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The North Korean question – Part 1: A rational retort

Image Credit: Gerd Altmann (Pixabay: Creative Commons)

This article is part of a two-part series examining peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

As tensions continue to escalate between North Korea and the US over the issue of denuclearization on the Korean peninsula, Western policymakers and politicians alike must recognize that military intervention of any nature should be considered only as an absolute last resort.

With the emergence of Trump onto the world stage in 2017, US policy on North Korea has assumed a distinctly hawkish tone; one unparalleled since President Bush proclaimed North Korea to be a member of the “axis of evil” in 2002. This tone has been echoed by certain members of the international community who are advocating for immediate pre-emptive military action against North Korea as a final solution to a complex issue.

In such circumstances, international relations theory mandates considering the tenets of Just War Theory. The theory addresses the justifications of how and why wars are fought, the aim of which is to guide states in potential conflicts, motivate alternative means of conflict resolution, and assess the justification for wars.

History is arguably cyclical, and while the contentions that precipitated the invasion of Iraq in 2003 may have fallen out of recent collective consciousness, its cautionary lessons compels observance.

The rules of conflict

Edward Luttwak’s recent article asserts that US policy-makers should not be paralysed by fears of direct retaliation by North Korea upon Seoul and its 20 million inhabitants (and countless foreign residents). Luttwak outlines that the precarious circumstances on the peninsula have been “self-inflicted”, as the South Korean government has been reluctant to relocate its populace beyond the geographical reach of conflict. This impatient dismissal of the humanitarian cost of a conflict of this scale demonstrates a nefarious desire for conflict and a frightful degree of recklessness.

When examined under the lens of the Just War theory, Luttwak’s argument breaks-down in several key aspects.

Just War Theory

The suggestion of a pre-emptive surgical strike on North Korea, without any imminent danger to South Korean or US citizens, does not amount to a just cause for a just war.

In August of 2017, there emerged claims that North Korea had finally attained the ability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead, thereby providing it with the capability to mount a warhead atop a missile and striking the US mainland. However, this development is just one link in the wider chain required to field an effective nuclear deterrent. Closer inspection of their weaponry indicates that the North remains distant in posing a credible nuclear threat to the US. It lacks a proven track record of successful launches, a proven re-entry system, and a proven miniaturised nuclear warhead.

Secondly, a decision to go to war must be made with proper authority and by a public declaration. The US has assumed operational control of South Korean military forces since the 1950s, and while it has relinquished peacetime control back to the Korean government, wartime operational control remains under US authority. Such a situation remains highly controversial, and opens the possibility for the US to override the opinions and interests of South Koreans in order to engage in direct military conflict with North Korea. Offensive military actions on the peninsula cannot be legitimately conducted without the full assent and cooperation of the South Korean government and its citizens.

Finally, a declaration of war must be proportionate and have a high probability of success. Acknowledging North Korea’s present nuclear capabilities, and its proximity to high-population centers in East Asia, the possibility for any pre-emptive military action, surgical strike or otherwise, is effectively vitiated. Research has indicated that a nuclear attack conducted by North Korea in the event of a conflict would result in 2.1 million deaths in Tokyo and Seoul, and 7.7 million injuries. Moreover, the use of conventional weaponry alone would prove devastating, where an initial artillery barrage by the North on military and civilian targets in the South alone would immediately result in 33,000 deaths. This would then be followed by an estimated 20,000 deaths per day thereafter. It should further be kept in mind that this prediction does not factor in the long-lasting environmental impact of a nuclear weapon —including the dangers posed by radiation and the resulting electromagnetic pulse on property and national critical infrastructure.


Within such circumstances, it would not be hyperbole to summarise that a military conflict with North Korea has the potential to rapidly escalate into the most devastating conflict since World War Two – one with losers on all sides. Policy makers cannot seriously entertain the contentious and hawkish ideas of policy analysts like Luttwak without opening the floodgates to increasingly pernicious and destructive ideas.

Nonetheless, the question persists on how the international community can effectively address the issue posed by North Korea. For many years, the hermit kingdom has proven its resilience in the face of countless sanctions levelled against it by the US and its allies. Indeed, its continued survival has largely been attributed to the North receiving blatant material support from its Russian and Chinese allies, in contravention of UN sanctions.

This does not mean that the opportunities for a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the crisis have been exhausted. To do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result is the very definition of insanity. The status quo cannot remain, and effective action cannot be executed upon the North, while the international community remains disjointed and divided in its responses.

The diversity of opinion and policy amongst international stakeholders must be reconciled through reciprocal multilateral dialogue, and a compromise reached as soon as possible, before the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock strikes midnight.

Jonathan Lim is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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