(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on
international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues.
He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of
the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan,
non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington.
Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters. Since
2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the
UK Labour Party.)
By Peter Apps
March 24 As U.S. Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson warned Washington’s “strategic patience” with North
Korea has ended and “all options are on the table” to slow its
nuclear ambitions, U.S. and South Korean forces were preparing
for a range of military scenarios.
As many as 300,000 mainly South Korean and U.S. personnel
are involved in military drills that will run until the end of
April. These exercises have been a feature of life on the
peninsula since the Korean War ended in a 1953. In recent years,
they have become larger and more realistic.
Every U.S. president since at least Bill Clinton has
confronted North Korea’s weapons program and been offered a
range of potential military action to tackle them.
So far, none has been willing to strike – primarily because
all the options are bad, particularly given the risk of North
Korean retaliation that could turn the peninsula, and perhaps
the wider region, into a bloodbath. At worst, violence on the
peninsula could even drag the United States into war with China,
just as it did in the original Korean War.
As Pyongyang moves forward with warhead and missile testing,
however, many experts believe the likelihood of Washington
finally taking such steps is gradually increasing.
President Donald Trump says will he will not allow Pyongyang
to develop the ability to strike the United States with nuclear
force. If he orders a limited strike on its facilities, however,
North Korea’s nuclear progress may only slow temporarily – and
such an operation could spark brutal North Korean retaliation. A
broader effort to bring down the entire regime would be an
Small wonder, then, that the United States has preferred to
stick with alternative techniques such as economic sanctions and
cyber attacks to interfere with missile tests. The recent
deployment of THAAD antiballistic missile batteries to South
Korea and Japan should offer some protection, although no one
knows how effective they would be against North Korean missiles.
If Washington did choose to go further, the most likely
action would be sudden, hopefully overwhelming bombing raids on
suspected North Korean missile and weapons facilities.
While such action would be unlikely to destroy the program
out right, it would slow development. At best, it would prevent
Pyongyang from perfecting some of its more ambitious weapons
programs, such as mounting ballistic missiles in diesel electric
The largest acknowledged conventional bomb in the U.S. Air
Force arsenal – the 30,000 pound GBU-57 “Massive Ordinance
Penetrator” – was designed with just this sort of target in
mind. Built by the George W. Bush administration primarily to
destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, it could be dropped from B2
stealth bombers flying from either regional bases or the
continental United States. Unlike more conventional jets, the
B2s should be able to penetrate North Korean airspace largely
undetected, perhaps joined by some of the more modern F-22
Raptors and perhaps even the newly operational F-35 Joint Strike
Fighters now deployed in the region.
The reason such strikes have not been launched so far is the
same reason they were never launched against Iran’s nuclear
program. Many experts believe they would leave many facilities
intact – and the potential retaliation might be devastating.
With Iran, Washington feared that Tehran would retaliate
against Gulf oil and gas facilities and shipping, with
potentially disastrous consequences for an already fragile
global economy. With North Korea, the worry is that Pyongyang
might launch missile strikes against Japan and regional U.S.
bases such as Guam and a devastating artillery barrage into
Analysts disagree over just how effective that barrage would
be – some suggest North Korean artillery could land up to
500,000 shells in the South Korean capital within the first
hour, others are more skeptical.
There is also the fear that if the North believed its
rockets and warheads were under threat, it might fire them –
with Japan the most likely target.
Either action would probably spell the end for the North
Korean regime, prompting Washington and Seoul to put into action
already existing plans to overrun the North.
Over the last few years, U.S. and South Korean forces have
shifted their focus from training to stop a North Korean
offensive to having plans in place for a comprehensive invasion
across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
That would be a major undertaking, one that would dwarf any
war America – or any other country – has fought in recent
history. Attacking troops would face mountainous terrain,
concerted opposition and potential chemical, nuclear and
There are some signs the United States might try to halt
escalation by simply decapitating the regime. According to South
Korean news agency Yonhap, this month’s exercises included U.S.
Navy SEAL Team Six, the unit that conducted the 2011 raid that
killed Osama bin Laden. They were working with South Korean
counterparts to simulate a strike on the North Korean
leadership, according to a South Korean military official quoted
by the news agency.
Such an option would be extremely hard to put into practice.
North Korea’s air defenses make sending troops by helicopter
difficult, while Kim is believed to be heavily guarded.
For now, Kim appears to think he can keep ramping up his
nuclear program unchallenged. Washington, though, may not be
willing to watch from the sidelines.
Trump is one of the most unpredictable presidents to ever
hold that office. If any U.S. leader is going to take a risk
with military options in North Korea, he very well might be the
It’s an unenviable choice. Action could provoke disaster.
But failure to do anything might be blamed for a future conflict
that could be even worse.
(By Peter Apps)