The United States and its allies need to focus first on freezing North Korea’s current nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs with a goal of deterring Kim Jong-un from expanding his stockpile and nuclear delivery systems.
Denuclearization of North Korea can remain the long-term goal, but the U.S. military knows better than most that there is no direct way to “denuke” Pyongyang in the short term, other than through a bloody and massively destructive, costly war.
Senior U.S. military officers were talking openly about containment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs weeks before President Trump made his August 9 veiled nuclear threat to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea, and Kim Jong-un’s response to Trump indicating a possible test launch of missiles towards Guam.
On July 22 during an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum, Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford said, “The U.S. military is completely supportive with the military dimension of deterring North Korea today.”
He pointed out “what the North Koreans are capable of today is a limited missile attack, and we are capable of defending against a limited missile attack on our forces in South Korea, our South Korean allies, our Japanese allies, our forces in Okinawa, our forces in Guam, and the American homeland and Hawaii…So we can deal with a limited attack.”
“Our concern is growth in capacity,” Dunford said, adding, “that is [an] increase in the numbers of missiles over time – and the combination of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon is obviously a concern.”
Dunford was far from the only U.S. general talking about deterrence.
On July 26, Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea as well as Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces, gave his views during U.S. Strategic Command’s annual Deterrence Symposium in Omaha, Nebraska.
“In the case of North Korea,” Brooks said, “and particularly in its nuclear and missile programs, the international community is seeking deterrence – in other words, seeking a choice to be made by North Korea. Compellence [using economic or intelligence tools – or last resort military forces], however, must remain an option if North Korea does not choose to be deterred instead.”
CIA Director Mike Pompeo gave a hint of potential intelligence deterrent operations. He described separating what he described as North Korea’s “intent,” meaning those who want a force of nuclear weapons, from “capacity,” the ability to put such a force together.
Under “capacity,” Pompeo mentioned Kim’s “weapons still need development, they need testing, they need people who are willing to work on these programs,’ adding, “It’s a big, long, supply chain to build this stuff out.” Pompeo claimed “the intelligence community will present a wide range of options for the President” to deal with those needed elements.
Pompeo also said, “It’s one thing for him [Kim] to have one missile capable of landing in Denver, Colorado… it’s another thing for him to have an entire arsenal. And there are things we can do to keep that capability out of his hands.”
In another hint that was taken as a threat to go after Kim Jong-un himself, Pompeo said, “And as for the regime, I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system.”
The head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Army General Raymond A. Thomas, put a partial damper on the decapitation idea during his appearance at the Aspen Forum.
Thomas said that during his last trip to South Korea, he read that “Delta and SEAL Team Six were on the peninsula being – preparing to topple, to decapitate the KJU [Kim Jong-un] regime.” He had to call his own headquarters “to make sure it’s not happening,” he said.
On the other hand, Thomas said, if all else fails, “we’re doing prudent military planning and preparation for whatever the situation may entail.”
Brooks insisted that “with North Korea, we’re not seeking to bring them to their knees, we’re seeking to bring them to their senses. This is about that balance between compellence and deterrence, between war and something that follows armistice.”
Deterrence, however, is not a one-way street. “Kim Jong-un is seeking the development of a credible nuclear capability to deter—to deter—what North Korea perceives to be hostility against it,” Brooks noted.
He said deterrence for North Korea is if the regime reaches “a position to dictate its own terms internationally if it can sufficiently hold at risk the Republic of Korea, Japan, the full geography of the United States, and other countries in the region and well beyond the region.”
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, also at the Aspen Forum, pointed out there is a rational reason for Kim’s actions – “survival, survival for his regime, survival for his country.”
He described the North Korean leader as “not crazy,” and Kim watching “what has happened around the world relative to nations that possess nuclear capabilities and the leverage they have and seen that having the nuclear card in your pocket results in a lot of deterrence capability.”
Coats related the oft told tale of Libya and Ukraine, both of whom gave up their nuclear weapons. The lesson to Kim, Coats said, “If you had nukes, never give them up. If you don’t have them, get them, and we see a lot of nations now thinking about how do we get them and none more persistent than North Korea.”
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper put it succinctly a month ago, also at Aspen, when he said, based on his 2014 visit to North Korea and discussions since, “They are not going to give up those nuclear weapons.” He recalled when he was briefing at the White House and the subject was denuclearize the North Koreans, his first talking point was “that was a non-starter for them.”
It remains true today.