Defectors Prefer a Preemptive Strike to Remove Kim Jong Un but Speaking Softly and Carrying a Big Stick is the Wiser Strategy

Kim Jong Un pointing at a location on the map of the Korean peninsula that appears to be Pyongtaek in the Republic of Korea (ROK), where the U.S. Army’s Camp Humphreys is located. Image via Rodong Sinmun on Aug. 31, 2023.

One of the options for dealing with North Korea’s military provocations is a preemptive strike, on military targets and/or on Kim Jong Un himself.

Given what could go wrong, this is a scary idea, especially for those of us living close by in South Korea. 

It also appears somehow undemocratic or certainly unpeaceful for a democracy to even consider it. Furthermore, why advocate war in a situation where war has been avoided for 70 years?

This is a good question. Those who advocate it must have a good reason. Many defectors from North Korea believe they do.

They feel that they know Kim Jong Un better than South Koreans do. They believe that, for as long as Kim is free to keep growing his nuclear arsenal, the worse the threat will become and that one day, they are sure, he will use them. 

We may feel they prefer a preemptive strike against their own country because they are angry and want to see an end to the oppressive regime. We wouldn’t be wrong. But, at the same time, they have an argument that needs to be addressed with more than ad hominem claims.

The idea of a preemptive attempt to remove North Korea’s capability to harm us is not new. It was seriously considered by the United States in 1994. The then-defense secretary, William Perry, ordered the military to draw up plans to destroy the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Later, he changed his mind and decided to recommend to President Bill Clinton that the US opt for tougher sanctions.

If such a strike is ever approved, it would happen when the offensive side is ready and so take everyone by surprise. 

The other approach is to prepare and then wait for a provocation. In this case, while the enemy expects you to swing at him after he’s punched first, you hit back harder. So hard, in this case, that you obliterate him. His provocation, then, either confirms the seriousness of the threat, justifying your response, or provides the needed excuse, depending on how cycnically you want to look at it.

Looking at the current policy of South Korea and the United States, we may characterize it as one of meaningful retaliation. It has been articulated as a “swift, overwhelming, and decisive response” to any provocation.

But among some experts, we can see that rather than simply teach North Korea a lesson, there’s an appreciation of the necessity to push harder, to strike a blow from which it will not recover to fight again, at least not with nuclear weapons. 

Such a harsh approach was argued last week in an article in The National Interest, an online publication out of Washington D.C. Authors Ri Jong Ho, a former North Korean businessman and defector living in the U.S., and David Maxwell, the vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy, said “immediate and decisive military responses must come at the time and place of the provocation.”

There is justification for this approach in that the best defense is a good offense. Or, as we say in North Korea, “you need to use a whip with a mad dog.”

For those in favor of peaceful dialogue, this position appears like warmongering. This may be so. But we must agree that it is taken in response to changing conditions led by Kim Jong Un. 

There is no doubt that Kim’s recent re-characterisation of South Korea as a “principle enemy” has created a sense of crisis on the peninsula. Experts predict a physical clash this year and some even fear war. To those who say that North Korea is rational and would not choose a path that would end in its own destruction, others are now saying Pyongyang may well attack in order to survive.

We defectors may openly debate these opposing claims. South Korea is, after all, a real democracy. In North Korea, meanwhile, there is no open debate, but a consensus is building. It is that war is inevitable. 

Among the people, this idea goes further. Many believe war is desirable to end poverty and suffering. Perhaps what ordinary North Koreans believe is not important. But we may say that, if the regime starts to see warfare as a strategy for survival, it will not find an argument among the populace.

It is because of this meeting of sentiment that many defectors fear the worst and are calling for a preemptive strike to actually remove Kim. It is necessary, they say, to prevent war erupting on North Korea’s terms.

Most South Koreans dismiss this as poor quality thinking that results from our “brainwashing” in the North Korean education system. “You don’t understand that there will never be war as long as the U.S. is here,” people argue. 

They may be right. It is always possible that we are misreading Kim. 

It is possible his recent saber-rattling is intended for the domestic audience. It may be his way of pushing to change the international preoccupation away from denuclearization towards cementing the country’s status as a nuclear power.

Or, he may be making noise, and continue to do so, until the US presidential election in November in the hope he can influence things in favor of Donald Trump. His strategic goal in this case might be to get Trump to recognize the North as a nuclear state and drag Washington into a disarmament deal.

Not least among the arguments against his intention to wage war is the question of what would happen if he won. How on earth would he subdue and rule over 52 million educated and uncooperative South Koreans? Surely he has thought this one through?

In this uncertain environment, the possibility of miscalculation poses the most serious threat, especially as Kim has cut lines of communication with South Korea as part of his anti-unification posturing. 

For our part in South Korea, we need to demonstrate strength. We need to send an unambiguous message to Kim that he will pay a high price for any provocation. This is in fact what the Yoon and Biden administrations are doing.

We also need to maintain our will for peace and dialogue so that we ourselves do not miscalculate and push the peninsula into war. In other words, to paraphrase the former US president Teddy Roosevelt, we should “carry a big stick” but at the same time “speak softly.”

The good news in this picture is that our decision makers are experienced. North Korea has been posturing about taking over South Korea for seven decades now, but has been successfully contained. 

Perhaps our best hope may not lie in a proactive strike to get rid of Kim, but that task may be achieved eventually within North Korea by North Koreans.

Until then, our strategy should be containment.

Jang Seiul

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