The Koreas

Trump Administration Puts Military Action Against North Korea Back on the Table

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The Koreas

Trump Administration Puts Military Action Against North Korea Back on the Table

Once taboo, the military option enters Washington’s North Korea debate.

Trump Administration Puts Military Action Against North Korea Back on the Table
Credit: DoD photo by Senior Airman Brittany Auld, U.S. Air Force

The White House has looked into the use of military force to thwart North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs, according to a U.S. media outlet, thrusting a largely taboo policy option to the fore of the debate on how to rein in Pyongyang.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been examining both the use of force and regime change as part of a review of North Korea policy going on behind closed doors, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.

During a summit last month between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. officials indicated that a military strike on North Korea was among the options being considered by the administration, according to unnamed sources cited by the Journal.

The revelation comes just two months after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said his regime was close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, and amid a growing consensus that Pyongyang could be just years away from being able to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.

For years, mainstream analysts and politicians have generally seen military action as unthinkable because of its potential to spark regional war and cause huge civilian casualties, particularly in South Korea, a close U.S. ally. Although its military is antiquated, the North is assumed to be capable of inflicting massive damage on Seoul, which lies just 50 km from the border, using conventional artillery alone. Nevertheless, discussion of the military option has gained unusual prominence in recent months as Pyongyang, undeterred by numerous rounds of sanctions, carried out a nuclear test and repeated missile launches.

Last May, Stratfor published an analysis of potential “minimalist” strike options targeting the country’s nuclear facilities. And in December, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham suggested he could introduce a resolution for the authorization of military force.

Scott Synder, a Korea expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Diplomat that Washington was feeling unprecedented urgency about the possibility of North Korea acquiring a direct nuclear strike capability against the country.

“As a result, there has been a rising discussion of preemptive options as part of the overall mix within the policy community since last year, although much of that discussion seemed to emanate primarily from Republic of Korea [South Korea] defense specialists up to now,” he said.

Snyder, however, cautioned that Trump’s consideration of military action did not mean he would act on it, noting that the strategy review also reportedly contains diplomatic options such as recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state.

“The fact that this story relies primarily on Japanese and South Korean sources should be taken as a good sign because it shows an administration that is consulting with allies and not predisposed to unilateral action,” he said. “The leaks themselves also reinforce signals of wariness on the part of allies regarding costs associated with military options and their potential consequences. But this pattern might shift if the administration finds that North Korea has indeed become a direct threat to U.S. critical interests.”