15 January 2018

The Myth of the Limited Strike on North Korea

By Abraham M. Denmark

Faced with the rapid advance of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities, Americans have begun to debate the possibility of a limited, preventive U.S. strike against North Korea—one that could deter the regime from further testing while avoiding a full-blown war. One possibility is a so-called bloody nose strike, which would involve destroying a North Korean missile launch site (bloodying the regime’s nose, as it were) in order to demonstrate the United States’ resolve. Some have gone even further, calling for “air and missile strike[s] against all known DPRK nuclear test facilities and missile launching and support facilities” in the event of a North Korean atmospheric nuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.

The goal of a limited strike would be fairly straightforward: demonstrate to Pyongyang that it cannot continue conducting tests without risking a U.S. response. Crucially, proponents of such a strike assume that the United States’ own massive conventional and nuclear capabilities could deter North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un from retaliating, as such an escalation would risk his own destruction. Advocates for a limited strike also tend to argue that, by assuring Pyongyang that the United States does not seek regime change but will never accept a nuclear North Korea, Washington can convince Kim that negotiations are the only viable way forward.

It is unlikely, however, that a strike would work as planned. It would have no guarantee of successfully destroying North Korean capabilities, and Kim may well feel compelled to respond to even a limited attack. Any strike would thus risk igniting a full-blown war on the Korean Peninsula that would endanger millions of lives and ultimately diminish U.S. power and influence in the Asia-Pacific.


A successful preventive strike would likely require surprise. If Pyongyang became convinced that a U.S. strike was imminent, it might see itself in a “use or lose” situation and attack before the United States has a chance to take out its weapons—in

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