Former Acting CIA Director: Don’t Overreact to North Korean Provocations

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty

North Korea took a significant step forward in its missile program this week with a successful test launch of what is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). 

This technical milestone highlights the questions surrounding potential military or diplomatic responses to North Korea, given the threat any kind of action would pose to civilians as well as the lack of any signal from China that it would level any kind of sanctions on Kim Jong-un’s regime that would have an impact. What are some realistic options for the United States and the international community to curb or control the North Korean nuclear program?

According to former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell, “the best option remains not overreacting.”

There are no “good” military or diplomatic options, Morell said. Regarding the lack of military possibilities, Morell said that “there is no option that guarantees that the threat has been eliminated, and all the options carry the risk of bringing about just what we want to avoid — a second Korean War that could include the use of nuclear weapons” if Kim Jong-un miscalculates.

And on the diplomatic side, North Korea “is already the most sanctioned country on the planet, and that has not slowed their weapons program at all,” and China is not willing, and probably unable, to change the dynamic on sanctions, Morell said.

President Donald Trump said he is considering “some pretty severe things” in response to North Korea’s “very, very bad behavior.” He would not offer specifics on a potential U.S. response, saying during a Thursday press conference in Poland that North Korea must be confronted “very strongly,” but that he doesn’t “draw red lines.”

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said this missile test was “not one we’ve seen before.”

“This act demonstrates that North Korea poses a threat to the United States and our allies, and we remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies and to use the full range of our capabilities at our disposal against the growing threat from North Korea,” Davis said.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that the U.S. “is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies.”

“One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction,” she said.

Russia has called for restraint, with the deputy Russian U.N. ambassador saying “the possibility of taking military measures to resolve the problems of the Korean peninsula should be excluded.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, meanwhile, said in a statement that “testing an ICBM represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.”

“Global action is required to stop a global threat. Any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits, or fails to fully implement UN Security Council resolutions is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime,” he said.

Kim Jung-un said the test was a gift for the U.S. in honor of the Fourth of July, according to state news agency KCNA. “He, with a broad smile on his face, told officials, scientists and technicians that the U.S. would be displeased to witness the DPRK’s strategic option as it was given a ‘package of gifts’ on its ‘Independence Day,’” the news agency claimed.

Morell noted that something that has been somewhat missed in this test “is the North’s statement that they also tested — successfully — a nuclear warhead detonation device.”

“I have seen no public evidence of whether this is true, but if it is, it is again not surprising,” he said. “But, if true and if the U.S. Intelligence Community saw it, it would also mean that the North has now demonstrated all but one piece of putting a nuclear weapon on the U.S. Homeland — the only missing piece, which they can almost certainly do, is to mate a nuclear device to a missile.”

President Donald Trump has been pushing for China to take the lead and pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear program. In a recent article for The Cipher Brief, RAND senior defense analyst Derek Grossman wrote that Beijing “might be willing to make changes on the margins of its relationship with North Korea, but fundamental changes to its strategy are highly unlikely because this would threaten the stability of Kim Jong-un’s regime and potentially eliminate the North as a buffer state.”

If China were serious about reining in Kim’s behavior, however, he suggested that there are a number of options for Beijing, such as cutting off oil supplies, cracking down on illicit finance networks, or stopping diplomatically shielding North Korea at the United Nations.

“In the unlikely event that Beijing adopts one or some of these measures, achieving denuclearization in North Korea is still far from guaranteed – even if sanctions were to be sustained for months. What these could do, though, is put enough pressure on Pyongyang to at least get it back to the negotiating table. This is precisely China’s objective, and if Beijing can be convinced that it would work without destabilizing the regime entirely, prospects for success would rise,” Grossman said.

Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, wrote last month in The Cipher Brief that China’s power over North Korea is significant in the economic and diplomatic realms. And, crucially, he said that “Beijing may not have the power to change Kim Jong-un’s mind—it’s possible no one can do so—but the Chinese could convince regime elements that it was no longer in their interests to stick with either their weapons programs or Kim himself, who, by the way, is not especially popular, after his unprecedented demotions, purges, and executions.”

According to Morell, negotiations are “highly unlikely” to either get Kim “to give up his strategic weapons or even freeze his programs and risks legitimizing and possibly even rewarding the North’s bad behavior.” He noted that this week’s developments do not change the overall conclusions he and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sandy Winnefeld, recently published in a piece in The Cipher Brief on how the U.S. should approach North Korea. The two wrote that “the U.S. objective needs to shift from denuclearization to deterring the North from ever using or proliferating its nuclear weapons.”

There should be additional sanctions to punish North Korea each time it does a test, Morell said, “much more to deter other countries who might want to go down the nuclear path than to change” Pyongyang’s behavior. And a priority must be placed on deterring North Korea from ever using or selling a nuclear weapon, he noted.

“Deterrence requires convincing them that we can deny their objective with missile defense —that means the right deployments and tests of that system — and imposing costs — that North Korea will cease to exist if it goes the use road,” he said. “This is one of the few areas where we should talk with them, make it crystal clear to them what will happen if they use or sell.”

At The Cipher Brief’s Annual Threat Conference in Sea Island, Georgia, in June, Morell told attendees he believes North Korea poses three significant threats: the use of nuclear weapons, the sale of nuclear weapons, and, in a situation where the North Korean government collapses, loose nukes.

He noted that while news reports often suggest that North Korea will not have the ability to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear-armed missile for four or five years, Morell said the U.S. should assume that North Korea can today put a nuclear weapon on the continental U.S., and Alaska and Hawaii.

What happened this week did not surprise him, Morell said. “I have believed for some time that the North has had this capability,” he wrote in an email. “This is just the first time that they have demonstrated it.”

While some have said this test puts the U.S. at a “dangerous inflection point with North Korea,” Morell said “that is only true if the U.S. makes it so.”

“We deterred the Soviet Union. We continue to deter Russia and China. We can deter North Korea,” he wrote.

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.