Think of it as two streams of danger approaching each other — one is the ability to launch long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles; the other is miniaturizing and hardening a nuclear warhead to ride aboard. As in the movie “Ghostbusters,” you really don’t want the streams to cross. Unfortunately, they may have just done so, at least according to US intelligence reports leaked this week.
While this moment was long predicted, most analysts thought it was 18 to 24 months away. The stunning acceleration in the nuclear weapons program of North Korea has caught the United States off guard and seemingly without a coherent strategic approach for the growing threat posed by Kim Jong Un. Just as North Korea has accelerated its nuclear program, we need to accelerate our thinking. What should we do?
Dial down the rhetoric. Countering a young mercurial leader with a bad haircut sputtering about turning our ally South Korea into a “sea of fire” with an old mercurial president sputtering about “fire and fury the like the world has never seen” isn’t helping anything. President Trump sounded vaguely like the Dragon Queen Daenerys of “Game of Thrones” talking about her brood of dragons igniting Westeros. We need to model ourselves less on General George Patton and more on “Cool Hand Luke” while not sinking to the level of Kim Jung Un’s bombast.
Dial up the intelligence and surveillance. Globally, we have a lot of crises to watch, and a limited number of intelligence assets — Syria, Iraq, Islamic State, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Ukraine, and many other trouble spots compete with North Korea for the overhead sensors (satellites and long-dwell unmanned aircraft) as well as human intelligence, artificial intelligence/big data, and cyber espionage. Given Kim’s rhetoric and apparently increasing offensive capability, we need to focus even more attention on the Korean peninsula.
Increase our missile defenses. Both here in the United States (including, of course, our Pacific territories, like Guam) and on the Korean Peninsula (with 200,000 US citizens), we need strong ballistic missile defense. This comes from the sea-based AEGIS guided missile destroyers and cruisers; land-based Patriots and Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD); and local point defense systems.
Focus on cyber options. Without delving into a highly classified conversation, suffice to say we have significant cyber options. These include three components: cyber espionage to understand fully the capabilities of Kim’s systems; defensive measures that could undermine his testing programs; and offensive means to attack his command and control and force posture. All three should be increased, tested, and deployed as necessary.
Take counsel with our South Korean allies. After all, they are the “front-line state” in every sense. We need to be deeply respectful of their views, intelligence-gathering capability, and theories about how to deal with the North. We spend too much time talking about the North Koreans and too little time paying attention to what our South Korean allies believe.
Build a regional approach. We are blessed with strong and capable allies in Asia beyond the Korean Peninsula itself: above all Japan, but also Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and the Philippines (notwithstanding recent strains emanating from President Duterte). In addition to those treaty allies, we have close friends and partners in Singapore, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and others. Every nation in Asia has a vested interest in avoiding a major war — we should leverage the region.
Train for and exercise the military options. While a military response would have significant downside, it would be irresponsible not to prepare for one. Our Combatant Commander for the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, is a brilliant strategic and operational thinker, and his team in Honolulu will be presenting all options to the secretary of defense and the president. We then need to be fully prepared to execute them, and that requires training and exercising, especially at sea. These will run the spectrum from a massive preemptive strike to a precision decapitation — none are appealing, but they must be on the table.
Pressure China to “walk the walk.” Of late, the Chinese have talked a good game, including signing up for the new sanctions passed by the UN Security Council. But given their control of some 90 percent of the North Korean economy, they have yet to truly compress North Korea’s financial resources. In the end, all roads to Pyongyang lead through Beijing, and we need China to squeeze the young dictator. This may require highly targeted “secondary sanctions” on Chinese businesses doing commerce with North Korea.
Take a sensible negotiating position. We are never going to get China on our side without making clear we do not intend to change the regime or unify the Korean Peninsula. Its vested interest is in the status quo — a divided (and therefore vastly weaker) Korea and a stable standoff without refugee flows. Consider four-party talks with the United States, China, North Korea, and South Korea at the table, and work to convince Kim that his life and regime are not in danger — the examples of Moammar Khadafy and Saddam Hussein (who were destroyed after giving up weapons of mass destruction) are very much in his mind.
Make this an international issue. Using the UN Security Council even more fully is crucial, and kudos to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley for the resolution against North Korea. We need to continue to make this about the entire global community against North Korea, not a stand-off between the United States and Kim Jong Un. What about an international flotilla conducting a true blockade of the North, for example?
This is the first significant international crisis for the Trump administration, and we will learn a lot about our president and his team over the coming weeks. While the miniaturization is a surprising development, it should not be a deep shock given that it has been long predicted. We have two decades of experience dealing with North Korea and need to put together a coherent, thoughtful plan going forward. In that masterpiece of leadership literature, Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather,” Don Corleone tells us not to make the mistake of hating our enemies with blind emotion — it clouds your judgment. Let’s get to work strategically, calmly, methodically, and coherently before this spirals out of control.