As I wrote many times here at Monster Island and places such as the now-defunct* Marmot’s Hole, going back more than a decade, Ambassador Bolton is a dangerous combination of belligerent and ignorant, a chickenhawk who believes that giving North Korea “a bloody nose” will be the end-all-beat-all decisive action to halt tension on the Korean peninsula because he seems to not have thought through that Pyongyang would punch back, quite possibly in a big way. IOW, one-dimensional chess.
For better or for worse, those of us with homes in South Korea aren’t the only ones to take notice of how frightening this prospect is. As this New York Times op-ed piece notes, Ambassador Bolton’s call for taking out North Korea’s nuclear facilities before they are a more imminent threat may in fact be illegal:
John Bolton will assume office Monday with his first controversy as President Trump’s national security adviser awaiting him. Six weeks ago, he outlined his advocacy of an attack on North Korea in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”For now, I’m safely in Honolulu, where attacks by North Korea remain — so far — hypothetical or imaginary, but if I were back in Seoul, I’d nearly be at the crapping-my-pants stage. It is a very realistic concern that Mr Bolton is giving Trump a green light to attack North Korea, and North Korea will attack back. The question is whether it will be a big reprisal or a small one. I may not be in Seoul, but most of what I own actually is, and I have family, friends, and two very nice tenants to worry about.
“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea,” he wrote, “we should not wait until the very last minute” to stage what he called a pre-emptive attack.
Mr. Bolton’s legal analysis is flawed and his strategic logic is dangerous. As he did before the 2003 Iraq war, he is obscuring the important distinction between preventive and pre-emptive attacks. Under rules of international law based on Daniel Webster’s interpretation of the Caroline case in 1837, a pre-emptive attack can be legal, but only if an adversary’s attack is imminent and unavoidable — when a need for self-defense is “instant” and “overwhelming.”
For example, if America had intelligence that North Korea had alerted military forces and was fueling long-range missiles on their launchpads or rolling out missile launcher vehicles, the United States could reasonably assume an attack was imminent and unavoidable and could legally launch a pre-emptive strike in what international lawyers call “anticipatory self-defense.”
* On the subject of The Marmot’s Hole’s disappearance, when I snarkily joked of there being only “three remaining K-blogs” in 2020, I assumed The Marmot’s Hole would be one of them.