The Trump administration has said it’s ready to unleash American military might to back its diplomacy when it comes to preventing North Korea from developing a nuclear missile capable of hitting the United States.
But there is no easy military solution to the crisis and several of the options potentially under consideration could risk thousands of lives.
US officials told CNN last month that revised military options for North Korea have been prepared and were ready to be presented to President Donald Trump.
“What we have to do is prepare all options because the President has made clear to us that he will not accept a nuclear power in North Korea and a threat that can target the United States and target the American population,” National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said last month during remarks at a Washington think tank.
However it remains unclear whether those updated response options have been laid out for the President in the wake of North Korea’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Friday — the second ICBM test conducted by Pyongyang within a month.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un touted the test as a success and claimed the “whole US mainland” is now within range of his missiles.
But last week a US official told CNN that the US government doesn’t believe North Korea will be able to launch a reliable, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile until early 2018.
The official said that while North Korea can currently get a missile “off the ground,” a lot of undetermined variables remain about guidance, reentry and the ability to hit a specific target.
However, last week’s test shows that Pyongyang’s missile program may be more advanced than previously thought — an assessment that has raised new questions around how the US military might carry out a strike on North Korea and the potential fallout if they did.
While all war game scenarios show the US winning a military confrontation, that victory could come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths, mostly in South Korea where millions of innocent people — and nearly 30,000 US troops — are already in range of North Korea’s current missile capabilities.
“Destroy North Korea itself”
When asked about the US government’s strategy on handling North Korea, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham suggested Tuesday using military options to halt threats from the country.
“There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s (missile) program and North Korea itself,” Graham said on NBC’s “Today” show. “If there’s going to be a war to stop them, it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here and (President Donald Trump) told me that to my face.”
He continued: “I’m saying (military options are) inevitable if North Korea continues.”
While Trump condemned last week’s missile launch and said the United States would act to ensure its security, both he and Vice President Mike Pence have offered few specifics when it comes to a plan on North Korea.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated Tuesday that all options are on the table, but she put some distance between the White House and Graham’s comments that there are military options to destroy the country.
“The President obviously has been very outspoken about how he feels about North Korea. We are weighing all options, keeping all options on the table, and as we have said many times, we are not going to broadcast what we are going to do,” Sanders said.
Pushed on Graham’s comments that the US could destroy the country, Sanders said, “Not what I am saying, what I am saying is the President has been very outspoken about the need to stop North Korea. We have been very focused on stopping the nuclear program, stopping the missiles, stopping the aggression, that still continues to be the focus and we are keeping those all options on the table to do that.”
However, in a recent exchange with Graham on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary James Mattis took an unusually specific stand on US military policy. Graham asked: “Is it the policy of the Trump administration to deny North Korea the capability of building an ICBM that can hit the American homeland with a nuclear weapon on top? Is that the policy?”
“Yes,” Mattis answered.
Analysts raise several issues when it comes to military options against North Korea — one being former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule of foreign relations: You break it, you own it.
A military operation against North Korea would saddle the US with expanded costs and responsibility on the peninsula.
It would roil Asia and China, perhaps with unintended consequences.
What can the US military do?
Though considered by many to be the worst case scenario, the plan described by Graham illustrates a harsh reality surrounding using military force against North Korea.
While the US would undoubtedly emerge victorious in a major military conflict with North Korea, any option that calls for a preemptive strike would likely result in a reciprocal attack by Pyongyang on South Korea that would inflict serious casualties and risk the lives of thousands including US troops stationed there.
Limited strikes against North Korean launch sites or military installations could pose a similar problem — complicated further by concerns over North Korea’s increased ability to hide its testing from the US until the last minute.
This gives the US little warning if a missile or nuclear test is about to happen.
While this has worried the US for some time, especially as they move to solid fueled missiles, the official said the North Koreans continue to make advances in their ability to hide their actions from the US. For example, they are able to quickly drive missiles out of underground shelters and fire them, giving US satellites little or no time to observe pre-launch activities.
They are also diversifying the number of sites from which they launch missiles.
Increasing its military presence in the peninsula through shows of force is another option for the Trump administration but to date, military chest thumping has proven to have little effect in deterring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
Suggestions that the US could force a regime change in North Korea have also only further inflamed tensions.
In July, CIA Chief Mike Pompeo said regime change could be a possible approach. He said that while a denuclearized Korean peninsula would a welcome development, the most dangerous thing about the weapons is the man who wields them: “So from the administration’s perspective,” he said, “the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right?”
Pompeo admitted during a Q&A that there are risks to this approach, namely, what would come next?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has consistently rejected the idea of regime change reiterating Tuesday that it is not the US intention.
Indications are that the US still hopes to reach a diplomatic solution to stop North Korea’s rapidly evolving missile program and would use military action only if North Korea posed an imminent threat.
The Trump administration is likely considering a full spectrum of military options — some more forceful than flying a B-1 bombers over the peninsula and others less overt than a direct strike — in hopes that they can bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.
But with Pyongyang months away from realizing its goal of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States, Trump and his military leaders are considering a more forceful approach.