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Is the United States prepared to go to war with North Korea if necessary?

Question submitted by Isaiah Smith, from Birdville High School, May 7, 2013

Answered by: Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action


Since North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test in February 2013, a spiral of heightened international pressure and increasingly threatening provocations by Pyongyang has ensued.

North Korea has previously used its nuclear capacity as leverage in international negotiations. Yet decoding the true intentions behind its escalatory rhetoric has proven more difficult with the twenty-nine year old Kim Jong-un now at the country's helm. Many experts worry that his inexperience could lead to grave miscalculations.

To deter the new leader, the United States has bolstered its missile defense system and conspicuously deployed long-range bombers to the region. U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon said that the United States "will draw upon the full range of our capabilities to protect against, and to respond to, the threat posed to us and to our allies by North Korea."

If open conflict broke out, the United States and its allies could likely deliver a devastating blow to the North's military capacity. But North Korea's million-person military and arsenal of short-range missiles could cause enormous damage, especially to Seoul, which sits just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone. Even a swift victory would leave South Korea and its partners with a burdensome and costly reconstruction effort.

It is therefore important for Washington to continue maintaining and strengthening its military measures, affirming red lines, and working with regional powers like China to put pressure on North Korea to negotiate without rewarding its belligerent behavior.

The United States should also remember that its response will have implications beyond the peninsula. Iran and others with nuclear aspirations will be emboldened if North Korea successfully defies international pressure to halt or roll back its program.