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North Korea and Just War

The Korean War of the 1950s was suspended by an armistice rather than a surrender, and since then, we’ve witnessed an exchange of hot words and occasional killings across the DMZ. But recently, things have heated up. As Pyongyang’s third-generation “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un (son of Kim Jong-il; grandson of Kim Il-sung) has taken displays of terrifying hardware to the next level, we’re all wondering what to make of the prospects of war.

Of course, Christians (and others) have been trying to sort out this kind of thing for millennia, and they’ve developed just-war criteria for nations contemplating armed conflict. The lists vary in length, but I’ll employ the ten-pointer we use in the Unapologetic Study Bible. Let’s take a quick look at the criteria in this current context, the first six items falling under what is called, classically, jus ad bellum (“just entry into war”):

1. Legitimate Authority. Check. The U.S. and the Republic of South Korea are perfectly entitled to take on the North. We’re not a bunch of anarchists or mercenaries.

2. Just Cause. Self-defense is a good reason. So when a foreign leader with nuclear weapons speaks of a “merciless strike” on Guam, Hawaii, or the U.S. mainland, and when that same leader is launching practice missiles over Japan, you pay attention. Besides, if you doubt his will to destroy many people, just look what he’s done to his own hapless subjects.

3. Right Intent. The U.S. and its allies are doing just fine without owning North Korea, its resources, ports, etc. The point is safety and livable peace, not spoils.

4. Last Resort. We’re doing what we can through economic sanctions and leverage with China to get him to “stand down.” Of course, prior to the enemy’s attack, a nation can always ask, “Have we done enough to avert this without ruin to ourselves?” But patience can go too far. Forbearance can slide into appeasement, enablement, and disaster. It’s a tough call, and we’re doing what we can to get it right.

5. Probability of Success. Here’s the rub: No doubt, a dog can kill a skunk, but is it worth it? It all depends upon how one judges success. In this case, if it means the end of a threat to America, the answer is simple. But since Seoul is only a stone’s throw from massed artillery, it would be hard to say the war was successful if the city were obliterated.

The quandary is somewhat analogous to the situation where thugs kidnap and threaten to kill a detective’s daughter if he pursues an investigation. He can catch them, but at what cost? Or imagine if Hitler had threatened to kill every living person in Luxembourg should the Allies attempt a landing at Normandy. In the end, you have to defeat him, but see #4 above.

6. Defensive Preemption. We’ve moved beyond the day when you could sufficiently anticipate an attack’s timing and location to could prepare effectively. In those days, you could deploy your forces as you saw the enemy massing at the border. But, now that delivery systems and weapons-yields are astonishing in their reach and magnitude, it can be folly to wait for that prompt.

Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has distinguished “preemption” (as when the Israelis hit the Egyptian air force on the ground before it could serve up another round of assaults) from “prevention” (something the Allies should have done when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and armed his nation to the teeth on the eve of World War II). Arguably, there is a place for both when it comes to North Korea, which has shown little regard for treaties or moderation.

Next, there’s jus in bello (“justice in the conduct of war”):

7. Non-Combatant Immunity. If President Trump means by “We will destroy North Korea,” something like “We will destroy the Third Reich” (i.e., regime change) then his threat is appropriate. But if, when he says we will rain down “fire and fury,” he means we will obliterate the populace without distinction, he needs to rethink his guidelines. Desirable ends do not justify evil means, even in war. Of course, there is collateral damage in every war, but the issue is the intentional targeting of innocents. That’s terrorism.

Of course, things are complicated by nations who turn all the people, except the infants, into soldiers. I’ve just read the testimony of a Japanese man who, during WWII, trained with his middle school mates on how to drive sharp sticks into the throats of Americans who might come their way. In effect, a great swath of the civilian population, young and old, was prepared to “go kamikaze.” Certainly, there was a prima facie moral case against firebombing Tokyo and nuclear bombing Hiroshima, but the call can get a little blurry when the enemy is doing the blurring.

8. Humane Weapons. It seems odd to talk about humane instruments of death, but, of course, we do this with regard to capital punishment. In combat, the point is not to torture, but rather to stop the enemy. For instance, the “mustard gas” of WWI was so nasty that the Geneva Accords outlawed it. (For one thing, among many, it so blistered the lungs that they filled with fluid and drowned the soldier.)

Though the employment of conventional arms (e.g., jacketed bullets; artillery rounds using TNT) pass just-war muster, nuclear weapons, with residual radiation sickness among survivors, is more problematic. Still, there are ways to reduce this effect (e.g., through airbursts rather than ground bursts, the latter stirring up radioactive dust that blankets the land; the use of lower-kiloton, battlefield nukes instead of less-discriminating megaton devices).

9. Proportionality. It’s perverse to cite a just cause to engage in overkill. Of course, a “shock-and-awe” beginning can be merciful if it forces a quick surrender. But there’s no warrant for a “scorched earth” policy (a topic we address at Deuteronomy 20 in the USB), and the U.S. shows no interest in this approach.

Finally, it’s important how a nation concludes hostilities and behaves once the enemy surrenders. If you handle this badly, you sow seeds for the next war, so we honor jus post bellum (“just follow-up”):

10. Just Peace. Through the Marshall Plan in Europe and MacArthur’s leadership in Japan, the U.S. implemented post-war policies helping the defeated to flourish, and it seems likely this would be the case should Kim Jong-un be unseated.