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
July 13, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
To prevent war with North Korea over a comedy, what would Dennis Rodman say to Kim Jong Un? Movie critic Gene Seymour weighs in.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
July 11, 2014 -- Updated 1320 GMT (2120 HKT)
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT