Lee – Will Trump’s Military Option against North Korea Work? Legal and Political Restraints

This week we are considering the military plan that Trump began formulating in case of a war with North Korea. The immediate threat appears to have subsided following on from an unprecedented charm offensive by the North Koreans at the Winter Olympics. Still, it could all get a bit scary again quite quickly with such unpredictable leaders as Trump and Kim.

The piece we are considering is: ‘Will Trump’s Military Option against North Korea Work? Legal and Political Restraints‘ by Eric Yong Joong Lee from the Journal of East Asia and International Law, Vol.10(2).

Here’s what we thought, let us know your ideas in the comments box below.


Much as the title suggests, this paper explores the tense relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, in particular the extreme rhetoric traded between the two nation’s leaders, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. The author then considers whether a military option is possible or even likely given the recent spate of nuclear tests and the increasingly threatening stance adopted by the North Korean leadership.

Here, the author suggests that the risks to U.S. citizens (in South Korea) and the expected losses such that it would be inadvisable for the U.S. to consider military action – especially given that the action would likely lead to stalemate. There is also then every chance that China might also get involved, leading to a political and military disaster.

As an article, I found this piece fairly interesting, and certainly very current, though I am not sure at just how credible it is in terms of its military analysis. I would certainly be interested to read further papers on the ‘what if…’ scenario of whether the U.S. really could defeat North Korea in an armed conflict, and what the possible consequences might be on the international stage. However having said that, I am encouraged by the recent diplomacy between the North and South, and hope very much that a peaceful resolution might one day be found.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


I feel like I am missing something important in this article. The author is an accomplished professor in international law specialising in the Korean Peninsula, who has written a lot of intelligent articles. This article however reads like a background article in a newspaper or magazine. It lacks specificity, depth, and is riddled with strong statements without any back-up.

In my eyes, assessing whether the USA going to war with the DPRK would be legal, necessitates describing the specific political relation at that time, the type of attack by the USA, and the actions of the DPRK leading to this attack. International law requires context. Without details about the political and military context, the article is not much more than an introduction to jus ad bellum, barely touching the specific considerations for going to war with the DPRK.

Statements about how different political actors would act are not backed up with arguments, even though the author makes many claims that are merely assumptions, or subject of heavy dispute. “These initial air bombings, however, will necessarily lead to Chinese intervention as shown in 1950.” Because China intervened in 1950 does not mean it will intervene following initial air bombings, that depends on the circumstances. “Finally, any armed attack against North Korea would lead Seoul and Tokyo to decouple from Washington because, in case of war, their military alliances are loosening to escape the most disastrous outcome from North Korea’s nuclear attack.” Any attack will automatically lead to decoupling? That depends on what is the last straw that pushed the US to go to war, whether it is a joint decision with ROK, the state of missile defence of both countries, etc. Would ROK really decouple from the USA AFTER the USA has already gone to war to the DPRK? I would seriously doubt that, as ROK would then already be seriously threatened. But my opinion is irrelevant. The point is that bold claims require explanations. Other sentences raised my eyebrows as well, such as the claim that Camp David ended the unity of the Arab states against Israel, how vital the UK is for the US decision on going to war, or that it was the Iraq War that gave USA a bad international reputation as not respecting international law. All these claims can be made but they really need to be backed up by arguments, which this article does not.

Also, I honestly do not understand what point is the author trying to make with the NP. Is the author claiming that NPT forbids pre-emptive attacks against NWS as a form of deterrence? Or that deterrence policies lead to proliferation, as the DPRK wants to deter a strike from the USA? Or that the DPRK having nuclear weapons threatens the NPT? It might be just me but I really don’t get it.

Finally, there is a lot that I am missing. Where are the strategic-military considerations? The author focuses on political and legal considerations, but the type of operation and the capabilities of the DPRK (e.g. can it hit major US cities with its missiles) are huge factors. Where are the different domestic actors in the USA that might oppose and favour a strike and what role do they play in the decision-making process? How does foreign policy of the ROK factor in? Without specificity, depth and arguments to back up statements, this article explains very little and is not much aid for assessing the situation on the Korean peninsula.

 

Maaike Verbruggen, Vrije Universiteit Brussel


I found this essay useful in terms of it presenting a systematic view of the legal and political restraints that would hinder/limit Trump’s possible military option against North Korea. The author also presents some hypothetical insights into how military action might unfold, the associated responses from neighbouring parties and considerations that must be taken into account in relation to U.S. allies. By thinking through the many and varied legal and political restraints of a military attack, a complex view of the impracticality of such action against North Korea is strongly conveyed. While it is necessary to think about these possibilities, their ramifications and associated challenges – something the piece does well – I think it is equally important to contemplate some of the deeper questions underpinning the issue at hand in order to understand how this state of affairs came to be and how it can be avoided in the future. We are at a point in time where concerns over nuclear war are once again very real. Where symbolic measures of our own doom are being moved that bit closer to midnight against the backdrop of twitter insults and wars of words. And where essays such as this – detailing whether or not a military attack on North Korea would work – are necessary. For me, the role of rhetoric, particularly in the social media age, is one interesting aspect to consider here. The author outlines the inflammatory exchanges between Trump and Jong Un in chapter 2 and it raised interesting thoughts for me about the power and influence of rhetoric and its fundamental contribution to this current moment. Trump has singlehandedly been an advantageous propaganda machine for North Korea in many regards. Each tweet, threat and insult simply reinforcing what North Korea has long wished for – to be taken seriously as a credible nuclear armed state. Where does the power lie within this complex relationship when the words of a U.S. President are perhaps (inadvertently) bolstering a rogue state’s own sense of prestige and influence? And how might this affect or shape other potentially hostile state actors in pursuit of nuclear capabilities? I think that rather than simply reiterating that military action is not a viable option and that resuming diplomatic talks are the way forward, we must also be actively exploring the elements of this story that have been so detrimental and begin talking about how this can be learnt from and acted upon in order to better handle such challenges going forward.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University


I liked Lee’s piece and his suggestion that the US and North Korea should talk as a way of de-escalating tensions. Indeed, that seems to be what has happened, although in a more convoluted way involving South Korea, Sweden, and the Winter Olympics. It seems that almost all conflicts end up with leaders round tables discussing the end-game. It is good that, at least it appears so for the time being, this process has been truncated. Although a focus on all-out nuclear war is obviously, and rightly, the highest of concern for many people. Now that this appears to have been averted, at least temporarily, I wonder whether the potential for cyber-conflict will re-emerge. Considering that North Korea was responsible for the WannaCry cyber-attack, I wonder if talks between the US and North Korea will include this topic? We can only wait and see.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


 

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