President Donald Trump on Friday announced, “the largest North Korea-related sanctions tranche” ever, which was “aimed at disrupting North Korean shipping and trading companies.” If Washington’s ultimate objective is deterring aggression and preventing war, this new set of sanctions will not help that outcome.
There are realistically only two ways to accomplish the denuclearization of the peninsula. One is through hard-nosed, challenging diplomacy and the other through the launching of a brutal and bloody preventive war. It is a virtual certainty that launching a preventive military strike will incite a major retaliatory attack by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
The all-out war that would likely result could see millions die and might prompt Kim to attack U.S. interests directly. Should the United States decide to press for a full World War II-style unconditional surrender by Kim, we could eventually win by virtue of our overwhelming advantage in industrial and technological capacity. But the cost to our country would be radically out of proportion to what would be gained.
But make no mistake — there will be no war unless Washington starts one. We have an overwhelming conventional and nuclear deterrent to check any aggression by the far weaker North Korea. That provides ample time to achieve our immediate security objectives — making sure Kim never uses his weapons — while providing all the time we need to pursue diplomacy.
Although senior officials often claim the U.S. seeks a diplomatic solution, actions indicate otherwise. We are not presently conducting genuine diplomacy. We are merely taking “actions” devoid of a coherent strategy designed to attain a rational objective. “Maximum pressure” will likely result in only a hardening of North Korea’s resolve to maintain what they see as their lifeline to survival: their nuclear deterrent.
The Trump administration made commendable progress last September when it got the entire United Nations Security Council to back meaningful and severe sanctions. They were further strengthened in November.
One could argue they helped lay the groundwork that prompted Kim to seek dialogue with South Korean President Moon. It can be assumed that North Korea is attempting to use the goodwill of the Olympic games to its advantage, but the U.S. and our allies don’t have to play by North Korean rules. We must use our leverage to and our position of strength to negotiate with weak, yet brutal, North Korea to end the standoff on the peninsula.
However, if there is no discussion, if there are no established means of communication, diplomacy is, by definition, impossible; in its absence, war becomes the only outcome. Fortunately, there is a viable, rational alternative.
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said many times that we are “running out of time” to find a solution. To the contrary, the United States holds all the most powerful cards. Unblinking deterrence and relentless diplomacy can achieve U.S. objectives at a justifiable cost. Powerful deterrence buys us time for diplomatic success.
Another fallacy often put forward: if we don’t hurry, Kim will threaten America with nuclear blackmail and reunite the peninsula under his command. That fear is misplaced, and in fact illogical. First, the South Korean military is far, far superior to the North Korean armed forces, and by themselves could likely repel such an attack.
What the United States should therefore do is engage in a rational, logical, and powerful two-part strategy: communicate determined deterrence through our superior fire power to ensure the safety of the United States and our allies, and engage in relentless diplomacy. It would take many years of consistent application, but this strategy would keep America safe and prevent the deaths of thousands, if not millions.
The bottom line is there will be no war on the Korean peninsula unless we light the fuse. Let us instead exploit our economic, diplomatic, and military strengths to pursue a realistic strategy that keeps America safe.
Commentary by Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Army lieutenant colonel who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1.
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