The United States can no longer tolerate the aggressive and irrational behavior of the North Korean regime. A once manageable threat is now destabilizing an entire region. The time for half measures is over. The time for action has arrived.
For decades Pyongyang has pursued a policy of erratic behavior designed to attract attention and to extract concessions from Western powers. For decades we have alternated between threatening retaliation and attempting to buy good behavior by the granting of some demands. However unsatisfying this has been, in the near term we have succeeded in accomplishing our primary task, preventing war.
The North Korean nuclear weapons program has changed all that. Pyongyang now stands on the threshold of having deliverable nuclear weapons, which it can mount on ballistic missiles and use against Japan, North Korea and the U.S. bases within. It’s continued testing of these missiles demonstrates that they are a very real threat. North Korea has even made significant strides toward the mounting of ballistic missiles on submarines, meaning in the near future it may well be able to threaten not only Tokyo and Seoul but launch a nuclear Pearl Harbor on Honolulu as well.
The game has changed. Where once the worst we had to contemplate was waging a conventional war on the Korean peninsula, we now must face a world in which Kim Jung Un can decide any time he wants to destroy entire cities within range. This we cannot accept.
In the near term we have to prepare for the possibility that we will have to unilaterally disarm the North Koreans. When and if we judge that they are on the verge of using nuclear weapons we will have to be prepared to prevent them from doing so. Depending on the available intelligence, which we can only pray is good, we may have to act preemptively to take away the nuclear option before Kim can even contemplate using it.
There should be no illusions about the magnitude of that task. Firing Tomahawk missiles at an airfield in Syria or dropping a MOAB on a target in Afghanistan are minor achievements compared to a strike on the North Korean nuclear program. To accomplish that task we would be talking about massive and sustained strikes against hardened targets protected by sophisticated air defense systems. There is no guarantee of success and we would not accomplish this without substantial losses.
While preparing for the possibility of strikes on North Korean targets we should be applying every other form of pressure we can right now on North Korea to make them pay a price for their belligerence. That means sanctions. That means cyber attacks. That means interdicting their extensive weapons smuggling activities worldwide, which earn them badly needed hard currency.
Ultimately, though, we must recognize that the path to changed behavior in Pyongyang runs through Beijing. Without the Chinese the North Korean Communist dynasty would have fallen long ago. The Chinese have encouraged the decades long status quo, because at the end of the day they fear the existence of a single Western-aligned Korean nation on their border. It has served their purposes to have the Kim dynasty continue its irrational behavior, and they have banked on the fact that we were ultimately more interested in stability in the region than we were in forcing the matter to resolution.
What the Chinese need to hear from us now is that this is no longer the case. They need to understand that Kim Jung Un’s nuclear program and his threats to attack his neighbors have destroyed the status quo, and that we will be forced to respond if the Chinese do not assist us in reining in North Korea.
We should be clear that a Chinese refusal to assist will not only mean that we will have to consider preemptive action, but that we will have to revisit a whole range of actions that we avoided in the past in the interest of stability but which would potentially radically alter the balance of power in Asia to China’s detriment.
This means putting all options on the table. It means encouraging the Japanese to build up their military capabilities. It means pushing forward even more sophisticated American air and missile defense systems. It means the return of American nuclear weapons to South Korea. It means reconsidering our entire understanding regarding what weapons systems we will provide to the Taiwanese.
In short, we need to make it clear to the Chinese that unless they will act to control North Korea we will be compelled to take actions, which will alter the strategic balance in East Asia to Beijing’s detriment. The uneasy stalemate that has existed for decades has been broken. It is time for a sea change.
Sam Faddis is a former CIA officer who lead the first CIA team into pre-war Iraq. He retired in 2008 as a chief of the CIA counterterrorism unit tracking weapons of mass destruction. Follow him on Twitter @CHARLESFADDIS.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.