Skip to main content

An accident, then war with North Korea?

By Wesley Clark, Special to CNN
April 8, 2013 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in an anti-chemical warfare exercise on Tuesday, April 16 in Seoul. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear threats and provocations. A Pentagon intelligence assessment suggests the North may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though the reliability is believed to be "low." Emergency service personnel wearing chemical protective clothing participate in an anti-chemical warfare exercise on Tuesday, April 16 in Seoul. Tensions remain high in the Korean Peninsula in the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear threats and provocations. A Pentagon intelligence assessment suggests the North may have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, though the reliability is believed to be "low."
HIDE CAPTION
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
Militaries and Korean tensions
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wesley Clark: What if war is triggered by accident or some kind of miscalculation?
  • Clark: The recent bellicose rhetoric from North Korea raises the possibility
  • However, North Korea has a history of using extreme words to scare opponents
  • Clark: The U.S. and South Korean deterrent remains strong; odds are there won't be war

Editor's note: Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and NATO's former supreme allied commander in Europe, is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California, Los Angeles. Clark consults and advises companies in the satellite communications, biotechnology and energy fields, some with government and Department of Defense contracts.

(CNN) -- What if war is triggered by accident or some kind of miscalculation on the Korean peninsula?

This is a possibility that has provoked worry, analysis and preparations for more than 50 years. The recent bellicose rhetoric from the young, unproven leader of North Korea raises this possibility to a new height. What precisely is the risk, and what should be done about it?

The angry rhetoric of Kim Jong Un has set a record for extremism. And yet, going all the way back to the negotiating tactics used in the Korean War, the North has used an extreme, abusive and contradictory style.

Wesley Clark
Wesley Clark

Anything conceded to them was taken, but they conceded nothing. Anything up for negotiation was met with ever heightening demands. Every offer of compromise was met with an angry rhetoric of denial. Repeated rounds or negotiations over the succeeding decades have seen little change. And their public rhetoric has always been harsh and hyperbolic.

Opinion: North Korea is far from suicidal

But it hasn't been only rhetoric over the years. In the 1960s, U.S. soldiers serving in Korea were authorized to wear their division's insignia on the right shoulder, the so-called combat patch. A U.S. Navy ship was attacked, boarded and seized with its crew held captive in 1968. A U.S. Army major and another soldier were beaten to death in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in 1976.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Again and again, North Korea has defied international accords, laws and common sense, creating and exporting long-range missiles, building nuclear capabilities and engaging in kidnappings, sabotage and cyberattack.

But there has been no war.

We attribute this to three factors. First, we believe the overwhelming power of the United States guarantees that any North Korean attack would, eventually, result in the utter destruction of the regime. Second, the South Korean leadership has shown remarkable restraint in the face of humiliating North Korean provocations. Third, the North Koreans may not have ever intended to attack, though we have no way of knowing, or they understand that the combined U.S.-South Korean forces would destroy North Korea should war begin.

The U.S. and South Korean deterrent remains strong -- in both rhetoric and deployable, effective military power.

But what about miscalculation?

Life in North Korea
Korea tensions ramp up
Can China solve North Korea crisis?
North Korea might test missiles

Yes, it is always possible that Kim may doubt that the United States would act, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Or, perhaps he miscalculates how far he can push the South Koreans. It is possible that a North provocation could be so extreme that the South would be compelled by its own domestic politics to respond militarily -- say a tit-for-tat ship-sinking. Or maybe such an incident occurs by accident, if overzealous commanders make a wrong move.

Opinion: Does North Korea think U.S. going soft?

And then Kim, fearing that his own associates would mistake forbearance for weakness, would escalate in turn, thus initiating a cycle of intensifying moves that could spread conflict and turn into a war that neither side could back away from.

The risk is higher now than before because Kim's bellicose rhetoric may mask real weaknesses in his authority or in his understanding.

The rising rhetoric raises tensions (as it is probably designed to do). These tensions increase the risks of fear or pride, which could lead to an inadvertent incident. Should an incident occur, there will be pressure on leaders of both sides to retaliate and even escalate hostility. The consequences of conflict are higher than before, given the North's nuclear and missile capabilities.

What should be done?

First, ensure that the U.S. deterrent is capable and credible. This requires that we have the capability to both defend ourselves and strike back, and that we make it as clear as possible to the North Koreans our resolve to use these capabilities if challenged.

Second, assure our South Korean allies that we will stand with them, so they can afford politically to be restrained.

Third, strike a balance between demonstrating resolve in public and, simultaneously, working to reduce tensions. North Korea must always be given an "out" from the box of escalating threats it has constructed, but the out must not involve U.S.-South Korean concessions, apologies or any signs of hesitancy, weakness or lack of resolve. This requires artful balancing of military demonstrations, deployments, statements and behind-the-scenes dialogue with China and others in the region.

Opinion: Kim Jong Un is not crazy

The odds are that there will be no conflict. Good odds. The U.S. and South Korean leadership is experienced. And so are those behind the young leader in the North. This is a familiar game, but one whose risks far outweigh any actual benefits to the North.

Why is the world fascinated by North Korea?

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wesley Clark.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT