We Are More Likely to Go to War With North Korea Now Than Ever, Former NATO Commander Says

America's chances of going to war with North Korea are the highest they've been since the end of the Korean War, retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, said this week. 

“I think there’s a 10 percent chance the wheels really come off and we have a full-on war on the Korean Peninsula, which would include nuclear use. That’s well over double what it was three months ago," Stavridis said during a panel at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House, moderated by Yochi Dreazen of Vox.

The chances of a less catastrophic conflict—without the involvement of nukes—are ever higher, at around 20 to 30 percent, according to the former NATO commander, who is now the dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University. 

Stavridis said such a conflict would likely arise from the North Koreans attempting to shoot down a U.S. aircraft, or succeeding. “We respond, maybe taking out a bunch of Korean ships in [their] harbor,” he said. “But somehow we manage to contain it and don’t escalate to that full-blown war.”

Even if the U.S. and North Korea didn’t enter a full-scale conflict, Stavridis believes such a scenario would lead to 500,000 to a million deaths. “And I think that’s a conservative estimate,” he added. 

Michèle Flournoy, who also spoke at Tuesday’s panel, linked the rising odds of a North Korea-U.S. conflict to President Donald Trump’s provocations. 

“My worry is that all of this heated rhetoric has really charged the environment so that it’s much more likely now that one side or the other will misread what was intended as a show of commitment or a show of force. It could be the basis of a miscalculation that actually starts a war that wasn’t intended at that moment,” said Flournoy. A former undersecretary of defense for policy under President Barack Obama, she now runs a think tank called the Center for a New American Security.

Stavridis and Flournoy said both countries need to make an effort to tone things down if conflict is to be avoided. That is easier said than done, however, since North Korea seems unwilling to put the brakes on its nuclear program, meaning Trump will likely continue to say and tweet incendiary statements about the reclusive nation and its leader, Kim Jong Un.

The key to solving this dilemma could be China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, said Flournoy. If Beijing can get North Korea to recognize the situation is escalating to an unsustainable point and continue pressuring it from an economic standpoint, North Korea might be convinced to discontinue or at least curtail its development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. But Stavridis warned that the chances of North Korea bending on this issue are very slim.

This does not necessarily mean war is inevitable, but it suggests the recent heightened tensions between the U.S. and North Korea will not dissipate at any point in the near future.