A preventive strike on North Korea would be morally unjustifiable

 (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

Three successive Kim regimes in North Korea have made an art of nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula. The newest Kim, 33-year-old Jung-un, seems especially intent in recent months on provoking a response from the United States.

His latest attempt was North Korea’s first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile—one capable of reaching Alaska, according to defense analysts. Targets in Japan and South Korea have already long been within the reach of North Korean medium-range missiles. It was not likely a coincidence that the North Koreans tested their most advanced missile as Americans celebrated Independence Day.

In a statement before an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on July 5, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, called the I.C.B.M. test a “clear and sharp military escalation” and ominously warned that such provocations “are closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution” to the standoff in East Asia.

This latest, longest-range North Korean missile test, she said, “requires an escalated diplomatic and economic response.”

“The world is on notice,” she told the members of the U.N.S.C. “If we fail to act in a serious way, there will be a different response.” The United States, she said, is “prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies.”

Even the expanding reach of North Korean missiles cannot morally justify a preventive strike by the United States at this time.

That military threat serves a worthwhile role, hovering above diplomatic pressure on the Kim regime, but Father J. Bryan Hehir believes that even the expanding reach of North Korean missiles cannot morally justify a preventive strike by the United States at this time. The Trump administration, he adds, should remain extremely careful about how it talks about a possible response to the ballistic thumb-nosing of the unpredictable Mr. Kim. Father Hehir is the secretary for social services for the Archdiocese of Boston and a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. For decades he has been a key advisor to the U.S. bishops’ conference on peacemaking and international security.

Discussing Ambassador Haley’s comments at the United Nations on July 6, he says, “I think people have to watch their words in this situation. It is not unlike the Syria crisis, where you say, ‘XYZ,’ and back yourself into a corner and then not have the option except to do what you said you would do—even though you might not have thought it through.”

From Father Hehir’s perspective a hypothetical preventive strike against North Korea fails a test for moral legitimacy on three “just war” grounds: All other options to conflict have not been exhausted; the expectation of success is weak; and, finally, any strike would initiate a conflict that would lead to a level of noncombatant suffering last witnessed during one of the 20th century’s world wars.

It may be tough for saber rattlers in Washington or on Twitter to accept, but patience and caution ought to continue to guide the Trump administration’s response, according to Father Hehir. “We have not satisfied the last resort criterion in that there are other ways to continue to deal with this problem,” he says, including new diplomatic and economic pressure. In terms of the probability of success, he points out that because its nuclear capability is unclear and its nuclear forces hidden away in deep mountain bunkers or dispersed on mobile launching platforms, “it is very hard to conceive of a use of force that would completely eliminate North Korean nuclear capacity.”

Finally, “whenever you think of the use of force on the Korean Peninsula, the dominant [just war] category that stands out here is proportionality. That is, if there ever is a case where the use of force is justified, you still don't fight a war that causes more harm than good.” It is hard to imagine, he explains, that containing North Korea’s hypothetical threat to the United States could be morally balanced against the devastation a renewed conflict would cause to South Korea and Japan. “We have to take into consideration what could happen to our allies.”

South Korea’s capital Seoul, with 26 million people in its metro area, is a mere 35 miles from the demilitarized zone where 70 percent of Pyongyang’s conventional military capacity is crowded. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, a second Korean War could mean 200,000 to 300,000 South Korean and U.S. military casualties within its first 90 days, in addition to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. Another assessment predicts that should Pyongyang “live up to its threat of turning Seoul into a ‘sea of fire,’ casualties in the larger Seoul metropolitan area alone may surpass 100,000 within 48 hours.” A South Korean simulation in 2004 put the figure as high as 2 million civilian casualties in the first days of renewed conflict.

“We spent 40 years [confronting] a much more powerful adversary and found a way through it. That ought to be burned into the minds of decision makers” in Washington.

With the prospect of open conflict so unpalatable, the United States has little choice morally but to continue a “multidimensional and multilateral” campaign to encourage the North to change its bellicose ways, according to Father Hehir. The Trump administration should continue economic and diplomatic initiatives, he says, while encouraging a multilateral response, drawing in the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China—nations which share an interest in peace on the peninsula—as much as possible.

That is no easy task, as North Korea seems increasingly resistant to appeals even from close ally China and when deeper economic isolation threatens to only cause greater harm to the North’s already famished public, he admits. All diplomatic efforts should be orchestrated through the United Nations, according to Father Hehir.

The United Nations has played a pivotal role in the Korean drama since the beginning; it was through the United Nations that the U.S. and allied intervention in East Asia was justified in 1950. Its resolutions and its charter on the use of force should continue to oversee the crisis, according to Father Hehir. “We still have an unfinished war,” he says. “That is one of the things that the North Koreans seeks to resolve.”

Despite his strong belief that just war principles do not justify renewed conflict, Father Hehir does believe that military force has a key role to play in this geopolitical drama. As discussions continue, the threat of the possible use of military force should focus the North’s attention, he suggests. A similar deterrent threat, after all, kept the peace between the United States and the Soviet Union for decades. And, he adds, just because one nation may make a threat, “you do not have to immediately move to it”—something he hopes the Trump administration keeps in mind.

The idea that Mr. Trump may feel obliged to turn to the military option because of his tough talk on North Korea during the campaign riles Father Hehir. “That would be utter nonsense,” he says. Handling North Korea requires “intelligence, restraint and patience.” Now holding the position of the leader of the world's greatest military power, President Trump has obligations and responsibilities different from those of candidate Trump, he argues. “You can’t say I have to do something because I said so during the campaign.

“We spent 40 years [confronting] a much more powerful adversary and found a way through it,” he adds. “That ought to be burned into the minds of decision makers” in Washington. The president’s personality and lack of background on geopolitical issues “certainly give one pause,” Father Hehir says, adding, “you cannot handle this situation with one-liners sent out of the blue.”

He hopes the president listens to more seasoned voices on world affairs in his administration like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, as next steps are discussed, urging that those today clamoring for a more muscular approach to North Korea should be disregarded. “There were voices in 1950s who called for the use of nuclear weapons with China and Russia,” Father Hehir recalls. “That would have been a disaster,” he says, “and we would have been condemned by history.”

There is still plenty of time and negotiating room, he says, to avoid that fate today in Korea.

Correction (6:20 p.m., July 7): An earlier version of this report conflated the meaning of the term "pre-emptive strike," conducted when enemy aggression appears imminent, with "preventive strike," undertaken to neutralize a potential threat.

Frank Lesko
1 month 1 week ago

It also fails just war criteria by the most important reason, and yet the reason that gets forgotten all too often: Just war is not just about avoiding war but also proactively building peace. When we are backed into a corner and have to think in terms of short-term tactical measures is a little late to be talking about just or unjust. Some may argue that the USA has done all it can, but I'd like to see a comprehensive discussion on that before I'm satisfied.

Catechism: "2317 Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war."

Let's go through this list point by point. Until we've had an exhaustive discussion about what we've done to address each of these, we haven't fulfilled out duties as per the Catechism. There are other points, as well, but I don't want to take up too much space quoting, but hopefully I've made my point.

Margi Sirovatka
1 month 1 week ago

"All diplomatic efforts should be orchestrated through the United Nations"...really? Sounds like Cardinal Marx who has stated that the U.N. should administrate a global economy. No wonder populism is on the rise among those of us who are not septuagenarians. U.N.-style-group-think is a scary thought.

Stanley Kopacz
1 month 1 week ago

For the maestros of group think, check out Fox Nooz.

Michael Barberi
1 month 1 week ago

China is North Korea's biggest trading partner keeping the regime afloat and enabling them to build a nuclear capability. This threatens not just the U.S. but more importantly Japan and South Korea.

All the diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions to date, including putting pressure on China to help curtain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, has proved a failure. At some point North Korea will have a nuclear-weaponized intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking Japan and the U.S.

While we should continue diplomatic and economic efforts, at what point would the Catholic Church believe that military intervention in North Korea is justified? Frankly, I don't think they want to cross that bridge.

Stanley Kopacz
1 month 1 week ago

The only time nukes were used was when the other side had none. Since the Soviets got them, the old "nuke me, nuke you" system has kept the peace. It will probably continue to work if NK can make deliverable warheads. Hell, welcome, NK, to the club of unusable weapon owners.

Michael Barberi
1 month 1 week ago

The only issue missing in your analogy is the fact that the NK leader is a very unstable person and the NK threat is not only 'jumping the gun' but exporting nuclear technology to radical extremists who hate the West.

I hope you are right in implying that having nuclear weapons will result in unusable weapons. However, it was the nuclear non-proliferation treaties between the U.S. and Russia, as well as the UN Declaration against nuclear weapons that lead to their 'non-use'. On the other hand, NK has broken treaties and agreements with the U.S. and I suspect they will do the same in the future. Hence, I question the effectiveness of diplomatic efforts.

IMO, any military intervention by the U.S. will be seen as war by NK, and SK will receive the brunt of their retaliation. Japan and SK do not want any kind non-nuclear war. At this point, the only solution that makes sense to me are severe economic sanctions.

Stuart Meisenzahl
1 month 1 week ago

Father Hehir indicates patience and working through the UN on the North Korea issue. Perhaps he could explain the Popes plea when the Syrian crisis led to the latest chemical attack by Assad. The Pope appealed:
......"to the consciences of all who have political responsibility,at national and international levels, so they stop this tragedy and bring relief to that dear population that has been wracked by war for too long a time" See America Magazine April 5,2017 Gerrard O'Connell.

Seems a bit at odds with Father Hehir's "wait and see"....".patience".....UN approach for Korea. It seems the Pope was shouting/demanding the world to do something about Assad and he had certainly lost patience with the delay. There was no "just war analysis" applied by the Pope.

James Schwarzwalder
2 weeks 1 day ago

Well, I don't recall that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor allowed us time to have a comprehensive discussion or conduct an exhaustive check list with the Catechism. In my opinion the Communist Chinese govt. has done little to restrain their neighbor, North Korea. If the Chinese can't cooperate more, I would declare a moratorium on interest payments on the four trillion dollars of US Treasury Bond debt held by the Chinese government. That should get their attention. Also I would increase safety and health inspections of all cargo vessels regardless of ownership coming from China that intend to unload at US Ports. A slow down you say? Just being safe. Don't you recall the capture, detention and torture of the US Pueblo and its crew? Frankly, rather than flying offensive weapons like US strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula as a show of "muscle", just shoot down the next North Korean launch with US Navy seaborne air defenses. And send Dennis Rodman back to visit North Korea. He seemed to have more Mojo than the diplomats.

Leonard Villa
1 week 5 days ago

How would Fr. Hehir be able to make such a judgment since he lacks the intelligence briefings to assess the threat? In this day an age it would be absurd also to think that just war teaching requires the U.S. first to absorb a nuclear strike by North Korea in order to respond in order to satisfy just war teaching. If a nuclear attack by North Korea is imminent the U.S. has a right to repel and eliminate that attack by force sufficient to remove the threat seeking to limit as much as possible harm to civilians.

lurline jennings
1 week ago

The time has come when the US has run out of patience with the mentally disturbed individual running No. Korea. Would you continue to allow this evilest man to run a country that holds the end of life for many in his incapable hands? You can pray, you can storm the gates of heaven but there have been no answers in all the years this problem family has been in charge of this country. When all of that doesn't work it is time to act. Those on the West Coast of the US are imperiled by these threats of a madman who has no conscience and will do as he will to please his own warped desires. We need to do nothing more than give them a dose of what they are doing to the rest of us. One nicely placed bomb will get the attention of the rulers. Are we supposed to wait until a bomb has exploded in Alaska? San Francisco? Los Angeles? San Diego with its great military capacity. How many of us must wait for an answer from a God who can't seem to get His priorities straight! The time has come to destroy the rulers of No. Korea before we find millions of our citizens dead and cities gone. Retribution is a move whose time has come. No more Mr or Mrs nice guy. No more good pope and bishops, cardinals and priests telling us just to pray. That only goes so far.

John Walton
1 week ago

Perhaps Fr. Hehir and America Magazine correspondent Clarke, in praising the UN authorization of the Korean action, are too young to recall that Stalin's representative to the Security Council meeting was absent, elsewise the 1950 resolution would have not achieved the unanimous vote necessary to authorize military action.

During his brief reign, Kim Jong Un has assassinated family members, close associates and high ranking officers of the military. His physical appearance gives the impression of massive steroid treatment, but for what.

This situation appears as grave as the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps it's time for the Editors to pray for guidance for our CIC.

Nicholas Clifford
1 week ago

“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. And [Trump’s] told me that to my face,” Graham said. “That may be provocative, but not really. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”

Did Lindsay Graham really say this? He did, if The Atlantic's reporting is accurate. It's precisely the kind of loose thinking that seems to be on the rise today, Suppose "thousands die" (more like ten thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands) are we to believe that it doesn't matter, because -- because, well, they're only Koreans, Southern as well as Northern, to be sure, but mere Koreans are expendable?

How are we to square this with any kind of Christian outlook? Or if you prefer not to worry about such quaint old-fashioned views, how are we to square it with any kind of rebuilding an international order that's designed to achieve at least some kind of security? Or are we to assume that the international order doesn't count, and America First is all that matters? (as if such a thing were possible).
And whom do you choose to believe among those purporting to speak for America? Rex Tillerson, with his call for negotiations, or Donald Trump with his repetitious and ill -thought out threats of fire and flame yesterday? (where was the brimstone, I wonder)?

Just because Kim Jong-un wants to sound like a petulant and insecure child, does not mean that our president needs to reply in kind. And why on earth does Graham believe Trump's promises that "they" (the mere Koreans) will be the only ones to die in such a clash?

William Bannon
6 days 21 hours ago

Few leaders in the US can afford to care about Catholic theory after Pope John Paul II warned against fighting Iraq as it invaded Kuwait. That and his calling the death penalty " cruel" in 1999 in St. Louis ( a punishment affirmed in Romans 13:4 and affirmed by Christ in Mark 7:10 re: the old covenant death penalty for cursing one's parents)...such pacifist acts ended any credibility our theories had. And with Pope Francis attacking life sentences as a death penalty, you can forget anyone but rabid pacifists listening to what passes for Catholic thought in the violence area which thought process takes more time to tick off than it takes to launch a missile and reach Guam in twenty minutes. If anything Fr. Hehir's Seoul death data argues for massive first strike on that 70% at the border and the silos in the north...as Eliseus the prophet enjoined on King Joash in 2 Kings 13 against Aram...preventitive of Aram keeping conquered Israel territory. Kim Jun Un executed his uncle for having casual posture during a formal meeting. The entire world has a right to regicide against him and his having nuclear weapons....regicide as delineated by Aquinas in the Summa T. and tried by a Catholic against Hitler.

Henry George
6 days 14 hours ago

How, in this age of ICBMs, can anyone know whether North Korea or anyone else is about to launch a nuclear tipped missile ?

As such I don't understand how Fr. Hehir can trust his analysis.

Can Fr. Hehir or someone else provide an explanation ?

Nicholas Mangieri
4 days 23 hours ago

Or not launching a preemptive strike on NK may be morally unjustifiable.

Currently, in spite of all the rhetoric NK does not actually have the capacity to launch a nuclear strike. They have bombs and they have missiles, they may even be able to miniaturize their bombs to make them small enough to be carried by their missiles. But it will still be some time before they can actually mount a warhead on a missile and reliably strike a target. It will take some time, but it won't take forever.

A preemptive strike now may kill thousands of people. If we wait and NK continues to develop their capacity, and then things go wrong and in some future conflict NK strikes Seoul or Tokyo or both and millions are killed, who will be morally responsible for those deaths?

After WWII an entire generation got to look back and ask "Why didn't we do something about Hitler when we had the chance?" Let's all pray that we don't get the opportunity to ask a similar question.

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 days 21 hours ago

Nick
Well put on the dilemma .....and still there are those moralists questioning/judging the necessity/ morality of Truman's decision to drop the A bomb. Trying to create a graph of morality vs evil to find points of justification for action assumes that you can judge the depth, scope and devastating potential of a given evil. Sounds an awful lot like the old Thomistic search for the number of angels that would fit on the head of a pin!......and perhaps about as practical!

Carol Cox
4 days 12 hours ago

How long are Americans going to insist on talking, talking, talking and not committing to military action? Can we PLEASE recall the words of Edmond Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

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