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How to Guarantee a War with North Korea

Ted Galen Carpenter

As tensions flare on the Korean Peninsula, concerns mount about
North Korea’s nuclear- weapons capability. Secretary of Defense
James Mattis recently statedthat, contrary to rumors and alarmist
media reports, Pyongyang does not yet pose a serious threat to the
American homeland. The same cannot be said, however, for the U.S.
troops stationed in South Korea and Japan. Those tripwire forces
have become little more than nuclear hostages, well within range of
North Korea’s current missile fleet. Keeping the troops in such a
vulnerable location is foolhardy.

Ironically, their presence may even reduce the credibility of
the U.S. security commitment to the East Asian allies-contrary to
the conventional wisdom about the effect of such deployments. The
rationale for stationing tripwire forces in both East Asia and
Europe during the Cold War was that the move guaranteed U.S.
involvement in any conflict that broke out. Christopher Layne, the
Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security at
Texas A&M University’s George Bush School of Government and
Public Service, points out in his crucial history of the Cold
War, Peace of Illusions, that U.S. allies repeatedly
sought those deployments precisely for that purpose. Successive
presidential administrations obliged, believing that the step was
essential to reassure Washington’s security partners that America
would never, indeed could never, renege on its promises. Once
American military personnel died from an enemy
offensive, it would be nearly impossible for a president to walk
away from treaty obligations.

Most Americans were unaware of the decision to lock the United
States into its commitments and deny policymakers the element of
choice. Officials certainly did not inform the public about the
implications of that approach. And the bulk of the news media also
left the American people blissfully ignorant that the presence of
tripwire forces on the front lines in dangerous arenas increased
the risk that a conflict would escalate and, therefore, lead to
catastrophe for the U.S. homeland. Attitudes toward Washington’s
alliance commitments might have been quite different if the public
had known about the danger flowing from those commitments and troop

Keeping U.S. tripwire
forces in East Asia no longer serves a logical or constructive
purpose. They are hostages that limit Washington’s policy options,
if officials conclude that neutralizing the North Korean threat
warrants drastic action.

Whatever the logic or wisdom of tripwires and the resulting
denial of policy choice during the Cold War when the United States
was attempting to deter the existential security threat that the
rival superpower posed, the risk-benefit calculation should be far
different today. Nowhere is the need more evident than in Korea. In
the context of the Cold War, U.S. leaders would have viewed a North
Korean attack on South Korea as the opening phase of a general
communist offensive to shift the balance of power throughout East
Asia. Both Moscow and Beijing regarded Pyongyang as an important
strategic ally. Chinese officials even described the relationship
with North Korea as being as close as “lips and teeth.” Soviet and PRC backing for an
attempt by Pyongyang to unify the Korean Peninsula through force,
thereby eliminating one U.S. ally and intimidating Japan, an even
more important ally, was hardly a far-fetched notion. Indeed, both
communist powers had supported North Korea’s invasion of the South
in 1950.

The current situation is totally different. Both Moscow and
Beijing maintain diplomatic ties with South Korea and (especially
in China’s case) have lucrative economic ties as well. Neither
Russia nor China wants Kim Jong-un’s regime to do anything
reckless. Indeed, Beijing and Moscow repeatedly have urged both sides in the
current confrontation to exercise caution and restraint.

Consequently, the U.S. defense commitment to South Korea (much
less the stationing of American troops in that country), is no
longer necessary to deter a wider security threat from rival great
powers. Moreover, both South Korea and Japan now have the economic
resources to build whatever military capabilities of their own
they might need to deter or defeat North Korea. Pyongyang’s menace
would normally be purely a sub-regional one that an upstart,
third-rate power poses to its immediate neighbors. U.S.
involvement-and especially the presence of tripwire forces-is what
gives the current crisis wider import. The outbreak of a conflict
on the Peninsula would put those forces at grave risk for modest
intrinsic stakes to America.

Moreover, the probable effect of the U.S. tripwire in Northeast
Asia today is more unpredictable than the role of such units played
during the Cold War. Hostile great powers, such as the Soviet Union
or China, probably were deterred from launching a war of aggression
against a U.S. ally, knowing that, given the crucial interests at
stake, Washington might have little choice but to respond and even
escalate the conflict. But the vulnerability of forward-deployed
U.S. military units also inhibited American leaders from taking
rash actions that might trigger a conflict.

The latter point is especially pertinent regarding the current
situation in Korea. Although the Trump administration insists that
all policy options, including the use of force, are on the table to
compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile
programs, launching a preventive war could doom thousands of
tripwire personnel. Most of them are stationed near the
Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. Even a
brilliantly executed air and naval strike on North Korea would
probably not be able to prevent a sizable counterstrike that would do the most
damage in the area along the DMZ and in the Seoul metropolitan
area, located barely 50 kilometers from that line. And if any
portion of the U.S. blitzkrieg failed, the possibility exists that
nuclear-armed North Korean missiles could land on American bases in
both South Korea and Japan. A reasonable appreciation of the
potential danger logically would inhibit even the bold Trump
national security team from launching a preventive war.

Americans disagree sharply about policy toward North Korea.
Hawks suspect that patient diplomacy is no longer feasible, since North Korea will soon
have the capability to strike targets throughout the United States,
and normal assumptions about deterrence may not work with that
government. Some even openly advocate a preventive war. Doves and cautious realists believe that additional, and
more flexible, diplomacy is essential, because a second Korean War
would be horrific.

All factions, though, should recognize that keeping U.S.
tripwire forces in East Asia no longer serves a logical or
constructive purpose. They are hostages that limit Washington’s
policy options, if officials conclude that neutralizing the North
Korean threat warrants drastic action. At the same time, if an
accident or miscalculation occurs on either side, those troops
become the first victims in an extremely tragic war. No matter if
they are hawks, doves, or cautious realists regarding North Korea,
Americans should agree that it is time to remove the nuclear hostages.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of ten books, the contributing editor of ten books, and the author of more than 700 articles and policy studies on international affairs.