War between the United States and North Korea has begun to seem like a real possibility. Within hours of the Sunday, September 3 test of what Pyongyang claimed was a thermonuclear weapon, President Donald Trump tweeted that the North Koreans “only understand one thing.” The next day, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, claimed that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, was “begging for war.” Then on Thursday, Trump described military action – using “new and beautiful equipment, the best in the world” – as “something certainly that could happen.”

James M. Acton
Acton holds the Jessica T. Mathews Chair and is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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The Trump administration seems to be considering military action because it appears to recognize that there is now little chance of denuclearizing North Korea and is concerned that “North Korea might not be able to be deterred.” But it is focused on the wrong question. The right question is not whether North Korea can be deterred, but rather how the risks of trying to do so compare to the risks of the alternative – a preventative war. When these risks are weighed up, deterrence turns out to be the less dangerous option.

Military action would run the risk of nuclear strikes against U.S. bases in South Korea, Japan, and Guam, as well as American cities. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly assessed that North Korea is now capable of fitting a nuclear warhead onto a ballistic missile. Launching military action in the hope that Kim did not yet have a functioning nuclear arsenal would be insanity.

This article was originally published in the Diplomat.

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