It’s time to use surgical strikes, naval blockades and more on North Korea

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Actions have consequences. Or at least they should. Another month brought another unanswered missile test from Pyongyang. The latest launch was more potent and dangerous than the previous test just eight weeks ago. Many analysts now contend Kim Jong Un has nuclear capable ICBMs able to strike the mainland United States.

The test missile firings are too often dismissed by media, politicians and pundits as the bluster of a craven, attention-seeking dictator. Regrettably this analysis overlooks the strategic significance of North Korea’s aggression and intent, both within the ICBM program itself and amongst the hermit state’s rogue nation allies. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s tests are significantly more calculated and more nuanced than Kim’s oft-cited “look at me” sabre rattling.

The hyperbole surrounding the DPRK missile tests frequently neglects a key tenant: As “test” implies, every single missile firing North Korea carries out advances their ICBM program. Period. Every test gets them closer to Tokyo. Each launch escalates the threat to Sydney. Every firing puts an ICBM miles closer to Los Angeles and within striking distance of New York City. There has been a steady, incremental advance in their intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities since Kim’s father’s failed ICBM launch in 2005. The North Korean tests have provided a steady drumbeat of development and capability enhancement, in plain sight of successive, hand-wringing U.S. administrations.

{mosads}This latest test of the Hwasong-15 illustrates how far the DPRK’s program has evolved and developed since 2005, and how precipitously the newest technological surges are improving Kim’s capability and threat. The most recent test was a significant improvement on the launch just eight weeks prior — flying farther, higher and faster. This improvement curve, if maintained, will be impossible to curtail without direct kinetic engagement on the peninsula.


The missile tests are a proving ground for Kim’s ICBM capabilities. The regime is using the world stage to dangerously iron out the glitches in his nuclear program. But test driving and tweaking is not the only objective. The North Korean ICBM program is a showcase for customers, both current and potential. North Korea is in desperate need of foreign capital, expertise and equipment. Anemic, existing United Nations sanctions have had some impact: the economy is teetering, the people starving, and critical military and civilian infrastructure is in desperate need of repair and upkeep. If North Korea cannot sell coal and iron openly into international markets, they need another cash cow, and ballistic missile and nuclear technology have long been their prize bull.

These missile tests are therefore a shop front. A “five-star user review” for potential consumers showcasing the reliability, reach, and menace of existing North Korean technology. Countries that field DPRK-made missiles, components and technology include Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, prior to his downfall, purchased North Korean missile plans and parts. Those components are still out there.

Actions should have consequences. Regrettably Kim Jong Un has been emboldened by eight years of an Obama administration whose policy was not to have a foreign policy. Their keep calm and cross-your-fingers lack of actionable diplomacy with North Korea did not, obviously, suffice as a containment policy.

In the aftermath of the most recent North Korean aggression, President Trump announced significant new sanctions against North Korea. Regrettably sanctions have proven insipid, as China and rouge nations continue to pursue trade with Pyongyang. North Korea has managed to develop their ICBM program despite U.N. boycotts dating back to 2006. China is unquestionably the key to avoiding kinetic action. Sanctions against North Korea will not be effective unless China closes its land border to trade with the DPRK. Unhappily, Beijing has been unwilling to fully cooperate, fearing a flood of malnourished, diseased refugees, or a too-close-for-comfort landing of U.S. troops if the North were to collapse.

The slate of options open to the U.S. shrinks with every North Korean launch. Military action is increasingly being debated in Washington, Tokyo, Seoul and Canberra. Options considered ought to include a multinational naval blockade of the peninsula; a conventional “surgical strike” on Kim’s ICBM sites; a clandestine Special Forces operation to neutralize North Korea’s leadership; or perhaps a preemptive tactical nuclear attack.

The associated risks are indeed terribly grave and the stakes catastrophically high. However, continuing the previous administration’s policy of “no policy” is no longer an option. Kim Jong Un needs to understand the consequences of his actions.

Gregory Keeley is a retired lieutenant commander with service in both the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. He is a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Pacific. LCDR Keeley also served as senior advisor to a vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Rep. Jim Saxton (R-Pa.), and to a chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

Tags Defense Ed Royce Government of North Korea Greg Keeley Homeland security National security North Korea North Korea and weapons of mass destruction Nuclear program of North Korea
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