With the start of the annual U.S. and South Korea joint war games this month, North Korea has picked up a familiar rhetoric: “The capitalist aggressors are planning to invade us, so we must strike preemptively” the North Korean state-run media says.

About 17,000 U.S. service members will be working alongside 300,000 of their South Korean counterparts during the exercises, dubbed Key Resolve and Foal Eagle.

With that many troops operating just south of the demilitarized zone, I think North Korea has a reason to be wary of large military activities.

What most fail to realize is that the war on the Korean peninsula never ended; the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, and since then plans for the two Koreas to come to the table to work out a solid peace agreement have failed to materialize.

There have been a few signs of hope. For example, in 2004, the two countries opened a joint industrial complex in the North Korean border town of Kaesong. The factory park would have been a model for negotiations and seemed to pave the way forward for both nations to seek reconciliation.

But in early January, those plans were jeopardized by a rash and uncalled for nuclear test by the North.

The North claims to have successfully detonated a highly destructive hydrogen bomb, the fourth in a series of nuclear tests since 2006.

While the consensus in the international community is that North Korea is probably bluffing about its nuclear capabilities, the rhetoric has been inflated in recent weeks by a series of rocket and missile tests.

Since then, the South has pulled out of Kaesong and imposed harsh sanctions on the North. Many of our allies in the South Pacific have also enforced embargoes and detained North Korea-bound cargo ships to ensure that the progress on their nuclear program is stunted.

While a few of the Presidential hopefuls are talking about the possibility of war with North Korea, including so-called “surgical strikes” on its nuclear facilities and missile launch sites, I’d urge caution. The argument for going into Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was an emotionally charged statement; “We can’t let the smoking gun become a mushroom cloud,” was repeated to the U.N. Security council and every single newspaper in America was duped into believe that Hussein not only possessed weapons of mass destruction, but was hellbent on using them. 

What we found was a delicate balance of power which U.S. advisers and diplomats didn’t understand; there was a fragile system in Iraq, one where the Muslim extremists that eventually became ISIS were not allowed to flourish under Hussein’s iron grip. 

We live and we learn; the Iraq war was a mistake, and we’re still paying for it.

Since the two Koreas split in the 1950s, the North has become a model totalitarian regime built on brainwashing and the personality cult of its leaders, both past and present. While I don’t think the North could sustain an actual war for more than a few weeks, I believe that if the U.S. were to go in and remove the North Korean leadership, we would face partisan-type guerrilla warfare like we faced with the insurgencies in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

The cost of war is real, and while we can conduct exercises and remain vigilant, the way North Korea currently stands, they’re in no position to throw that first punch.

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