By Daniel Amick
Escalating tension between the United States and North Korea has prompted fevered public focus on the possibility of war — even nuclear war — on the Korean Peninsula. The risk is real, and observers are right to emphasize it. Amid the debate, however, another potential scenario remains underexplored: That American use of military force against North Korea might not change much at all. This troubling possibility is not as unlikely as it may seem and would damage U.S. influence in East Asia and around the world. Washington would find itself back where it started, but with a less credible military threat to drive North Korea and other rogue states to the negotiating table.
Washington’s recent posturing aims to force North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to decide once and for all whether his nuclear and missile programs are worth the mounting cost. It attempts to present Kim with a binary — almost apocalyptic — choice: back down immediately and engage with the United States on Washington’s terms, or risk an all-out war that brings down his regime.
To sharpen the decision point, President Donald Trump has prodded China to increase economic and political pressure on Kim and has signaled that he will address the North Korean threat unilaterally if necessary. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the toughening U.S. stance this week in Seoul, declaring that the “era of strategic patience” is over. He pointed to U.S. airstrikes earlier this month in Syria and Afghanistan as demonstrations of American “strength and resolve.”