In Korea, no pre-emptive strike: Our view

May 3, 2017  USA Today

As 2nd straight North ballistic missile test fails, ‘strategic patience’ shouldn’t be replaced with impulsive impatience.

Tension has continued to mount along the Korean Peninsula through April, and where the confrontation is headed remains disturbingly uncertain.

With North Korea preparing for a sixth nuclear bomb test, President Trump tweeted that China had better deal with this problem or the U.S. would handle it “without them!” North Korea paraded long-range missiles through Pyongyang and attempted a test missile launch. Vice President Pence, from near the Demilitarized Zone, warned that all options, including military action, are “on the table.”

In the past week, there were dueling live-fire drills on both sides of the DMZ. North Korea promised it might blow a U.S. aircraft carrier out of the water, and a nuclear-armed U.S. submarine eased into port in South Korea. By Thursday, Trump was telling Reuters ”we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea, absolutely,” after which the North Koreans test-fired another ballistic missile.

There are 25 million reasons why this showdown can’t be allowed to spin out of control, accidentally or otherwise. That’s the population of metropolitan Seoul, the South Korean capital, just 35 miles from a North Korean border where hundreds of artillery are within range of the city. One analysis concluded that 30,000 people could die in the first few minutes of such an attack.

There are also 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, all of whom would be in range of North Korean ballistic missiles that could be loaded from one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, as well as some of the rogue nation’s estimated 20 or more nuclear devices. Japan is also within striking distance.

John Bolton: China’s choice on North Korea

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has promised to fight back if the U.S. conducts an airstrike against one of the test missile launches, and he has a despot’s array of rapidly escalating choices.

Trump administration officials have declared that the era of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over. Fine. The policy wasn’t working to control Kim’s nuclear ambitions. But nor should it be replaced with impulsive impatience that leads to a deadly conflagration.

The pressure to prevent North Korea from perfecting a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. is enormous. It doesn’t help when hawks such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., point out that “the war would be over there; it wouldn’t be here.”

With millions of lives at stake, those can’t be the alternatives the U.S. is left with. Avoiding war will take time and patience, deft diplomacy and a responsible show of force.

The narrow path toward a non-violent resolution runs through China. It buys North Korean coal, provides nearly all of its oil, and launders North Korean money through its banks. China recently cut its annual imports of North Korean coal by 70% — a start — and the State Department says it has received “a lot of positive signals” the Chinese are following through.

As with Iran, tougher economic sanctions will take months, if not years, to bite. Meanwhile, the United States might well have some surreptitious tools for stalling North Korea’s missile testing: covert cyber and electric interference programs less obvious than an airstrike. There’s speculation they might have caused the test missile failure April 16.

Surreptitiously stalling missile development, while tightening sanctions with China’s assistance, are the best options. A pre-emptive military strike is among the worst.

USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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