By Nicholas Kim & Soomin Chun
For many of us millennials in Seoul who are only two generation removed from those who had experienced the horrors of the Korean War, the consequences of conflict are stark. When we drive up North to the northern city of Paju, we see the anti-tank concrete barricades perched on thin walls, primed with explosives. We view the latest headlines out of the Trump White House with dread, knowing that the decisions of a man thousands of miles away would mean life or death for millions in Seoul. For the US, however, the political situation on the Korean peninsula, seems more like cold, strategic calculation, where South Koreans are merely pawns in a chess game to be sacrificed. In the past few months, leaks within the White House suggest that this administration is seriously considering a “bloody nose” strike designed to shock Pyongyang and force negotiations. Moreover, the US has recently appointed John Bolton, noted security hawk, as a national security adviser, creating consternation among foreign policy experts.
Indeed, just a few months ago, South Carolina Senator, Lindsey Graham, noted on Face the Nation that “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 46 percent of Republicans support a preemptive strike against North Korea.
This is dangerous thinking. For all this talk of a preemptive strike, there has been little to no discussion of the consequences of a war on the peninsula. In the words of high-level North Korean diplomat-turned defector Thae Yong Ho, North Korean officers along the border follow a shoot-first-ask-questions-later doctrine in which they are trained to fire back without further instructions from the general command if anything happens on their side. Once the wheels of escalation churn, there is no turning back. We attack a missile launch pad. They shoot down one of our planes. We launch “surgical” strikes near their capital. Then what?
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, a retaliatory strike would mean that Kim Jong-un could strike Seoul, just 35 miles away, with 10,000 rockets per minute, resulting in more than 300,000 casualties in the first days. For some context, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an estimated 129,000. And that’s just his conventional weapons, excluding the vast biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons systems at Kim’s disposal.
When talking about estimates of casualties, the numbers may very well begin to blend together. What is the difference between 300,000 or half a million, when these people live thousands of miles away? To be sure, behind the numbers are human faces. To us, those numbers are classmates and family members– people with dreams, hopes, and aspirations, yearning to ripen to fruition. To all Americans still bullish on the idea of a “bloody nose” attack, would you be willing to fight this war? How willing would you be to support a preemptive strike if you had to live with the consequences? We could very well be one of those 300,000 tomorrow.
The US was an instrumental part of the Korean economic development effort, providing aid and political stability. There is a cruel irony in enduring another conflict as the ally that helped transform Korea could start another war to bring it all crumbling down again.