Media reports over the last few weeks indicate that the already tense relationship between North Korea and the United States is getting worse. Now that North Korea is nearly ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States has said that it will get more confrontational. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson even suggested that U.S. military action against North Korea is “on the table.” Such talk is sometimes part of a broader strategy to pressure other countries to negotiate, whether at the Security Council or elsewhere. But it can also be a precursor to war. And it comes at an acute time for the law on anticipatory self-defense.
As readers of this blog no doubt know, Article 51 of the UN Charter recognizes that states have an “inherent” right to use force in self-defense “if an armed attack occurs.” There is an ongoing debate about whether and, if so, when Article 51 permits states to use force to avert an attack that has not yet occurred. Claims for interpreting Article 51 expansively—to permit defensive force even if the attack is only speculative—have been made with respect to “rogue” states that are developing nuclear weapons. In this post, I situate the North Korea case within that debate and explain why the United States might find it to be a particularly challenging case in which to press its expansive claim.
I. The Law on Anticipatory Self-Defense
A. A Restrictive Position
The majority view on anticipatory self-defense is probably a restrictive one: that anticipatory self-defense can be lawful only if an attack is truly “imminent”—as in, about to occur. Under this view, states may not use force unilaterally to nip in the bud latent threats or attacks that are still conjectural. They must instead address those situations using non-forcible means or by obtaining the UN Security Council’s authorization.
That position finds support in various authoritative texts, including texts that specifically address situations involving the acquisition of nuclear weapons. In 1981, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor that seemed ready to produce weapons-grade uranium. The UN Security Council “strongly condemn[ed]” the operation as a “clear violation of the Charter.” In 2004, the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change likewise asserted that anticipatory self-defense is lawful “as long as the threatened attack is imminent” (para. 188). The Panel distinguished those cases from situations in which “the threat in question is not imminent but still claimed to be real: for example, the acquisition, with allegedly hostile intent, of nuclear weapons-making capability” (para. 188). It explained that non-imminent threats ought to be addressed without force or through the Security Council.
Indeed, the Security Council has repeatedly taken steps to prevent specific states from acquiring nuclear weapons. The Council has issued numerous resolutions condemning or authorizing sanctions against North Korea for conduct relating to its nuclear program. Likewise, the Council authorized sanctions against Iran, until it agreed to subject its program to stricter international oversight. And after the 1991 Gulf War, the Council imposed intrusive measures on Iraq to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. This practice shapes expectations about the proper locus of decisionmaking authority. It suggests that the decision to sanction a state that might be acquiring nuclear weapons falls, at least in the first instance, to the Security Council, not to states acting unilaterally.
The debate surrounding the 2003 Iraq war arguably also supports that view. Part of the justification for the war was that the use of force was necessary to contain Iraq’s nuclear program. The United States claimed to be acting pursuant to the Security Council’s authorization. But most states disagreed with that claim and vociferously condemned the war. They did not believe that the Council authorized the use of force or that force without the Council’s authorization was justifiable in this instance.
B. A Permissive Position
However, the restrictive position on anticipatory self-defense is being contested. As Michael Reisman and Andrea Armstrong showed in their 2006 article, several states have expressly claimed the right to use force in anticipatory self-defense, without limiting that right to truly imminent attacks. In December 2016, the United States drew on Sir Daniel Bethlehem’s piece in the American Journal of International Law to articulate this legal position:
When considering whether an armed attack is imminent . . ., the United States analyzes a variety of factors. These factors include ‘the nature and immediacy of the threat; the probability of an attack; whether the anticipated attack is part of a concerted pattern of continuing armed activity; the likely scale of the attack and the injury, loss, or damage likely to result therefrom in the absence of mitigating action; and the likelihood that there will be other opportunities to undertake effective action in self-defense that may be expected to cause less serious collateral injury, loss, or damage.
Notice that “imminence” here does not have its ordinary meaning. By the United States’ account, it would permit defensive force to prevent attacks that are still fairly conjectural.
In January 2017, the United Kingdom endorsed a very similar legal position. U.K. Attorney-General Jeremy Wright purported to limit the most expansive implications of the U.K. claim. He underscored that “[i]t is absolutely not the position of the UK Government that armed force may be used to prevent a threat from materialising in the first place.” But his language just begs the question of when a threat has materialized. In the context of nuclear weapons, the threat could be said to materialize—and to justify defensive action—once a state that has demonstrated a hostile intent comes close to acquiring nuclear weapons. At that point, the risk of a potentially devastating attack increases. And waiting for the threat to become more operational might deprive the defending state of a meaningful opportunity to protect itself, without significant death or destruction. The U.S. and U.K. legal position thus creates space to justify anticipatory actions against states like North Korea.
To be sure, most states have not expressly endorsed that position. But as Jacob Katz Cogan and I have shown, most have also stayed silent in the face of actions that reflect it. Two examples are particularly relevant to the North Korea case. First, in 2007, Israel reportedly attacked a partially constructed nuclear facility in Syria. Although the UN Security Council condemned a very similar operation in 1981, states were almost completely silent about the 2007 action. Second, media reports indicate that Israel and the United States repeatedly attacked Iran’s nuclear program, as the Security Council was pressuring it to accept more international oversight. These attacks varied in their severity, but at least some of them caused physical destruction or death. Again, the response was muted.
My point here is not that the permissive position on anticipatory self-defense is the best articulation of the law. My point is that the law on anticipatory self-defense is potentially in flux. It might already be shifting or might soon shift from the restrictive position toward the more permissive one. Moreover, for the time being, a state that uses force in anticipatory self-defense might be able to calibrate its action such that it falls in a legal grey zone—in which it foregoes the legitimizing effect of having the law on its side but also avoids the verbal or material blowback of a violation. The operation would not be widely accepted as lawful, but neither would it be widely treated as unlawful.
II. The Prospects for U.S. Strikes against North Korea
Given that the United States has itself advanced the permissive position on anticipatory self-defense, North Korea could present something of a test case. The United States might try to exploit the legal grey zone or press for its position on the law. Those moves are unlikely to succeed for at least three reasons. First, using force to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program would be operationally difficult and present a serious risk of an escalation in violence. Antony Blinken, a State Department official in the Obama administration, recently explained:
Much of North Korea’s nuclear complex is concealed underground, inside mountains or in places unknown to United States intelligence. Meanwhile, the country is making rapid progress with mobile missiles powered by solid rocket fuel that can be rolled out of hiding and prepared for launch in minutes.
Moreover, as Max Fisher put it, “[a]lmost any plan would bring a high risk of unintended escalation to all-out war, analysts believe.” Thus, low-level, one-off operations—of the sort that were used against Syria and Iran—appear to be infeasible against North Korea. This matters from a legal perspective because other countries might have a harder time averting their gaze if the anticipatory action is a major military operation or risks triggering a broader war. Indeed, part of the justification for permitting anticipatory force in this context is that the operation mitigates the damage that would occur if the nuclear threat becomes more operational. That justification is less convincing if the anticipatory action itself causes or leads to enormous damage.
Second, the Trump administration has shown little interest in, and has at times been outright hostile toward, international law and international institutions. Those who have a stake in preserving these arrangements and who worry about their deterioration during a Trump administration thus have reason to push back against the United States—to resist an operation that they might otherwise tolerate because they view it as evincing a blatant disregard for the law. The 2003 Iraq war might be instructive. Once the United States indicated that it was prepared to go to war, no matter whether it obtained a contemporaneous Security Council resolution authorizing force, other states (both on and off the Council) were more intent on isolating the United States and demonstrating their own commitment to the Council’s primacy in this area.
Third, the United States might now try to rally other states to support or tolerate a defensive operation. But this would require a serious diplomatic effort. The United States would likely have to persuade its allies that the alternatives to defensive force—including action through the Security Council—are either inadequate or infeasible. At the moment, the United States seems ill-prepared to undertake this effort. The U.S. State Department is, by many accounts, in disarray and sidelined from U.S. foreign policy decisionmaking. Moreover, Secretary Tillerson reportedly has isolated himself from career officials who might otherwise guide him in developing an effective diplomatic strategy.
III. Where Does This Leave Us?
To be sure, the United States might still use force to try to curb North Korea’s nuclear threat. This scenario would try the jus ad bellum’s resilience and the United States’ commitment to it. Though the United States has violated the jus ad bellum before, it has also consistently engaged with and demonstrated its overall support for the regime. I argued last month that there are reasons to believe that the Trump administration will be different.
Alternatively, the United States might forego military action against North Korea. In this event, North Korea’s nuclear program would still present a serious security threat. And again, the United States would be, at least for the moment, poorly positioned to lead a broad-based, multilateral initiative to contain that threat. Unless other countries step into the breach, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is likely to deteriorate even further.