Debating Risk and Blowback on North Korea

Photo: The Cipher Brief

Cipher Brief experts debated the risk versus blowback of striking North Korea before it has a chance to strike the continental United States, at The Cipher Brief’s 2018 annual Threat Conference, in Sea Island, Ga.

Admiral (ret.) James “Sandy” Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Obama administration debated Mary Beth Long, former Bush administration Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, on what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “intent” is and whether talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim could convince Pyongyang to denuclearize.

On North Korea’s Nuclear Intent

Mary Beth Long, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs:

“For the last 40 or 50 years, we have not successfully predicted anything that the North Koreans have done as to their nuclear weapons. We’ve used all the state power that we decided to employ and we have fundamentally not impacted their behavior at all. We have been fundamentally unsuccessful in changing North Korea’s mind on giving up nuclear weapons.”

Admiral (ret.) James “Sandy” Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“North Korea will never use nuclear weapons unless we back them into a corner. There is a fundamental difference between capability and intent. Having the capability does not mean intent. If it did, then we would have nuked the Russians and the Chinese and whole bunch of people a long time ago. I think Kim Jong Un is rational in terms of him understanding that nuclear weapons are the only insurance policy he has for his regime, and he is not suicidal. I fundamentally believe that he will not just reach out and strike us because he has the capability or because he wakes up one morning and decides to do so.”

Potential Trump-Kim Meeting


What the U.S. wants out of this negotiation is a completely, verifiably, nuclear-free North Korea, and what they want of the negotiation is complete regime security, which means we leave the Koran Peninsula and give them a security guarantee. Neither one of those is going to happen.”


“I’m not sure this meeting is going to happen. And if it does happen, it will be exactly the reverse of what it should be. It will be a meeting where you have two sides that are ill-prepared to reach anything other than an agreement to meet and negotiate, and that will be an egotistical victory for both. What inevitably will happen is that it will buy more time for the North Koreans, and we will have even fewer options to do anything to raise the risk for them.”

Next steps?


“There are a number of things that the U.S. can undertake with respect to North Korea. There are certainly financial sanctions that have not been employed. A lot of people will argue that our sanctions efforts to date have been anemic and certainly have been ineffective, particularly when it comes to interdictions at sea. There are other tools as well including taking out targeted missiles and taking out anything larger than a scud during the preparation for the launching phase (some people articulate that as a bloody nose, other people articulate it as a clear symbol). There are individuals who advocate for an attack, or a much more concerted aggressive impact, on North Korea’s ‘space program,’ which many people thinks is masquerading for their missile program. There is also ensuring that the components of their space program have been included as prohibited materials under sanctions.”


“I’m all in favor of non-kinetic pressure on North Korea. It’s something we absolutely should continue to do, and, if necessary, strengthen. As much as a signal to other potential nuclear aspirants as anything, signal to North Korea because I don’t think it’s going to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but it might persuade others not to start pursuing them if they suffer from similar sanctions.

“If you are going to take a preemptive action against a nuclear armed state, you had better be damned good and get every last piece of that tumor out of there on that first surgery, or you are going to regret it. Our national interest is not high enough to risk the potential response it could include when we have other tools available to us, namely the time-tested concept of deterrence that has worked for this country for 70 years.”


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