Hey America, keep your eye on the real ball
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As the nation remains consumed with the stories of the day, from the horrific to the absurd – the massacre in Las Vegas, the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, and kneeling controversies – Americans must keep their eye on the ball regarding national security. The threat that continues to grow in credibility and capability and could have history-altering consequences, North Korea. Undeterred, this rogue nation has steadfastly continued to pursue and perfect the technology to miniaturize, target, and deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States, its territories, and our allies in the Asia-Pacific region. 

To date, sanctions passed by the United Nations Security Council have done little to deter North Korea from its almost single-minded pursuit to possess a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States. Clearly understanding the threat, the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark Tilley recently stated, “It is clear, based on [the ICBM launch] over the July 4th weekend, that North Korea has advanced significantly and quicker than many had expected.”

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Americans are incredibly intuitive and know that behind North Korea is China, a communist nation that seeks to use their neighbor’s bellicose behavior as a bargaining chip to gain greater regional influence, especially on the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea. Their support, despite the “impact” of UN sanctions must be publicly addressed by the president to hold China publicly accountable for their actions. Regrettably, little direct pressure has been applied and many in our own government are reluctant, even unwilling, to hold the Chinese government liable for aiding and abetting NK’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

While the President tweets that talk is not working and engagement is fruitless, he is clearly pushing his Cabinet to develop and prepare concrete steps against China and North Korea.  In short, despite the president’s war of words, if he does not follow-up with significant actions, it will weaken him in the eyes of the international community. While the last step should always be the military option, it must remain on the table along with all other options. The time for incremental measures is over and the U.S. cannot afford to allow this threat to continue to develop like we did with the threat of terrorism.

The president and the nation must be willing to make the necessary economic sacrifices to sanction China, even it means a hit to the market and our economy. To wait is to acquiesce to the threat, which will embolden Iran to abrogate the Nuclear Agreement, conduct a rapid breakout with their own nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and then both the Far East and Middle East will be destabilized by nuclear-armed actors who will be inspired to demand concessions from the international community. If, at the end of a rigorous sanctions regime against China, the North Koreans are unwilling to disarm their nuclear arsenal, the U.S. must act accordingly before the threat detonates here at home. 

While one option may be to rearm Japan, that nation and its military are already growing in size and capability. A rapid large buildup cannot occur quickly enough to deter the much more rapidly growing nuclear program from North Korea. It may be a long-term step, but for now the U.S. will bear the burden of any military buildup. In the interim, a number of proactive defensive military measures can be taken to defend the U.S. and convince China that this threat will not be allowed to continue and grow in capability. These include the immediate deployment of additional anti-ballistic missile systems, including establishment of an AN/TPY-2 radar in Hawaii; improve the existing missile defense protection of South Korea, Japan, and Guam using Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Aegis systems; and the immediate shift to an operational capability of the Aegis Ashore System at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii, giving that state a true anti-ballistic missile defense shield. These steps would give the president the chance to show North Korea, China, and Iran that the United States is serious about protecting its territory and allies.

The nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles developed by North Korea must be considered real and credible, and represent an order of magnitude greater threat to our nation than at any time in our history. Thirty years of delay, obfuscation, and inaction has put us where we are today and now the president must solve it permanently and not follow the failed path of his predecessors. If the U.S. concedes and allows North Korea to fully operationalize their ballistic missile and nuclear programs, it will embolden Iran and Pakistan to expand their programs and proliferate nuclear weapons to other countries, which means that the Middle East will be next. 

CDR Kirk Lippold is a retired naval officer who was the Commanding Officer of USS Cole (DDG 67) when it survived a suicide terrorist attack by al Qaeda. He is president of Lippold Strategies, LLC.