Assessing The Military Options For North Korea; Spoiler Alert: They're All Bad
Earlier this morning Vice President Pence offered up one of the Trump administration’s most stern warnings yet to North Korea saying that the U.S. would “defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response.” Per The Hill:
“The United States of America will always seek peace but under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready.”
“Those who would challenge our resolve or readiness should know, we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective American response.”
“The policy that President Trump has articulated is to marshal the support of our allies in the region, here in Japan and South Korea, nations around the world, and China, who have taken the position now for decades of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”
“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan. North Korea would do well not to test his resolve — or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”
The problem, however, is that while a military response may be inevitable, pending the actions of the “crazy, fat kid” (John McCain’s label, not ours) running North Korea, none of the U.S. options under consideration are particularly good, specially for our allies in the region.
As Bloomberg points out today, U.S. military options in North Korea range from proactively taking out nuclear reactors to dropping bunker buster bombs on heavily fortified mountainous sites where previous underground nuclear tests have been conducted. Alternatively, the U.S. could wait for signs of an imminent test of an intercontinental ballistic missile and prepare a strike against that specific launch and/or intercept the missile in flight.
Among the war-game scenarios at the Pentagon’s disposal are an airstrike using precision-guided munitions, launched from submarines or stealth aircraft, against the Yongbyon nuclear reactor facility, where North Korea has produced plutonium for its bombs. That was an option weighed as far back as the Clinton administration, according to two former Pentagon chiefs.
“We were highly confident that it could be destroyed without causing a meltdown that would release radioactivity into the air,” Ash Carter and William Perry wrote in a report for the Belfer Center back in 2002. That plan was seen as a worst-case scenario.
Another option would be an attack on facilities at Punggye-ri, the mountainous site in the northeastern part of the country where previous underground nuclear tests have been conducted. 38 North, a website that focuses on North Korea, said satellite images signal recent activity in preparation for another nuclear test. Evading radar, B-2 bombers built by Northrop Grumman Corp. could drop “bunker buster” bombs to try to do the most underground damage.
All that said, the key mitigating factor continues to be the inability to predict the potential reaction of, as John McCain would say, “the crazy, fat kid” who has repeatedly proven to be anything but ‘predictable.’ And while launching an effective counterattack against U.S. forces or the U.S. homeland is fairly unlikely, U.S. allies in the region are far more vulnerable to potential responses from North Korea.
Yet the overarching challenge in an attack on North Korea continues to be gauging the regime’s response. While the U.S. military might want to do something that sends a message but doesn’t start another Korean War, Pyongyang remains strategically unpredictable. Outside analysts have to scour satellite imagery, state-run media, official regime photos and interviews with defectors to glean the barest clues about life and politics in the “hermit kingdom.”
“Our ability to see into North Korea is so curtailed that we don’t have the ability to make well-reasoned judgments about what’s going on,” McKinney, the retired Army colonel, said in an interview. The U.S.’s ability to know what weaponry is even in North Korea and where it is located “is always a bit of a crapshoot,” he said.
North Korea’s unpredictability has only increased under Kim Jong Un, grandson of founder Kim Il Sung, who has had family members and top military aides killed for real or perceived slights. Even a smaller U.S. strike, like the volley of cruise missiles Trump fired at Syria this month, might generate a response that’s far from proportional.
Analysts estimate North Korea may now possess between 10 and 25 nuclear weapons, with launch vehicles, air force jets, troops and artillery scattered across the country, hidden in caves and massed along the border with South Korea. That’s on top of what the U.S. estimates to be one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program and an active cyberwarfare capability.
And with Seoul and its 10 million residents just 35 miles (56 kilometers) south of the border — well within North Korea’s artillery range — any eruption of hostilities could have devastating human and economic costs.
All of which has led retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner to the following conclusion: “In essence, there is no military option.” When pressed to confirm what plan of action he would present to Trump if forced to pick one, Gardiner simply responded: “I would resign first.”