With Syria down, it’s now North Korea’s turn.
According to NBC News, the National Security Council has presented the suddenly ragingly bellicose President Trump with several options to respond to North Korea’s nuclear program: put American nukes in South Korea or kill dictator Kim Jong-un.
The scenarios were prepared in advance of Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week. The White House has expressed hopes the Chinese will do more to influence Pyongyang through diplomacy and enhanced sanctions, but if that fails, and North Korea continues its development of nuclear weapons, there are other options on the table that would significantly alter U.S. policy.
While Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, maintained on Wednesday that “any solution to the North Korea problem has to involve China” a senior intel official told NBC he doubted U.S. and China could find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. “We have 20 years of diplomacy and sanctions under our belt that has failed to stop the North Korean program,” said the official involved in the review. “I’m not advocating pre-emptive war, nor do I think that the deployment of nuclear weapons buys more for us than it costs,” but he stressed that the U.S. was dealing with a “war today” situation.
The “nuclear” option would mark the first overseas nuclear deployment since the end of the Cold War, a move that would promptly provoke global condemnation, not least of all by China. It was not immediately clear if South Korea’s regime – in turmoil recently following the recent impeachment and arrest of ex-president Park – had been consulted with the proposed strategy. The U.S. withdrew all nuclear weapons from South Korea 25 years ago.
This “option” is also facing domestic pushback: “I don’t think that [deploying nuclear weapons] is a good idea. I think that it will only inflame the view from Pyongyang,” retired Adm. James Stavridis and former NATO commander told NBC News. “I don’t see any upside to it because the idea that we would use a nuclear weapon even against North Korea is highly unlikely.”
South Korea’s sentiment aside, NBC notes that the US Air Force leadership doesn’t “necessarily” support putting nuclear weapons in South Korea. As an alternative, it’s been practicing sorties right out of the depths of the cold war: long-range strikes with strategic bombers — sending them to the region for exercises and deploying them in Guam and on the peninsula as a show of force.
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The second, and just as controversial option, is to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other senior leaders in charge of the country’s nuclear program. The overt regime overthrow option has huge downsides, said Mark Lippert, the former U.S, ambassador to South Korea, who also served as an assistant defense secretary under President Barack Obama. “Discussions of regime change and decapitation…tend to cause the Chinese great pause of concern and tends to have them move in the opposite direction we would like them to move in terms of pressure,” he said.
Quoted by NBC, Stavridis, said that “decapitation is always a tempting strategy when you’re faced with a highly unpredictable and highly dangerous leader”, especially for a nation like the US he did not add. “The question you have to ask yourself,” he said, “is what happens the day after you decapitate? I think that in North Korea, it’s an enormous unknown.”
In any case, the groundwork has already been laid: as reproted one month ago, elite US forces, including Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 have been conducting drills on taking out Kim Jong-Un, as well as practicing tactical North Korea “infiltration.” All they need is the green light.
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A third, bonus option, is covert action, infiltrating U.S. and South Korean special forces into North Korea to sabotage or take out key infrastructure — for instance, blowing up bridges to block the movement of mobile missiles. The CIA, which would oversee such operations, told NBC News it could offer “no guidance” on this option. But Stavridis said that he felt it was the “best strategy” should the U.S. be forced to take military action. He described such action as: “some combination of special forces with South Korea and cyber.”
One wonders if the CIA creating a “false flag” attack on South Korea (or China) using chemical weapons was one of the options under consideration.
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Trump has already indicated he’s open to unilateral action if China fails to rein in its ally, telling the Financial Times last weekend, “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
Until last night, his words were largely dismissed as more bluster; however having just demonstrated how quickly Trump is willing to launch offensive operations – having U-turned on his Syrian position in less than a week – suddenly the possibility of nuclear war with an irrational adversary does not look all that distant.