North Korea's threat on Thursday to test-fire ballistic missiles soon near the US territory of Guam deepened the challenge confronting the Trump administration: how to defang Pyongyang's missile programmes without risking all-out war.
US president Donald Trump has made clear that his goal is to deny North Korea the capability to field a long-range nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the United States. And though the Pentagon still hopes for a diplomatic solution, highly classified military options are at the ready, last seriously debated when the Clinton administration pondered pre-emptive action to try to thwart North Korea's nuclear programme.
Even a limited strike against a North Korean missile on its launchpad or a shoot-down of a missile in mid-air would pose risks that the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, might retaliate, setting off a spiral of escalation that could plunge the Korean Peninsula into war.
"In the event of a first strike against Kim, even a non-nuclear option, it is highly likely that Kim would retaliate at least conventionally against South Korea, " said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral who is now dean of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "This almost certainly would create an upward spiral of violence which would be extremely difficult to manage or to mitigate."
The Trump administration's first recourse has been diplomacy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to head off North Korea's missile programme this week by suggesting that the United States could open talks with Pyongyang if North Korea would halt its missile tests.
On Thursday, however, North Korea raised the stakes by saying it was considering a plan to test-fire four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missiles in international waters near Guam, home to US air and naval bases as well as a Thaad anti-missile system.
Trump hinted broadly later in the day that he has his own military options in mind. “Obviously we’re spending a lot of time looking at, in particular, North Korea,” he told reporters, “and we are preparing for many different alternative events.”
But few of the military options are straightforward, and some former Pentagon officials involved in war planning for North Korea pointed to the complexities. A major consideration would be whether and when to evacuate American and other allied civilians, which is no small feat as Seoul, a city of about 10 million, is within range of North Korea's rockets and artillery and the North Korean military is also armed with chemical and biological weapons.
"With all this talk, what I worry about is a serious miscalculation," said James D Thurman, a retired army general who served as the top US commander in Korea from 2011 to 2013. "Before we start talking about all these military options, we have to decide what are we going to do with the US citizens over there."
He estimated that at least a quarter of a million Americans would have to be moved. If the United States was prepared to go beyond a limited strike, it could conduct a surprise attack on North Korea's missile garrison and weapon storage areas, using US aircraft stationed in Guam, in Japan and on aircraft carriers as well as strategic bombers that would be refuelled in flight.
US officials, however, do not have high confidence that the military could find and destroy North Korea’s entire arsenal of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. It would be up to US missile defences to knock out any that survived and that North Korea might use to attack the United States or its allies.
North Korea could also use its artillery, rockets and special operations forces to attack South Korea. To better defend against the threat, the United States could deploy more of its own artillery, counterbattery and reconnaissance aircraft to South Korea and send more air and naval forces to the region. But that would forfeit any element of surprise.
"I can't underscore enough how unappealing all the military options are," said Christine Wormuth, the Pentagon's top policy official at the end of the Obama administration. "This wouldn't end well. The US would win, but it would be ugly." Diplomatic efforts are also deeply complicated. Unless China believes the United States is serious about using military options to head off North Korea's emerging missile threat, it may be difficult to gain co-operation from Beijing needed to fashion a political solution.
“I am 100 percent sure from a number of conversations that, as a last resort, he would use military force to deny them the capability to strike the homeland with a nuclear weapon,” said Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who met privately with Trump on the issue a month ago.
"He has convinced me," Graham added. "Now it is up to him to convince the Chinese and North Koreans." To prevent nuclear attacks from elsewhere, namely Russia and China, the United States has relied on its potent nuclear arsenal. Some experts say the approach could also work with North Korea – a "least-bad option," said Jeffrey A Bader of the Brookings Institution.
But Trump has indicated that he does not want to rely on deterrence for a country he sees as bellicose and unpredictable. Discouraging the enemy from massive escalation has worked even in the midst of war. During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the administration of George Bush led an effort to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait while dissuading Saddam Hussein from employing chemical weapons.
The Iraqis were warned shortly before the conflict by secretary of state James Baker that they would pay a heavy price if they used weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi government interpreted that as meaning that the United States would rush to Baghdad to topple their government.
The United States could try a similar approach: attacking North Korea’s missiles while warning Kim that his government would be the next target if he dared to strike back. But few analysts are confident he would be restrained.
Those urging firmer action assert that a military buildup in and around South Korea could give economic sanctions and diplomacy more time to work while providing US negotiators with more leverage. Graham asserted that diplomatic efforts would fail unless the United States made clear that North Korea’s deployment of an intercontinental missile would cross a “red line” and that military options were available if the talks faltered.
But Thurman worried that the war of words was fuelling tensions and adding to the risk of miscalculation. “We are playing right into Kim Jong Un’s hands,” Thurman said.
“That is what he wants. He wants to be on the world scene. I really would want to tamp down this rhetoric, maintain armistice conditions, keep the force ready and,” he said, “not get the herd spooked.”
New York Times