Time for limited US military action against North Korea

Does the Nov. 28 launch of North Korea’s new Hwasong-15 ICBM mean time has run out to use sanctions and diplomacy to halt the growing threat from its nuclear and missile programs? I believe the answer is probably no, but such a day is rapidly approaching.

The range and technical sophistication of the Hwasong-15 surprised experts. Reaching an apogee of 2,800 miles on a vertical trajectory into space, this missile may be capable of flying more than 8,000 miles on a normal trajectory, putting all of the United States in its range. Some experts believe the range would be significantly reduced if this missile carried a heavy payload such as a nuclear warhead but could still be used to attack the entire Asia-Pacific region, Alaska, Hawaii and the West Coast.

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Images released of the Hwasong-15 after the launch depicted a missile significantly larger than a similar North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile launched in July. It appeared to have a more advanced steering system and a large nose cone, which North Korea claims can carry a “super-heavy” nuclear warhead. 

North Korea likely has several technical challenges to resolve before it can add this missile to its arsenal such as perfecting a re-entry vehicle and a guidance system. But the U.S. shouldn’t draw any comfort from this given the rapid technological advances in the North’s nuclear and missile programs over the last few years.

The left typically reacted to North Korea’s latest missile test by insisting that tensions can only be resolved with negotiations and sanctions. This includes The New York Times, which made the delusional claim in a Nov. 29 editorial that North Korea’s recent nuclear and missile developments may be “a sign of hope” for diplomacy.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntel Dem decries White House 'gag order' after Bannon testimony 'Total free-for-all' as Bannon clashes with Intel members Mellman: On Political Authenticity (Part 2) MORE also is urging negotiations and made the ludicrous statement during a visit to China that “Beijing should remember that inaction is a choice as well.” Clinton must have forgotten that the Obama administration’s inaction toward North Korea is why its nuclear and missile programs surged to the dangerous levels they are at today.

These naive views ignore two fundamental truths about North Korea’s nuclear program.

First, Pyongyang has never negotiated with the U.S. in good faith and has repeatedly violated nuclear agreements. North Korea is waiting for the moment when its missile and nuclear tests once again lead to multilateral talks it can manipulate to extract huge concessions in exchange for commitments it has no intention of honoring. Pyongyang has done this many times over the past 25 years. President Trump is determined not to fall for this trap.

Second, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is not just a deterrent that the world can tolerate. The U.S. intelligence community believes North Korea may have 60 nuclear weapons. It possesses or is developing hydrogen bombs. Pyongyang also may be developing nuclear weapon-driven electromagnetic pulse weapons to destroy the U.S. power grid. North Korea’s huge missile arsenal includes ICBMs, solid-fueled intermediate-range missiles and cruise missiles. It also is developing submarine-launched missiles.

This is far more than a deterrence force to protect the Kim regime and stave off an attack by the United States — this is an offensive force that Pyongyang will eventually use to unite the Korean Peninsula by force on its terms and drive U.S. forces from the region. For this reason it is crucial that President Trump not kick the North Korea threat down the road like prior presidents did. Sen. Tom CottonTom CottonMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ DHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising MORE (R-Ark.) put this best when he said “kicking the can down the road has not worked, and we’re about to run out of road.”

The Trump administration has taken the right approach to the North Korean threat by increasing sanctions, collaborating with our allies and pressing China and Russia to pressure Pyongyang before using military force. But it is now time for President Trump to consider limited military action to seize the initiative and demonstrate his resolve to solve this crisis.

Military action should be carefully calibrated to send the message that the U.S. will no longer stand by while Pyongyang develops nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. This should start by declaring North Korean airspace as a missile no-fly zone and shooting down future North Korean missiles. The U.S. might need to ratchet up this response by destroying North Korean missiles on the ground. Other initial military action could include a naval blockade and stopping and searching North Korean ships at sea for WMD-related cargo.

The U.S. cannot be sure whether limited military action would result in North Korean retaliation and escalation. (More aggressive military action such as air strikes against nuclear and missile sites would almost certainly lead to this.) But limited military action is a risk worth taking since the alternative is conceding nuclear weapons and missiles to Pyongyang that it will one day use to take control of South Korea, attack Japan, drive U.S. forces from the region and possibly attack the United States.

Limited military action against North Korea by the U.S. — or the prospect of this — could also motivate other nations to significantly increase their pressure on Pyongyang. This might even include China taking action to replace the Kim regime with a more stable, pro-Beijing government.

There are no easy solutions to the North Korean mess that President Obama handed President Trump. Employing carefully calibrated military action now is dangerous, but it is the best of numerous bad options and the only one that might prevent the North from becoming an existential threat to the region and the United States before we “run out of road.”

Fred Fleitz was chief of staff to Under Secretary of State John Bolton from 2001 to 2005. He served in national security positions for 25 years with the CIA, the DIA, the State Department and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is now senior vice president of the Center for Security Policy. Follow him on Twitter @fredfleitz.