Korea United States

Question Asked: Could the U.S. Navy Destroy North Korea In a War?

Written by James Holmes

Corbett observes that a navy can apply pressure on a foe’s “national life” from day one of a conflict. Over time, he writes, it could exhaust that foe gradually—laying him low. But again, naval forces can only perform their blocking function at sea. They have little way to obstruct overland transit across North Korea’s northern border unless Washington wants to risk tangling with Chinese or Russian forces, and escalating a local conflagration to great-power war. Few relish that prospect. It’s a safe bet, then, that any blockade would leak to one degree or another.

How can the U.S. Navy destroy North Korea should Washington give the word? It can’t. Or at least it stands little chance of doing so by its lonesome barring improbable circumstances. What the navy can do is contribute to a joint or multinational campaign that destroys the Northern regime or its armed forces. But even that would involve perils, hardships and steep costs.

It bears noting at the outset that destroy is a loaded term, connoting wholesale slaughter of a foe. It need not be so. For martial sage Carl von Clausewitz, destroying an opposing force means incapacitating it as a fighting force. “The fighting forces must be destroyed,” insists Clausewitz; “that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight.” Disabling a hostile regime so it cannot resist our demands would likewise qualify.

So it’s possible to overcome an antagonist with minimal loss of life and treasure to both contenders. Indeed, it’s highly desirable, as China’s strategist Sun Tzu counsels. The “best policy,” advises Master Sun, “is to take a state intact,” and to do so without bankrupting your own treasury and wasting the flower of your military youth.

Read more at National Interest

About the author

James Holmes

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and author of “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” in the current issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. The views voiced here are his alone.

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