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Expert on the possibility of limited U.S. attack on North Korea

By Tatsuya Fukumoto


North Korea is stepping up its dialogue offensive, taking advantage of the conciliatory atmosphere created by the PyeongChang Olympic Games. On Feb. 10, it even resorted to inviting ROK President Moon Jae-in to visit North Korea. How will the situation on the Korea Peninsula develop? Will the U.S. take military action against North Korea, which continues its development of nuclear arms and missiles? We interviewed Tetsuo Kotani, senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and an expert on security policy.


Driving a wedge


Q: Workers Party of Korea Chairman Kim Jong Un’s invitation to President Moon through his sister Kim Yo Jong was an expected move.


Kotani: He tried to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the ROK by using the most predictable means in a clever manner. The ROK is very likely to accept the invitation. It will probably coordinate with the U.S. about the schedule of the visit. The key issue for now is whether the joint U.S.-ROK military exercises will be postponed until Moon’s visit.


Q: Why did North Korea announce that it would like to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics early this year?


Kotani: There are two conceivable reasons. First, it was feeling the effect of the sanctions. Therefore, it wanted to drive a wedge in the U.S.-ROK and Japan-ROK relationships to bring about a “double freeze” of the U.S.-ROK exercises and the its own provocations, during which time it would continue nuclear and missile development and try to open cracks in the sanctions. Second, there were reports of a possible limited “bloody nose” strike on North Korea by the U.S., so the DPRK was really scared.


How serious?


Q: How seriously is the Trump administration thinking of a limited strike?


Kotani: While the U.S. administration denies there are any plans for a “bloody nose” operation, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster is said to be the leading advocate of a limited strike. CIA Director Mike Pompeo supports him. On the other hand, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are opposed to this idea; they advocate dialogue. My understanding is that while the U.S. military recognizes the risks of an attack, it has drawn up strategies for several attack options, including a limited strike.


The question is how McMaster and other supporters of a limited attack see the current situation. Even before he became national security adviser, McMaster was arguing that “North Korea must not be allowed to possess the capability to launch a nuclear attack against the U.S.” He is also concerned that North Korea may sell nuclear weapons to countries and forces hostile to the U.S.


Q: You are saying that for this reason, a limited strike by the U.S. is possible?


Kotani: Open criticism of the “bloody nose” notion by Victor Cha, who was dropped as nominee for ambassador to the ROK, indicates that the Trump administration is actually considering a limited strike. I believe that in reality, there is now a stronger possibility that the U.S. may launch a limited attack at some point, as a reaction to North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests, in order to demonstrate that it is serious.


Red line


Q: If the U.S. were to attack North Korea, when and how would this happen?


Kotani: The earliest possible time is April. The U.S. wants to hold its joint military exercises with the ROK in April. If North Korea responds to this with test launches of ICBMs, it is conceivable that the U.S. may launch a limited attack. However, this will be premised on the ROK agreeing to hold the exercises in the first place.


If the exercises are put off beyond April, the next possible time would be around North Korea’s national day on Sept. 9. If the DPRK launches an improved missile, calling it an artificial satellite, around that date, it is possible that the U.S. may launch an attack.


Q: Do you think the U.S. will really take military action that may result in devastating damage to the ROK and Japan?


Kotani: The Trump administration has not drawn a red line. Normally, this would be an attack on the territory of the United States or its allies, which would justify invoking the right of self-defense. However, it is conceivable that North Korea will avoid crossing this line by targeting locations just outside their national territory, such as the vicinity of territorial waters. So there is the question of whether it is acceptable for the U.S. to do nothing in such a situation. A gray zone for invoking the right to self-defense is now being set as a red line. The problem is North Korea may not understand this and may cross the U.S.’s red line drawn in this gray zone inadvertently. This is a factor that increases the possibility of a U.S. attack.


Q: What is your image of an actual limited attack?


Kotani: This would be an attack on a missile-related facility. For example, a limited attack on a North Korean launching pad right after it fires a ballistic missile to convey the message that if it makes further moves, it would face more attacks. I think an attack on a command and control facility that might trigger an all-out U.S.-DPRK war would be studiously avoided.


Q: What should Japan do as an ally?


Kotani: Since the Agreed Framework between the U.S. and North Korea of 1994, the possibility of a limited U.S. attack on North Korea has been nearly zero. While the possibility is still slim at present, it is no longer “nearly zero.” It is important for Japan to tell the U.S. that if it ever plunges into military action, it must make sure that this action has a solid basis in  international law. Although the government is already working on support for the U.S. forces under the Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation Guidelines, protection of Japanese nationals in the ROK, dealing with refugees, and so forth, it is also necessary to hold constructive discussions in the Diet.

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