North Korea has launched 23 missiles since the beginning of 2017. Tuesday’s launch of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (the third ICBM this year) flew higher and longer than any previous missile, traveling some 2800 miles into space (10 times higher than the International Space Station) for 50 minutes. Had the missile been on a traditional attack trajectory, it would have traveled approximately 8,100 miles---in easy range of the east coast of the United States.
The launch came shortly after the Chinese envoy left the North Korean capital of Pyongyang; the envoy was selected by President Xi of China after his meeting with President Trump during the President’s trip to Asia. China intended that the envoy would talk with Kim Jong Un about reining in his weapons program and agreeing to multilateral talks. North Korea’s missile-launch, right after the Chinese envoy left, appears to be a defiant finger-in-the-eye to China.
This North Korean missile carried a very heavy nose-cone, to simulate the weight of a nuclear weapon. The launch was a success. However, it is unclear if North Korea has mastered the technology necessary to keep the nose cone and weapon intact upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. It is also unclear if the rogue regime has developed a miniaturized nuclear weapon to fit on the tip of an ICBM. North Korea claims it has that ability. Most analysts think, for the moment, that is a bluff.
President Trump, in response to this latest North Korean provocation, said “We will handle it.” U.S. options appear to be few and fraught with risks. However, it is clear, to not make a decision is, in itself, a decision.
At issue: Do we avoid risking the safety of hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilians---but by doing so commit millions of U.S. citizens to live in perpetuity under the threat of a nuclear missile attack---something the U.S. has not faced since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? Long term, can we live with that?
Alternatively, do we attempt to achieve what President Trump did in Syria in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons? In other words, does the U.S. inform Kim Jong Un that we will not attack him personally, or the country at large, but---in the future, the U.S. will either attack planned missile launches while the missiles are on the launch pad and will also attack known nuclear weapons sites? Or that the U.S. will attempt to shoot down any missiles, mid-flight, North Korea fires in the future? It would be a limited strike at specific targets.
It is possible that Kim would not respond by attacking South Korea if he knew the U.S. was only engaged in a limited strike. Perhaps he would realize, if he attacked, an all-out war would begin in which he would lose. He would not like the action, but perhaps he would exercise restraint. However, this is a gamble. He might respond with an attack on South Korea, Guam or Japan. Do we risk it---or do we acquiesce to the fact that within a year the entire U.S. population will live permanently under a threat from nuclear attack by North Korea? Short of an all-out attack on North Korea, these may be our only options: We risk the consequences of a limited strike on North Korea’s military sites; or, we accept that we will revert to the permanent threat we faced during the Cold War, this time of North Korea’s capability to launch nuclear ICBMs at the continental United States.
Ideally, if the entire world agreed to totally marginalize North Korea commercially, financially, diplomatically...this would likely cause the collapse of the Kim dynasty. North Korea simply cannot feed itself or warm itself without some international support. If all food, fuel, and financial transactions were cut off, this could cause the regime to collapse. A new regime, even one still allied with China, could be established. However, it is doubtful the world, including Iran, China, and Russia, would take the necessary commercial, financial, and diplomatic steps to engineer the collapse of the regime.
Would that change if they knew a U.S. attack were imminent? Perhaps. Would it be advisable for President Trump to secretly give China a date-certain, on which the U.S. would take some sort of military action against North Korea, even if it were a bluff? China does not want a war on the Korean Peninsula. Would China then take truly decisive action to end the Kim dynasty and bring stability to the peninsula?
On another front, what would happen if the U.S. threatened to remove China from its “Most Favored Nation” trade status with the U.S., in order to force China to end the North Korean problem? It would hurt the Chinese economy. Would they cave and take care of the North Korean problem...or would they start a trade war with the U.S., despite the fact they hold a lot of American debt?
Short of the world coming together to eliminate the problem of Kim Jong Un, the only other options appear to be accepting a permanent nuclear threat from North Korea---or taking some form of military action, either in a limited or unlimited manner.
In war, people die. That is a given. This includes the guilty and the innocent, both soldiers and civilians. War is a horrible thing. It is why the Just War Doctrine states that it must be a measure of last resort. It is why people like me, who have seen war up close and personally, do not want to go to war impulsively. Combat veterans generally deplore war. On the other hand, combat veterans are also realists, accepting that sometimes we must go to war.
At times, war is absolutely necessary in order to prevent even more death and destruction in the future. The key is knowing when to take that action, an action that always contains within it elements of prognostication and a gamble. And it requires a willingness to take harsh criticism for initiating the military action.Think, for example, what the world’s reaction would have been if the U.S. and England had taken preemptive military action against Japan BEFORE it attacked Pearl Harbor? (It was already brutalizing the people of China and Korea.) What would world reaction have been if the U.S. and the U.K. had attacked Germany and Hitler BEFORE the Nazis invaded Poland or France?
The answers to these hypothetical questions are unknown. What is known is that North Korea is a threat to the peace and stability of that region of the world. What is also known is, short of some decisive action, North Korea will soon be a threat to the peace and safety of every person living in the United States. A long-term threat is still a threat.
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