In considering actions against the threats of nuclear destruction by the brutal North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un, we would do well to heed the counsel of three wise voices from the past.
In 1169 AD, John of Salisbury opined that he who “rules absolutely and free from all restrictions … is worthy to die by the sword.”
In establishing an international system of sovereign nations in the 18th and 19th centuries, two of its architects allowed for forceful interventions on two grounds. Emer de Vattel of Belgium insisted that an “unsupportable tyranny violating fundamental laws” should be overthrown by the international community. More concerned with the central importance of a stable balance of power, the Austrian Prince Metternich proposed the principle, “if the actions of a smaller state disturb the repose of other states,” it is the duty of the great powers to “supervise the government” of the offending smaller state.
These nuclear threats from North Korea highlight the larger fact that the greatest dangers to the U.S. on the international stage emanate from Asia: generally with the rise of China and immediately from North Korea. The challenges are illustrated by sheer numbers. In the Middle East, sizes of national economies are calculated in billions of dollars, populations in millions, and fighters on the ground in the thousands. In Asia, economies measure in trillions of dollars, populations in billions, and armies in millions. To influence the tide of history in Asia, the U.S. needs to engage the levers of its national power at full throttle.
China can be addressed later. The immediate dangers from Asia are the threats from Kim Jong Un to use nuclear weapons ultimately on American cities, and from his increasing capabilities to do this. Since taking power in 2011, his nuclear build-up has become a true menace. He has a dozen atomic bombs, with more in the works. His arsenal has over a thousand missiles, including a dozen intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach the U.S., though the latter have not been tested. Accompanying these missiles are 200 launchers, though none yet for ICBMs. The missing piece is the miniaturization of his nuclear bombs so that they can be deployed on these missiles. Experts say this achievement is not far away.
By now it is clear that the policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea employed by the last three U.S. presidents has failed. This kicking the can down the nuclear football field has landed us in the “red zone.” As Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, testified to Congress last week, North Korea’s attainment of nuclear weapons that can be detonated over American cities is “inevitable” — unless something is done.
Since doing nothing relies on the fatally dubious goodwill of Kim Jong Un, three options remain. First is the diplomatic one of economic strangulation from China accompanied by a coup d’état that overthrows Kim Jong Un, and puts in place a military regime responsive to Chinese and U.S. “concerns.” There are good reasons to favor this, but the Chinese record to date of diplomatic pressure on North Korea has been one of “talk and stall.” There is precious little time for further Chinese stalling. So sadly, this option is not a dependable one.
Another option is a pre-emptive military strike to annihilate North Korea’s nuclear establishment. Though this might work, the window for such an action is fast closing. It is also fraught with multiple risks. On the positive side, the strike could provoke a coup against Kim Jong Un engineered by China and/or the North Korean Army to stave off a war that would engulf all of Asia.
Unfortunately, the more likely scenario would be for such a strike to trigger massive artillery barrages from North Korea unleashed on the South Korean capital of Seoul with its 15 million people. This real possibility makes this option too risky.
The third option is for Washington (with or without the cooperation of China) to mount a commando raid to seize Kim Jong Un in response to a warrant from the International Criminal Court to have him tried for “crimes against humanity” in the many brutalities directed at his own people. Discussion of operational details is not appropriate, but it can be done; and, for the moral value of the trial, he should be brought in alive. This option has the advantage of separating the North Korean military from its tyrant, thereby making a military move against Seoul by North Korea far less likely than option two.
Such an action would also convey the message to other tyrants like Assad of Syria that there are limits to tyranny — as the framers of the international system intended.