President Trump’s apocalyptic admonishment to North Korea over its nuclear threats to annihilate America suggested that he may be closer than ever to ordering an attack — without waiting for Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to strike first.
Mr. Trump’s supporters have said that such a strike, should there be one, would be legally justified as an act of self-defense by the United States against a dangerous and irrational adversary. Others disagree, and many scholars of international law say the legal issues surrounding attacks in self-defense are complicated and subject to interpretation.
Here are some questions and answers on what can be considered legitimate self-defense under international law, and what the United States would need to demonstrate were it to invoke self-defense as the reason for attacking North Korea first:
How can a country even claim self-defense when attacking another country that has not attacked it?
The self-defense argument for such an attack is generally not recognized as valid. But there are situations in which a first strike can be interpreted as legally justified.
Michael N. Schmitt, a professor at the United States Naval War College and an affiliate at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, said three basic requirements must be met: The other country must have the ability to attack; the other country’s behavior must show that an attack is imminent; and there are no other ways to forestall it.
North Korea’s military power appears to have satisfied the first requirement. But under the second requirement, “we have to determine whether the statements by Kim are bluster or he actually intends to carry them out,” Mr. Schmitt said. Under the third requirement, he said, “you can only act in self-defense when if you don’t act, it’s going to be too late — there are no other options.”
Have those requirements been met yet?
While North Korea may have an ability to attack the United States, there is widespread skepticism that an attack is imminent. And many officials, including some of Mr. Trump’s senior aides, have said other options have not been exhausted.
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