When the Iraqis tried to build a nuclear reactor in 1981, the Israelis, perhaps out of fear that it could be used to develop nuclear weapons, bombed it.

Why won't the US bomb North Korea's ballistic missile development infrastructure (research centres, silos, launch pads etc.)? Is it due to fear that it could escalate into a war with South Korea? Is it because China will be strongly against it? But why would they?

A well-placed strike could set their programme back years and it would be a much needed reality check that the world will not tolerate a hostile regime's pursuit of nuclear armament.

  • 3
    I think a better precedent was the attack on Iranian enrichment via computer viruses.
    – user9389
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:21
  • Fair, had forgotten about that.
    – user16555
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:24

5 Answers 5


North Korea

  1. They aren't sure they know where all of the missile infrastructure is.

  2. Nuclear plants don't respond well to bombing. A Fukushima level error (accident that sends the plant into meltdown) and they could kill a lot of North Korean civilians. They'd be more likely to secure the nuclear power plants with infantry. If they don't secure or destroy the plants, North Korea can just make more nuclear material.

  3. The launch site isn't that important. There's video of it. It's just high, flat ground with some scaffolding. Bombing that wouldn't set North Korea back much if any. They'd find a new flat spot, clear the burnables, and erect new scaffolding. I'm not convinced that bombing the launch site would slow them down by days.

  4. North Korea can attack South Korea without using missiles. Seoul is within mortar range of the border.

If the United States attacks North Korea, the US needs to not only disable the missiles but also the artillery. And the US needs to do so simultaneously and quickly.

Why would China care? If North Korea falls, where do you think the refugees will go? North Korea borders three countries: China; Russia; South Korea. South Korea would be allies with the United States. That part of Russia is the south end of Siberia, not exactly hospitable terrain. China is the long time ally.


What was different about Iraq?

  1. No South Korea to hold hostage. Iraq isn't close enough to threaten mortar attacks on Israel.

  2. A narrow attack worked on Iraq. So no refugees. But we are far too late for a narrow attack on North Korea. And China is closer to North Korea than either the Soviet Union or China was to Iraq. And honestly, it's not like Israel got along that well with any of Iraq's neighbors. Israel viewed the risk of nuclear weapons as more dangerous than external disapproval.

  3. Iraq was much earlier in the process. They hadn't even finished the plant yet. So the bombing really did set them back. North Korea's nuclear plants are currently operating. No one can bomb them safely.

North Korea does not seem to be mass producing missiles yet. Right now, the US would have to kill the machinists and engineers as well. Because machine shops to build missiles are not that hard to obtain. It's pretty much the same kind of machine shops that work on airplane parts and tooling.

Not to mention that it isn't necessary to deliver nuclear weapons by missile. A missile is just a convenient delivery mechanism. Piloted delivery mechanisms also work. For example, both nuclear weapons that were actually used were delivered by bomber. Covert operations can deliver bombs without flight.

  • But there was no such impact when the Israelis bombed Iraq. I'm not talking about carpet bombing massive areas like cities, it's well within the USA's capabilities to bomb a very, very specific target (that doesn't have to be a nuclear reactor), plus I'm sure the government has a fairly good idea where some of those facilities are (at the very least there's satellite imagery, don't missile launches release a massive amount of heat easily detectable by satellite?).
    – user16555
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:23
  • 3
    Turns out that the chances of a) getting correct intelligence on all locations, and b) effectively bombing them to non-operation before any missiles can launch are quite small @user16555. Remember the risks are very very large here (potential of millions of casualties). Also, even if all the missiles get taken out this still leaves us with the NK artillery fortified in the mountains (rumoured to include chemical weapons) that can "flatten Seoul".
    – user11249
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:30
  • @Carpetsmoker true but not like that's stopped the USA before (e.g. Obama's notorious drone strikes have often wrongly targeted and killed civilians). I'm just honestly surprised that the USA has tolerated North Korea for so long, Iran, perhaps a far less dangerous state, has been dealt with much more sternly.
    – user16555
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:38
  • 1
    @user16555 Drone strikes against guerilla/terrorist fighters are an entirely different tactical and geopolitical situation, as is the Iran situation. Simply put, comparing North Korea with Iran directly is comparing apples to oranges. Sure, there are some similarities, but also many differences; too many to enumerate in a comment, but I may write an answer at some late (or I may not ... we'll see).
    – user11249
    Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 17:39
  • 1
    I think realistically #5 is the biggest one. There are 10 million people in Seol, and in the time it takes to read this answer NK could have launched 1000 conventional short range missiles into them. That would easily be a much worse loss of life than the current state of nuclear affairs. Commented Aug 30, 2017 at 22:53

Because North Korea can inflict severe damage on Seoul and several other cities in South Korea (targeting literally millions of civilians) with its conventional artillery.

Business Insider has this map of the artillery emplacements:

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Stratfor covered this extensively in "How North Korea Would Retaliate", with this image:

enter image description here

Please note that both these articles provide a rather conservative view which explicitly rejects more sensationalist claims of DPRK's ability to "flatten" Seoul or completely destroy it. But the damage could still be rather extensive, both in human lives and expensive infrastructure.


The main reason is probably bad PR and the repercussions from other countries in the case that the US launched a first strike.

For example, China stated that they will remain neutral if North Korea takes the first strike, but will fight to retain the status quo if the US takes the first strike.

Other countries allied or friends with the US may believe that this is a sign that the US has become trigger-happy and unhinged, and may distance themselves from them, while their enemies may use this as propaganda or as an excuse to launch another war.

Additionally, as others have already said, there's the risk of casualties in South Korea, nuclear meltdowns, and the fact that we don't know exactly where the production facilities are.


Because at this point the known-unknowns and unknown-unknowns are too many which make the case for a preemptive strike too risky. The North Korea problem can be solved without military intervention, through China, which is the only major reason why the regime is still functioning. The US just needs to make the case of removing the regime much more attractive to China. Currently China is OK with the regime because of trade and in the case of its regimes removal and the unification of Korea it would mean that it can have US missiles next to its border as south Korea is a close US ally (you need to keep in mind that countries think in long term strategy, and the long term strategy for china at this point is to challenge US global domination in 10-20 years). To counteract this the US can promise to China not to install any further bases in the case of Korea reunification under a democratic status that would also mean that China will have a much more stable neighbor (maybe South Korea should step in to guarantee trade with China proportional to what the regime is doing). Further pressure to China can be excreted through Taiwan or even trade agreements, as the Chinese prosperity and stability is based on the premise of production to satisfy developed counties consumption. If you are interested a nice book on geo-politics around the world and in particular to this region is Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall


  • I'm pretty sure Chinese didn't miss how NATO's (read: US') promises about "not expanding further to the East" to Russia worked out, so I doubt they'd think it is a good deal. Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 17:35
  • @OlegV.Volkov There is no evidence that such promises were ever made, only some (conflicting) claims of a handful of Russian politicians.
    – user48236
    Commented Dec 2, 2023 at 10:53

It'll be totally unfair if we were to believe that the US is safeguarding the South Korean interests by not launching an attack on DPRK. Americans wouldn't really care how many die, they never did. The Korean war too had left some bitter memories for them.

Besides if US even attempts to bomb any missile silo/site that would be declaration of war, not a conventional but nuclear war. Let's also not forget China, which has time and again asked US to exercise restraint. How they would come to rescue of their ally is anybody's guess. Besides fall of DPRK is not in the interest of China.

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