Why U.S. Should Abandon Military Options in North Korea by JT Kwon
April could be the cruelest month for the Korean peninsula which is sitting on a hair trigger. The immediate cause of the increasing hostility and tensions between North Korea and the United States is the aggressive military deployment of a U.S. naval strike group in waters near the Korean peninsula followed by President Trump’s Syria airstrikes. The ensuing hostile rhetoric from various levels of the U.S. officials is ratcheting up the anticipation of possible military action against North Korea.
Even though it seems that the U.S. is running out of options to solve the North Korean conundrum, there are two main reasons why the U.S. must abandon the military options against North Korea: 1) the U.S. military action against North Korea is not justified under international law and the United Nations Charter; and 2) if the U.S. conducted military strikes against North Korea, it surely would prompt aggressive military retaliations from North Korea, turning the Korean peninsula and the neighboring countries into a blazing inferno.
U.S. military action against North Korea is not legitimized under the UN Charter. Since the end of World War II, the world community has learned a lesson that “the scourge of war has brought untold sorrow to mankind.” Under international law and the UN Charter, states have an obligation to settle their disputes by peaceful means. Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter states that “all Members of the United Nations shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”
However, scholars of the International Relations agree that the use of military forces can be legitimized and justified under two circumstances. The United Nations Charter specifies the two rules for the use of military forces by states. Article 42 of the United Nations Charter gives the Security Council the authority to “take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”
The Security Council has authorized the use of military forces in different circumstances and to varying degrees (often a limited use of force) to “prevent and remove threats to the peace, and to suppress acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.” Notable cases of these are the 1950 Korean War and the Iraq invasion against Kuwait in 1990 which were considered apparent aggression by one state against another state. Current North Korea behaviors do not constitute such a case at all.
The missile attack against the Assad regime in Syria was undertaken unilaterally without the authorization of the Security Council. Nevertheless, the attack did not draw strong resistance or condemnations from the international community, but rather seemed to have received support from it. Since the attack was conducted as punitive measures against the Syrian regime which used chemical weapons against civilians, it was somewhat justified by international consensus and norms that impunity on odious crimes against humanity is unacceptable.
The Trump administration needs to realize that North Korea situation is very different from the Syrian one. The Responsibility to Protect clearly and narrowly defines the scopes under which the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures including the use of military forces to protect innocent civilians: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests have been driven by deep-seated fear of regime collapse caused by a U.S. military attack.
North Korea is not the case for humanitarian intervention at all. Self-rescue measures of North Korea cannot become a target of military intervention by external forces. They should become an abject of the peaceful and political negotiations.
In addition to the Security Council for the use of force, Article 51 of the United Nations Charter also stipulates “the inherent right of member states to exercise self-defence to use force if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Even though there are debates over how widely or narrowly the right of self-defence can be permitted among scholars, the necessity of self-defence is limited and should be restrictively exercised in situations only when an armed attack actually occurs.
The U.S. has been mobilizing the cause and justification for the so-called pre-emptive strikes against North Korea, claiming that its current behaviors leave the U.S. with no choice of any means but to use military option. Even though Pyongyang has taken pugnacious and antagonistic rhetoric and attitudes towards the U.S., they do not constitute imminent, impending, or inevitable threats to the U.S. security. The premise of the U.S. pre-emptive self-defence has no legitimacy nor justification. It is absolutely imperative that the military action should not be undertaken unless an armed attack from North Korea actually occurs to the United States.
The second reason why the military option should be off the table is that North Korea is different from Syria in terms of its military capability to counter the U.S. military attacks in the same way. There is no doubt that Pyongyang is militarily capable of bringing about horrendous damage to the U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan if not the U.S. mainland. Kim’s regime has continued its effort to develop missile and nuclear technology, which has been apparently manifested at the military parade to celebrate “the Day of the Sun on April 15th,” the birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung.
Syria is an obviously failed state having been embroiled into the civil war between anti-Assad insurgents and the state. On the contrary, the Kim Jong Un’s regime is very secure from the fear of major challenges to its authority. Regime insecurity or regime collapse comes in mainly three forms: 1) from the inside of ruling coalition; 2) from the bottom by people which is close to a revolution, and 3) foreign imposition through military conquest. None of the three models of regime change is likely to take place in North Korea.
The North Korean regime’s legitimacy is clearly founded on “pathological nationalism” which is aroused from external threat (actual or perceived). People have been indoctrinated by the regime that standing up against the sole superpower, the U.S. is an enormous source of national pride. People have been brainwashed to take a do-or-die attitude to fight American aggression at the sacrifice of their lives. The Trump administration should not underestimate the resolve of North Korea that it is ready to react if the U.S. chooses for military actions.
JT Kwon is Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College.