On Monday, North Korea claimed it successfully fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), believed by the U.S. to have enough range to reach Alaska. Then, President Donald Trump responded on Twitter, accusing North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un of not "having anything better to do with his life." The testy exchange has led to concern about a potential military conflict, but if you're wondering whether American troops will invade North Korea, you might want to pump the breaks a little, because there's good reason to doubt it'll happen.
Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have been especially high lately. Given the stakes involved if North Korea successfully engineered an ICBM-ready nuclear weapon ― something that's still believed to be years away ― it's hard to speculate just how forceful the political response might be.
But even if North Korea does develop that capability, the same reasons an American ground invasion would be profoundly dangerous now (and therefore ostensibly unlikely) will likely be true then too. The simplest reason lies in North Korea's armaments.
North Korea held its first publicly known nuclear weapons test in 2006, and since then, it's been counted among the small club of nations known to possess such staggeringly powerful weapons. There are eight others: America, India, Pakistan, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Israel (although Israel does not officially admit to this.)
Over decades, the Pentagon drafted multiple war plans for North Korea. But military options are grimmer than ever. https://t.co/6q39mqQhs5— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 5, 2017
Back in March, a senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC News that the country likely has just eight to 10 nukes in its arsenal. While that number is dwarfed by the U.S. arsenal of more than 4,000 nuclear warheads, it's still more than enough firepower to cause mass military and civilian casualties, whether within its own borders or in South Korea.
Indeed, were war to break out, the Korean peninsula would find itself in grave threat of nuclear destruction, with the South Korean capital of Seoul ― home to more than 25 million people, more than half the country's total population ― facing the possibility of a nuclear attack. Japan has been facing similar threats in recent years, as North Korea's missile technology improves, and has recently begun educating its citizens on survival strategies in the event of nuclear war.
The reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea presents risks and costs to any potential military conflict that the U.S. hasn't truly faced since the Cold War. And it creates dual pressures: first, an increasing urgency to stop North Korea from getting missiles that can reach American shores, and second, the looming knowledge that any direct military action could result in a horrific amount of casualties.
While the world has lived with the possibility of nuclear war for more than 70 years, nuclear bombs have only ever been used twice ― both times by the United States on Japan in 1945. Those bombs killed more than 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vast majority of them civilians. Since then, the world has managed to avoid nuclear war, despite a decades-long arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and some incredibly harrowing close calls, like the Cuban missile crisis.
But all that caution, and those decades of restraint even under immensely trying circumstances, could go out the window in an instant if the U.S. attempted to invade North Korea. And all the nations involved ― America, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and longtime North Korean ally China ― are keenly aware of that fact. As a result, there's perhaps no other country the U.S. is simultaneously so hostile towards, and yet so wary of launching a war against.
For that reason alone, it's tough to envision the U.S. embarking on a traditional, full-scale military attack against North Korea ― although again, it's impossible to predict with any certainty what might happen if its nuclear weapons program continues to advance in the direction it's going. The only guarantee is that the situation is unlikely to resolve or alleviate on its own. To the contrary, this figures to be an intense political situation for the foreseeable future.