The United States’ ‘Horrible Options’ for Dealing with North Korea

With Kim Jong-un ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula, US President Donald J. Trump is left with two “horrible” options to deal with the threat posed by the North Korean regime, according to Atlantic Council board member and a former acting and deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Michael Morell.

Acknowledging that he has “serious doubts” about the effectiveness of diplomacy to defuse the crisis, Morell said that a non-diplomatic solution leaves the United States with less than palatable alternatives. Washington would have to weigh the options of conducting a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s missiles and nuclear facilities, or accepting the fact that North Korea has these capabilities and using a strategy of containment and deterrence.

Both options could leave thousands of people dead, Morell said. “Both options are horrible options. The problem is, it looks like the president of the United States is going to have to choose one of them,” he added.

North Korean state television announced on September 3 that the regime had successfully tested a miniaturized hydrogen bomb capable of being placed on an intercontinental ballistic missile. This development was a serious escalation in a crisis that has been marked by North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests and heated rhetoric from US President Donald J. Trump on one side and Kim on the other.

“The approach from the US administration should be tough, measured language that leaves your policy options open; not hyperbole, not threatening rhetoric that forces Kim to respond in kind,” said Morell.

Michael Morell spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Q: Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said Kim Jong-un is “begging for war.” US President Donald J. Trump has in the past called Kim a “smart cookie.” What do you believe is Kim’s game plan?

Morell: There is no doubt in my mind that this is all about three things for Kim. By demonstrating the capability of putting a US city at risk of a nuclear attack, Kim can one, deter us. One of the main reasons why he wants these strategic weapons is because he is concerned that we want to overthrow his regime and reunite the peninsula on the South’s terms. He is wrong about that; he is misreading our actions and our words, but he believes it and he sees these weapons as the ultimate deterrence against that happening.

Two, once he has the weapons he will try to use them not only for deterrence, but for extortion. He will want to sit down and have a serious negotiation once he has the capability of putting a US city at risk. When he sits down at that table he wants to say, “OK, we are now equals. We are now a nuclear power. Let’s have a conversation about the future of the peninsula.” He will try to get us to reduce our forces [on the Korean Peninsula], he will try to extort South Korea, he will try to use this to his advantage. You can imagine a scenario in which he grabs a South Korean island or two and then says, “OK, let’s negotiate. You can’t do anything about this because I have nuclear weapons. I can annihilate you, so let’s have a conversation about this crisis that I have just created.”

Three is domestic politics in North Korea. Kim has staked his reputation and his legacy on acquiring these weapons, which he has told his people are absolutely necessary for the defense of North Korea. Achieving that capability now has huge domestic political consequences for him. Not getting there would have the opposite consequences.

Q: What do we know of North Korea’s capabilities? Is it a nuclear weapons state? Should it be treated as one?

Morell: That’s an open question. I think it is interesting that the media and even some in the [Trump] administration talk about North Korean capabilities falling short at this moment of being able to threaten continental United States. They speak about that with some level of certainty. That is deeply concerning to me because the truth of the matter is that we don’t know what their capabilities are. There is a logical argument that you can construct that they can attack us successfully today.

I think the safest place to be from a policy perspective is we have to assume that they have the capability today. When we think about what our policy options are we have to assume that they have that capability. That’s what Jim Clapper [the former US director of national intelligence] says all the time. He said it when he was in the job and he has been saying it since he left in January. I think that’s the right place to be.

Q: What viable options do the United States and its allies have to deal with the threat posed by North Korea?

Morell: That is the $64,000-question. It is extraordinarily difficult. Obviously, you start with diplomacy. You see if you can craft a diplomatic approach using other nations, using sanctions, to get Kim to step back from where he is heading. That has not worked for the last twenty-five years and I don’t see any reason why it will work now. So, while it is important to try diplomacy, I have serious doubts about whether it would be effective.

That leaves you with two options, both of them horrible options. The first of those horrible options is a military option—a pre-emptive strike designed to degrade Kim’s nuclear and missile capabilities, to reduce his retaliatory capability by taking out as much of the artillery along the DMZ [demilitarized zone] as you can possibly do, perhaps decapitating the regime, and doing that all at once.

The problem with the military approach is that number one, there is no guarantee that we could take out all of the nuclear weapons and the missiles. Two, you can’t take out all of the artillery along the DMZ, so you’re going to leave a significant chunk of it, which will be fired immediately at Seoul with the consequence of thousands of deaths. Three, you risk not only an attack on Seoul, but an attack on Tokyo, Guam, and possibly the United States. So, the military option looks pretty bad.

The other option is acceptance that he has these weapons and the capabilities, and then containment and deterrence—deterring use and proliferation. You deter in two ways, one is you deny objectives. So, we and our allies build the most sophisticated missile defense that we can possibly build to make it clear to him that he might not be successful at putting a US city at risk.

And, two, we impose costs by making it absolutely clear to him that if he ever uses these weapons or sells these weapons to anyone it will be the end of his regime; we will annihilate North Korea. The problem with option two is that it leaves in Kim’s hands the ability to possibly destroy a US city with a nuclear weapon killing tens of millions of people.

Both options are horrible options. The problem is, it looks like the president of the United States is going to have to choose one of them.

Q: Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that this crisis may be “impossible” to resolve. Given the fact that sanctions take time to work and North Korea has stepped up the pace of carrying out missile and weapon tests, are more sanctions the answer?

Morell: There is a recognition in Moscow, Beijing, and Seoul that the second option that I described is the better of the two worst options. The Chinese, the Russians, and the South Koreans are all pointing to acceptance, containment, and deterrence. They are trying to discourage the United States from taking military action.

I thought it was really interesting a few weeks ago when the rhetoric between Kim Jong-un and President Trump was at its peak, the Chinese came out publicly with a statement that made them look like the adults in the room. They basically told both sides, “don’t do anything stupid.”

Q: Chinese support has been crucial to the survival of the regime in Pyongyang. Has China done enough to cut back this support, and what more can the United States do to convince China to do so?

Morell: When you think about China’s approach to North Korea you have to break it into two pieces. You have to break it into their willingness to use their economic relationship to try to get the North Koreans to change, and you have to break it into their ability to change North Korea’s behavior if they actually use their leverage.

On willingness, the Chinese have always been unwilling. They are concerned that if they use their economic relationship to try to leverage the North Koreans they could bring about instability in North Korea that would cause three huge problems for them. One, hundreds of thousands of refugees would flow into China. Two, there will be civil war in North Korea with loose nuclear weapons. The Chinese fear a nuclear-armed unstable North Korea more than they do a nuclear-armed stable North Korea. And, three, they fear that the collapse of North Korea would eventually lead to a reunified Korea aligned with the United States on their border. That is why they have been so unwilling to really tighten the screws on North Korea. I don’t think they are going to get any more willing.

Then you have to think about the ability. Everyone assumes that if China did tighten the screws it would lead to a change in North Korea’s behavior. I am not so sure about that. Kim sees these strategic weapons as critical to his survival and I think that at the end of the day he would accept tough Chinese sanctions. He would rather have his people eat grass than give up these weapons. I am not sure that tough Chinese action is going to be the saving grace that most people talk about.            

Q: What are your thoughts on the way President Trump has handled the crisis so far? What should he be doing differently?

Morell: What the United States needs to be doing at this moment is showing strength in its words and its actions. I liked [Defense Secretary]  Gen. [Jim] Mattis’ comment where he essentially told North Korea that it would be destroyed if it used these weapons.

The United States should conduct missile tests, put THAAD [the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile defense system] in South Korea, talk about missile defense in Japan, conduct B-52 flyovers of South Korea. All these things that show strength are really important.

Two, don’t box yourself into a corner, don’t draw a red line, don’t tilt in one policy direction or another publicly. What the president should be saying is all options are on the table. You don’t want to draw a red line for of all the reasons we learned when [former US President Barack] Obama drew a red line on Syria.

The approach from the US administration should be tough, measured language that leaves your policy options open; not hyperbole, not threatening rhetoric that forces Kim to respond in kind.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.

You can follow Michael Morell on Twitter @MichaelJMorell.

Related Experts: Ashish Kumar Sen

Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (fourth from left) inspected a nuclear weapons facility in this undated photo released on September 3 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA via Reuters)