North Asia | Specter of military option for North Korea on the rise

Dangerous games

As the sanctioned reclusive state marches undeterred toward possession of nuclear-capable missiles, calls for armed intervention gain prominence

January 5, 2017 3:35 PM (UTC+8)
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un smiles as he visits Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province for the testing of a new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Photo: KCNA/via Reuters
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un smiles as he visits Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province for the testing of a new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Photo: KCNA/via Reuters

With heavily sanctioned North Korea marching undeterred toward possession of nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), calls for serious consideration of military intervention are gaining rare prominence.

Usually relegated to the fringes of debate, the specter of military action by the United States has grown since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced in his New Year’s address that the regime was in the “final stages” of testing an ICBM. As a great military power, Kim said, North Korea was now untouchable to “even the strongest enemy.”

Pyongyang, which is believed to have a dozen or more nuclear warheads, carried out multiple tests of short and mid-range missiles last year, as well as its fourth and fifth successful nuclear detonations. While the full extent of its progress is unclear, some analysts believe it could have an ICBM capable of hitting the continental US within a decade.

In typically unorthodox style, US president-elect Donald Trump this week slapped down the North Korean leader’s claims. “It won’t happen!” he thundered on Twitter.

But the billionaire Republican, who as a candidate floated talking with Kim in a major break from current US policy, has yet to lay out a formal plan for stopping Pyongyang’s nuclear program – a task that has eluded three American presidents who vacillated between sanctions and negotiations. In the vacuum, the military option, long rejected by the bulk of the mainstream left and right, has received unusual attention.

A new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is tested at a site at Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Pyongan province in North Korea in 2016. Photo: KCNA/via Reuters
A new engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile is tested at Sohae Space Center in Cholsan county, North Pyongan province in North Korea. Photo: KCNA/via Reuters

In reports explaining the limited options facing the incoming US president, media including Reuters and Associated Press gave prominent space to the possibility of a preemptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, with some analysis suggesting it was conceivable under an unpredictable Trump administration. An analysis by Stratfor, originally compiled in May but widely republished this week, laid out “minimalist” strike options, naming specific sites such as the nuclear facility at Yongbyon.

And last month, in comments before the US Armed Services Committee that largely escaped media notice, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham signaled his intention to introduce a resolution to authorize military force to stop North Korea’s missile development.

Calls for military action have flared in the past before fizzling in the face of a broad consensus that such action would be reckless. Former president Bill Clinton considered a strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear program in the early 1990s, when it was in its infancy, before negotiating the failed Agreed Framework denuclearization deal.

In 2006, after the failure of previous negotiations became clear, William Perry, who was secretary of defense under Clinton, and Ashton Carter, President Barack Obama’s outgoing defense chief, authored an op-ed calling on the Bush administration to blow up North Korean test missiles on the launchpad.

If the US really wants to strike North Korea, there should be a much more reliable defense strategy between the US and South Korea

“Military options may come under review as North Korea enhances its capabilities, but unilateral action would carry overly high costs compared to the temptation of kicking the can as far as possible down the road until the problem can no longer be managed or costs grow too high,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Asia Times.

Chief among the assumed “costs” has been the likelihood of massive retaliation by North Korea on South Korea, putting at risk the lives of tens of millions of citizens who live in close proximity to artillery along the border.

“If the US really wants to strike North Korea, they should have the option to protect South Korea, since North Korea has at least 1,000 missiles and many more long-range artillery to strike South Korea,” said Uk Yang, a member of the Policy Advisory Board to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“And if the US ever wanted to strike North Korea, they should have done that 10 or 20 years ago. If the US really wants to strike North Korea, there should be a much more reliable defense strategy between the US and South Korea.”

Nam Chang-hee, an international relations professor at Ina University just outside of Seoul, said a military strike would risk a full-scale regional war.

“Precedents in Libya and Ukraine assured them nuclear weaponry equals to a guarantor of regime survival, therefore Pyongyang
will risk a lager-scale war in a desperate attempt to deter a US first strike,” Nam said.

“For the US, South Korea’s security also matters as it stands as a strategically important ally land-connected to the continent, while the US currently competes with a militarizing China on the rise.”

Neither Trump, who has criticized foreign wars but also talked tough on North Korea and other perceived threats, nor his defense team have given much hint of their feelings toward a military solution.

“[The] biggest challenges for Trump advisors are that none of the senior advisors have deep experience with Asia and [national security advisor Michael] Flynn has conflated North Korea, China and Islamic terrorism when the motives, options and stakes in Asia are qualitatively different from the situation in the Middle East,” said Snyder. “For instance, I see no evidence that Kim Jong-un believes in martyrdom; quite the opposite.”

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