How many times has the U.S. warned Bashar Assad to step down? Barack Obama’s off-mic quip to Dmitry Medvedev, promising Mr. Putin that he would be more flexible after the election, was a reminder to the world that in the second term Obama would no longer fear the supposed right wing Neanderthals in his midst and thus could conduct the proper sort of foreign policy that he only dreamed of in the first term. “Leading from behind,” as our allies learned in Libya and France has sensed in North Africa, has little to do with any leading at all. North Korea may fear the U.S. to the degree that the Libyans who slaughtered American diplomatic personnel fear a reckoning, that the Argentinians fear American condemnation should they restart the Falklands War, or that Hezbollah and Hamas are terrified of American reaction should they replay the 2006 Lebanon conflict.
Yet the truth is that America could have enormous clout in one unmentionable way. In the post-Cold War era there was a rough understanding with the communist world, particularly with Red China as it pertained to the Koreas. We would ensure that our Pacific clients would not go nuclear — Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — and China in turn would harness North Korea. Note also that our allies could make thousands of nukes like they do Hondas and Kias in a way Pyongyang could only make a few, and badly at that. Moreover, nuclear North Korea is a long way from the United States and Europe, while Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are quite close to China, which already has enough temperamental nuclear states on its borders like Russia, India, Pakistan, and soon Iran.
The influence that America has in this psychodramatic, but nevertheless high-stakes stand-off is to apprise China that we no longer have reservations about regional powers tending to their own security needs, in response to North Korea’s nuclear banter. Note here that the U.S. does not fear nuclear weapons per se — consider the case of nuclear and democratic Britain, France, India, and Israel — just the combination of them with renegade and illiberal states, something that would not be true of a Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan.
4) All would lose equally in a new Korean War.
There are all sorts of scenarios that entail terrible death and destruction. They are predicated on North Korea launching, from fortified bunkers and in the first three or four hours of the conflict, tens of thousands of missiles and artillery shells, many of them perhaps laced with chemical and biological weapons, on allied ground troops in the DMZ, Seoul’s commercial hub, and American assets off the coast. This is a nightmare to be avoided at all costs if possible.
But note the Korean War was not the Vietnam War, in the manner that Iraq 1991 was not Iraq 2003-8. The U.S. would not be fighting a counter-insurgency war, but one entirely punitive, largely from the air and sea in open skies rather in jungles or labyrinths like Fallujah, with an ally on the ground of some 50 million people more worried about too few rather than too many Americans.
The truly nightmarish scenario is not what North Korea would do before its arsenals were neutralized, but the gruesome toll from the unimaginable barrage of U.S. missiles and shells that would rain down on the North, and the vulnerability of North Korean ground assets to unfettered U.S. airpower. Ground-to-ground fighting would largely be conventional and in the open, and mostly the responsibility of the South Korean military. The resulting ruination might easily resemble Japan after the recent tsunami. Yet in Strangelovian terms, the North would lose the war, and lose it very badly — a fact welcome to almost everyone worldwide except the 100,000 or so of the North Korean nomenklatura.
In sum, we don’t know what will happen in Korea. But do not assume that China is working for peace, that war is just too unprofitable to break out, that South Korea is well-integrated with its allies, that concerned parties listen to the U.S., or that an unthinkable and nihilistic war could neither be won nor lost.
Repeating conventional wisdom does not make it true.