The rhetoric emanating from Washington and Pyongyang may soon reach the point at which a peaceful resolution is no longer be possible. A year ago the chance of war on the Korean Peninsula would have been considered remote. Now, the call for a US pre-emptive strike is gaining support while North Korea routinely issues threats to the US, South Korea and even Australia. With every passing day the possibility of war seems to increase as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un do their best to set ablaze an already highly flammable situation. The tone between the 'dotard' and the 'rocket man' has reached the point that one miscalculation could trigger a war.
If war does occur there is little doubt that North Korea will be defeated. While the North Korean army is massive in numbers it is poorly equipped, most of its weapons are antiquated, and it lacks the advanced technology essential for modern war. Its large submarine fleet is out of date, and its air force is in even worse shape. Compared to the military resources of South Korea, the North's are decidedly second-best. If North Korea strikes, it will initially inflict mass casualties on the South, both civilian and military. However, once South Korea absorbs this blow its armed forces will methodically take apart its enemy, with or without the US 2nd Infantry Division's (or wider US) assistance. Tens of thousands of people will die, but the regime of Kim Jong-un and his military will be destroyed.
However, what of the peace that follows the North's defeat? If war does eventuate, it must be seen as an opportunity to forge a better peace for the Korean people on both sides of the DMZ, while beyond the Korean Peninsula it would be a chance to provide for greater security across East Asia and, with the elimination of North Korea's nuclear arsenal, the world. These broader goals cannot be achieved through war, but war is required to lay the foundation for their realisation. If there must be war, then it must be used as a chance to achieve positive outcomes for all sides.
The possibility of realising a better peace is contingent on two key factors. The war must not escalate into a regional conflict that involves China and/or Russia, and the nuclear threshold must not be breached. The lessons of China's intervention in last century's Korean War must be understood. If China enters the war, or a nuclear exchange occurs, the world would then be in uncharted territory and all of us would face the likelihood of catastrophic political, economic, demographic and radioactive outcomes.
To prevent catastrophe, the US must act with uncharacteristic restraint. Its political leaders and military commanders must also consider war in its political context, rather than just as a series of battles to be won. I believe that upon the outbreak of war the best option for the US, if not the world, would be to assure its allies and adversaries that it will not allow its forces north of the DMZ, won't seek to replace the North Korean government with a democratic state, and won't support reunification of the two Koreas. US forces would also not participate in any attacks north of the border. Frankly, US military forces are not needed north of the border, since the South is more than capable of defeating the North on its own.
This scenario still permits a major US military response, but one of a different kind. The war would be a humanitarian disaster for the people on both sides of the DMZ. The US and its allies should deploy medical, logistic and communication assets to alleviate the civilian crisis and provide the means to assist NGOs in the conduct of their work. What the US and its allies must not do is rush combat reinforcements to the region, though defensive anti-missile batteries might be an exception.
A war on the Korean Peninsula would doom the regime of Kim Jong-un, but it should not necessarily doom the North Korean state. The US would need to work with China – even allowing China to take the lead – in the rebuilding of the country. This would require the US to recognise that the new North Korea would sit within a Chinese sphere of influence, if not exist as a client state. The US has done this before. During the Cold War the price of peace was to recognise the Soviet Union's hold over Eastern Europe. A similar result in Korea need not be a bad outcome, particularly if it avoids a nuclear war. China might then have the willingness and clout to eliminate the North Korean nuclear arsenal. It might also be able to shape North Korea's internal policies to ones more favourable to its people. It would also buy time for other initiatives to be trialled that might gradually see a more stable and prosperous North Korea. After all, the Cold War did come to an end. Some may see this as the US ceding some of its authority to China, and that it may lead to more concessions. They would be right, but sometimes to lead one must be willing to give way.
The goal of all war is peace. If war cannot be avoided, one has an obligation to minimise the carnage and obtain the best possible result. If the US should embark on the conquest of North Korea, it will find itself in a wider war with global implications that will almost certainly include China, if not Russia. By following the path outlined here, the US would not achieve all it might want, but it would also avoid igniting a thermonuclear exchange. This is a reasonable result. However, avoiding this fate will require modesty in US objectives. This is a situation in which not getting all you want is the best outcome; to seek more would be too dangerous for everyone.
These views are the author's own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.