board. The main step in that process is to consult with Congress first. Though we shouldn’t precede any contingency targeting of North Korea with a Congressional declaration of war, key members of both the House and Senate need to have this serious discussion with the administration before any action is taken on our part.
War with North Korea will be bloody and unlike anything we have seen since in the past 16 years of combat. The President and Congress owe the men and women who will have to fight that war a robust debate.
A new Korean war could change the world overnight. Anyone who is shocked to wake up one morning and see that we are taking out North Korean targets has not been paying attention. Anyone who is equally shocked when they shoot back has also not been paying attention. There is a saying that’s often used in military operations, “The enemy gets a vote.” We have to be prepared to answer whatever North Korea’s vote may be.
Rob Givens was a foreign policy advisor on Sen. Rand Paul's campaign and an Air Force General who served in South Korea for several years as Deputy Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations U.S. Forces Korea.