About a month ago I helped draft “A Statement from Christian Ethicists on Preventive War and the North Korea Crisis,” which now bears the signature of over a hundred Christian, mostly Catholic, theologians and other scholars. Since that statement was drafted, the war of words between the Trump administration and North Korea’s Kim Jung Un has only escalated.
Before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said of Kim, “’Rocket Man’ is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” and he threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if the latter attacks the United States or its allies. Then on Thursday the administration imposed new sanctions affecting financial institutions that do business with North Korea, an attempt to cut off financial support to the country and weaken its government.
Then late on Thursday, North Korea’s Kim Jung Un himself gave a statement lambasting Trump’s remarks at the United Nations and threatening the “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.” North Korea experts noted that it was unprecedented that the statement was personally drafted, signed, and delivered by Kim himself. Although much of the media focused on Kim’s threat that “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” more alarming was the threat issued by North Korea’s foreign minister that the country would test a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean. If North Korea carried out this threat, it would be the first atmospheric test (i.e., a test not carried out underground) of a nuclear weapon since 1980 and could contaminate marine life in the area and send radioactive material through the atmosphere, potentially affecting human communities depending on the location of the test.
The above cited statement draws on the Christian just-war tradition to provide guidance on how the United States should respond to the escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea. Here I want to expand on some of the themes in the statement; these reflections are my own and do not necessarily reflect the thought of the other drafters or signatories of the statement.
The statement draws on the distinction between pre-emptive and preventive wars, a distinction drawn both by the just-war tradition and the international laws of war. A pre-emptive war takes place when a country has clear evidence that an attack from another country is imminent, and therefore engages in a first strike as a form of defense against the imminent attack. A classic example of such a pre-emptive strike took place in 1967 when Egypt mobilized its armed forces along the border with Israel in anticipation of an invasion, and Israel responded with an air strike that destroyed much of Egypt’s air force. A preventive war, by contrast, is one in which one country attacks another because the latter is perceived as an inchoate threat, that is, a potentially real but future threat to the former’s security when there is no immanent threat of attack. The Iraq War of 2003 is of course an example of a preventive war.
In the debate leading up to the Iraq War, however, the argument was made that the possible nexus between state-sponsored terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction like biological and nuclear weapons blurs the distinction between immanent and inchoate threats—a nation will not know that a potentially catastrophic attack using biological agents or a dirty bomb, for example, is immanent until it is too late, and therefore states that sponsor terrorism and illegally develop weapons of mass destruction should be treated as if they pose an immanent threat even when evidence of a planned attack is lacking. Whatever the merits of this argument, there is little evidence that North Korea has an interest in a clandestine attack on the United States, and so the traditional distinction between imminent and inchoate threats, and therefore pre-emptive and preventive war, remains relevant.
A key point in the standoff with North Korea is that despite the overheated rhetoric, both the United States and North Korea have threatened to use force only if the other side attacks first; although initially President Trump had threatened an attack on North Korea if the latter “threatened” attack on the United States, this was later clarified to mean that the U.S. would respond with overwhelming force if it was actually attacked by North Korea. Therefore, both sides have staked out positions consistent with just-war reasoning and international law, although any military response to an attack would also have to be judged according to its proportionality. The real danger is that the personal insults—“Rocket Man,” “dotard,” “madman,” etc.—and heated rhetoric might goad one side or the other into taking the aggressive action that both sides claim they want to avoid.
A second point made in the statement from Christian ethicists is that a greater priority should be placed on peacemaking, that is, on finding non-violent solutions through diplomacy and engagement. The new sanctions on Thursday are in a way a positive development since they show that the Trump administration is still willing to engage in strategies besides military action. The problem with the sanctions is that they appear to be entirely punitive in nature; that is, it is not clear what change in behavior on the part of North Korea they are meant to induce. In other words, the sanctions inflict harm on North Korea without providing a path by which North Korea could move toward a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the problem of its nuclear program.
In addition, the Trump administration’s repeated suggestion that the United States may withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, despite Iran’s continued compliance with the terms of the deal, makes it much more difficult to find a diplomatic solution to the standoff with North Korea. If the United States is willing to unilaterally back out of a deal made not only with Iran, but with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and the European Union, even when Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal, what incentive would North Korea have to enter into any kind of deal with the United States when the latter cannot be trusted to hold to its terms? Whatever the imperfections of the Iran deal, it allows for the good faith renegotiation of its terms when the initial terms expire. Unilateral withdrawal from the treaty by the United States, on the other hand, would make military conflict in both Iran and North Korea more likely.
The Christian just-war tradition provides resources to help think through the United States’ response to the real threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. While the United States must take this threat seriously, it should only contemplate military action if attacked or if there is clear evidence of an imminent strike by North Korea. The use of a preventive strike should be taken off the table, and the heated rhetoric must be cooled off to lessen the danger of either side resorting to a first strike. At its best, the just-war tradition also points us toward peacemaking as an alternative to war, and therefore the United States should open the door to new opportunities for diplomatic solutions to the North Korea crisis rather than taking steps that close those doors, like sanctions with no clear mechanism for inducing changes in behavior and unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.