Pre-emptive strike on North Korea may be the ‘least-worst’ option

Pre-emptive strike on North Korea may be the ‘least-worst’ option, by Toby Harnden.

For decades US military planners have considered war against North Korea to be unthinkable. But last week’s test launch by Pyongyang of an intercontinental ballistic missile that might be able to reach anywhere in the US has changed the equation.

Since Donald Trump became President, the US has made clear it has lost faith in the effectiveness of diplomacy when dealing with Kim Jong-un’s regime.

In the Pentagon, officers know an attack on North Korea could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands — in South Korea as well as the North — and trigger unfathomable global instability.

They have reluctantly concluded, however, that a pre-emptive US military strike and regime change might be the least worst of a menu of bad options. …

Away from Mr Trump’s war of words with the North Korean ­regime, James Mattis, the Pentagon chief and a former US Marine Corps general renowned for his fighting in Iraq, has been quietly laying out options.

At a recent event attended by international policymakers and businesspeople, he made plain that the US views the North Korean nuclear capability as a grave threat and is prepared to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike if necessary. A preferred option would be to use joint CIA and US special forces teams — much like the Operational Detachments Alpha or ODAs used during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 — in a clinical attack on Kim’s ­nuclear sites. …

The countdown to conflict would begin with the US withdrawing its non-combatant forces from South Korea. This would coincide with a Trump ultimatum to China that it had to force North Korea to give up its nuclear program. An enticement to China could be that the US offers to pull back its South Korea-based forces to Busan, in the country’s south.

In the event of the Chinese baulking, the US would attack North Korea, sending five million refugees into China and putting US troops on the North Korea-China border following the inevitable collapse of Kim’s regime — a nightmarish outcome for Mr Xi. …

The former official said the risks of war were worth taking, given what would transpire if no action was taken. … In this “chicken” scenario, he said, the US would put itself and its allies at the mercy of Kim, a ­nuclear-armed madman. In all probability, Kim would sell his ­nuclear missile technology to ­regimes such as Iran and terrorist groups. North Korea’s enhanced status as a nuclear power could prompt Japan and Saudi Arabia — in response to Iran — to go nuclear too. …

Mr Mattis has hinted that US plans could prevent North Korea from attacking the South Korean capital, Seoul, whose metropolitan area is home to 25.6 million people. When asked in September if there were any military options that would not put Seoul at grave risk, Mr Mattis responded: “Yes, there are, but I will not go into details.”