Backed into a Corner, Does North Korea Have the Right to Prememptive Self Defense?

This post is a follow-up to Patrick Dowdle’s blog about North Korea.

In recent weeks, North Korea has increased their aggressive rhetoric against the United States and South Korea, going as far as mobilizing rockets on their eastern coast.  These two medium range missiles, with the capability to strike most targets in Southeast Asia, including Japan and Guam.  Instead of viewing the situation from the United States point of view, I want to discuss the actions from Kim Jong Un and the North’s perspective.  North Korea, as a member of the UN, is technically required to adhere to the Charter of the United Nations, specifically chapter VII that includes threats to the peace and acts of aggression.  The recent military drills devised by the United States and South Korea, an effort to help train and protect the southern half of the two warring nations (an official peace treaty was never signed from the war in 1953, and the North recently repealed the armistice that ended the fighting).  From the North’s perspective, the military drills and the presence of several pieces of key military equipment (B-2 and F-22 stealth aircraft), which were meant to act as a deterrent against further escalations, may actually lead to the opposite result.

The UN Charter allows for member states the right to self defense against imminent threats to the peace of one’s state under article 51.  In addition to retaliatory self-defense, countries have the right to preemptive or anticipatory self-defense if they feel the threat is imminent and there are no other peaceful alternatives.  This is where I feel the United States and North Korea are going to be walking on thin ice.  Both countries can reasonably believe that there is an imminent threat of attack.  The north may see the military drills as a move of aggression as opposed to a move of defense.  North Korea would technically have the right to preemptive self defense if there were no other peaceful alternative, as long as it conformed to the Caroline Test.  The Caroline Test, a customary international law, limits the scope of an anticipatory self defense strike, requiring an imminent threat without peaceful alternatives and a requirement that the attack is proportional to the threat.  But, is the use of nuclear weapons (as the North has threatened), proportional to the threat against their country?  I have to respond with a resounding NO, but the North may believe that the threat to their country is their very existence and in that case any measure, including a nuclear attack, would be reasonable.

I write this blog not to rationalize the actions of the North, however to emphasize just how unstable southeast Asia is at the moment and how fragile a situation it is.  In the United States, we are conditioned to brush off the threats from North Korea as unsubstantiated rhetoric, however with the world’s fourth largest army, with one million active and around six million in reserves, the danger is real.  What actions can be undertaken in order to quell the situation without coming across as a threat to North Korea?  I believe that communication, rather than sword-rattling, needs to be the course of action in order to settle tempers and reduce the increasingly imminent threat of action.

Source: CNN

Picture: CNN

One comment

  1. I agree that the United States is conditioned to write off North Korea and Kim Jong-un. He gets portrayed as a young man trying to make a name for himself, both to his older military advisors and to the United States. While that may be the case, one cannot forget that he does have a limited nuclear arsenal at his disposal. With American troops stationed in both Japan and Guam, it is a very real situation.
    The Caroline Test is interesting. There are peaceful alternatives that do not require an anticipatory self defense strike. North Korea’s main ally is China. There is no way that China, an economy which is growing exponentially, would want to see a full scale disruption of Southeast Asia or become the enemy of the United States. It would hinder trade and have negative effects on their growth. Negotiation with China, and through them to North Korea, is one peaceful alternative.
    Unfortunately, North Korea does not help itself. All the official “photos” they release are wracked by very noticeable PhotoShop jobs. It is hard to take them seriously, which is the biggest problem. Hopefully, the men and women in the Pentagon and the White House do not write them off, and realize there are peaceful alternatives to fighting, and sword-rattling.

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