The Case For A Decapitating Strike Against North Korea’s Kim

Excerpt:
Thus, the Trump administration is right to say American patience with Pyongyang’s behavior is at an end. Washington can’t wait much longer to defuse the threat before millions of Americans are placed at risk.
 
The question is what to do about it. Once we get beyond Obama-era discussions of economic and diplomatic sanctions, the debate is necessarily about military options. Experts such as David Axe have proposed the use of particular weapons to destroy the North’s fledgling nuclear arsenal, and the Pentagon has detailed plans for a military operation aimed at repulsing any aggression against our ally, South Korea.
 
I have a better idea: let’s kill Kim himself. Rather than putting at risk the lives of millions of Koreans (and Japanese, and Americans) by fighting North Korea’s military, Washington should target the main author of the North’s aggressive policies directly. Such a move, known as a “decapitating ” strike in military parlance, would deprive the North of its top political and military leader in a system where nobody acts without the permission of Dear Leader. There is no prohibition in U.S. law against targeting the leader of a hostile country. Quite the opposite – if he heads his country’s military, as Kim does, that leader would be considered a legitimate military target. In fact, U.S. nuclear plans for war with Russia or China have long contained “counterforce” options for taking out foreign leaders as a way of bringing hostilities to an early end.
Of course, there are no guarantees. But it is abundantly clear that Kim will never give up his country’s nuclear program in response to economic and diplomatic pressure, and that any kind of conventional military campaign aimed at destroying that program could lead to horrific casualties on both sides of the 38th parallel. Rather than sitting by as the threat grows the way Britain and France did when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, we should learn the lesson that some leaders can’t be deterred or appeased — they have to be taken out.

The Case For A Decapitating Strike Against North Korea’s Kim

Reuters reports that as part of a program celebrating what would have been the 105th birthday of the Kim dynasty’s founder, North Korean television featured a video of nuclear missiles exploding over the United States. Correspondent Ju-min Park states “the video ended with a picture of the American flag in flames, overlapping row after row of white crosses in a cemetery.”

This isn’t anything new for North Korea’s uniquely bellicose regime. In 2012 it released a map illustrating which U.S. cities it intended to destroy with its growing nuclear arsenal. What has changed is the scope and diversity of Pyongyang’s nuclear preparations. Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un stated in his New Year’s message that the North would soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching any target in America. Last week’s parade in the capital’s central square displayed some of the long-range weapons the country is developing.

Analysts can debate how far along the North’s nuclear program really is — the parade exhibits may have been clever mockups — but there is little doubt about the direction of Pyongyang’s efforts. U.S. intelligence believes Kim’s regime is developing not only intercontinental-range missiles but compact nuclear warheads that they can carry; solid-fuel missiles that are ready for launch on a few minutes’ notice; road-mobile launching vehicles that are difficult to track or target; submarine-launched missiles that are equally difficult to target when at sea; and even fusion (“hydrogen”) warheads with much higher yields than the fission devices the North has thus far tested.

North Korean leader Kim Jong UnPhoto by: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

So although Washington has become accustomed in recent decades to threats from rogue leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un is in a class by himself. The kind of danger he poses could kill more Americans in a single day than have been claimed by all of the nation’s past wars combined. He may not have the ability to do that yet, but his regime is straining to acquire the means, and once that day arrives Americans will be at the mercy of a leader many observers consider to be unpredictable if not totally unhinged.

Thus, the Trump administration is right to say American patience with Pyongyang’s behavior is at an end. Washington can’t wait much longer to defuse the threat before millions of Americans are placed at risk.

The question is what to do about it. Once we get beyond Obama-era discussions of economic and diplomatic sanctions, the debate is necessarily about military options. Experts such as David Axe have proposed the use of particular weapons to destroy the North’s fledgling nuclear arsenal, and the Pentagon has detailed plans for a military operation aimed at repulsing any aggression against our ally, South Korea.

I have a better idea: let’s kill Kim himself. Rather than putting at risk the lives of millions of Koreans (and Japanese, and Americans) by fighting North Korea’s military, Washington should target the main author of the North’s aggressive policies directly. Such a move, known as a “decapitating ” strike in military parlance, would deprive the North of its top political and military leader in a system where nobody acts without the permission of Dear Leader. There is no prohibition in U.S. law against targeting the leader of a hostile country. Quite the opposite – if he heads his country’s military, as Kim does, that leader would be considered a legitimate military target. In fact, U.S. nuclear plans for war with Russia or China have long contained “counterforce” options for taking out foreign leaders as a way of bringing hostilities to an early end.

Kim is one case where that possibility should be considered more than just a deterrent. It should be an active operational option. Since North Korea’s hereditary dictatorship was first founded by Kim’s grandfather, the regime has gradually drifted away from its Marxist-Leninist origins to become little more than a cult of personality organized around the Kim family. The government espouses an ideology of austere self-sufficiency called juche, but this is just window dressing for the monopolization of power by a single family.

Kim’s power is so absolute that even the most senior military and political figures around him are fawning and obsequious for fear of being executed if they make a wrong move. He combines the sensibilities of the worst Roman emperors with human-rights abuses unparalleled anywhere else in the world. No other country so closely resembles the totalitarianism described in George Orwell’s 1984, with Kim cast in the role of Big Brother. The results for his people have been about as bad — while neighboring South Korea has risen to the first rank of advanced democracies, North Korea’s people have literally lost stature due to poor diet and repeated famine.

Aside from the tactical challenge of localizing Kim for elimination — the U.S. has numerous means that can be adapted to that purpose — the big questions surrounding a decapitation strike would be (1) how might North Korea’s military respond, and (2) how might North Korea’s allies respond. The short answer to the first question is that the North Korean chain of command would be in disarray with Kim’s absence, and the reality of U.S. military action would be a powerful deterrent to an aggressive response. Kim is undoubtedly despised by many of the people around him, and thus the military’s response to the demise of the Supreme Leader might be mainly internal (i.e., a scramble for power).

With regard to North Korea’s “allies,” it doesn’t really have any. What it has is two neighboring countries, China and Russia, that have long since run out of patience with his antics. Russia cut off aid in 1991, China is now restricting trade to put pressure on Kim. Neither of those countries wants to see a unified Korea on its borders, but if a U.S. attack was focused on taking out Kim and his family rather than wholesale regime change, that might well be viewed as an improvement in Beijing and Moscow.

Beijing in particular has to be somewhat worried about what North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal means for its own security. So a decapitation strike coupled with U.S. assurance that it does not want a broader conflict so long as Pyongyang abandons its nuclear ambitions might sit well with all parties involved. The U.S. can’t send ground forces across the demilitarized zone without risking a repetition of the Korean War in which a million people died. However, a surgical strike against the main bad actor without further military moves could stabilize the Peninsula rather than leading to further bloodshed.

Of course, there are no guarantees. But it is abundantly clear that Kim will never give up his country’s nuclear program in response to economic and diplomatic pressure, and that any kind of conventional military campaign aimed at destroying that program could lead to horrific casualties on both sides of the 38th parallel. Rather than sitting by as the threat grows the way Britain and France did when Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland, we should learn the lesson that some leaders can’t be deterred or appeased — they have to be taken out.

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