Tough talk on N. Korea

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Tong Kim Tong Kim is the Wash­ing­ton correspondent and colum­nist for The Korea Times. He is also a fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Korean-Amer­i­can Stud­ies. He can be con­tacted at tong.kim8@ya­hoo.com.

North Korea de­fied an out­sider’s pre­dic­tion. It did not test-launch an­other bal­lis­tic mis­sile on July 27, mark­ing the 64th an­niver­sary of the Korean armistice, con­trary to the widely re­ported warn­ings that it would, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton and Seoul.

But it did test-fire an­other ICBM on July 28, fol­low­ing the one July 4. Al­though the armistice is claimed by the North as “the Day of Vic­tory,” the North Kore­ans know it does not have the sig­nif­i­cance of the Fourth of July for Amer­i­cans. They can send “gifts of bad news” to Amer­ica — in Kim Jong-un’s words — on their own sched­ule “at a time and a place” of his choice.

In the wake of its ICBM test, Py­ongyang has de­murred to the South’s pro­posal of mil­i­tary and hu­man­i­tar­ian talks, with­out an out­right re­jec­tion of the pro­posed talks. It ac­cuses the Moon govern­ment of main­tain­ing “fun­da­men­tal hos­til­ity.” Py­ongyang has in­ten­si­fied its bel­liger­ent rhetoric against the U.S., which in turn ratch­eted up its own rhetoric against the North.

The North claims that it now has the strate­gic nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity to strike the con­ti­nen­tal United States and Wash­ing­ton should end its hos­tile pol­icy to­ward it. Ap­par­ently, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has in­structed his na­tional se­cu­rity agen­cies, in­clud­ing the CIA, to ex­plore all pos­si­ble op­tions, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary ac­tion and covert op­er­a­tions, to re­move Kim Jong-un from the lead­er­ship of a nu­clear North Korea.

Bad news for the North came from an Aspen In­sti­tute’s meet­ing last week.

CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo said that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is de­vel­op­ing “a range of op­tions” in­clud­ing “a way to sep­a­rate that regime from their nu­clear weapons.” He stopped short of ad­vo­cat­ing regime change that would di­rectly con­tra­dict Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son’s pro­nounce­ment to the con­trary.

At the same Aspen fo­rum, Gen. Joseph Dun­ford, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “It is not unimag­in­able to have mil­i­tary op­tions to re­spond to North Korean nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity.” He said that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would try diplo­macy “a few more months.”

Writ­ing for The Hill, Bob Man­ning, a well-rec­og­nized pol­icy ex­pert in Wash­ing­ton, branded these in­cen­di­ary com­ments as “ir­re­spon­si­ble and reck­less rhetoric.” Man­ning wrote: “Loose talk of pre­emp­tive strikes and regime change are not ex­actly in­cen­tives for Kim Jong-un to sur­ren­der his nukes. Pre­cisely the op­po­site: It feeds his por­trayal of the U.S. as a grave, im­mi­nent threat....”

Speak­ing of Py­ongyang’s ICBM ca­pa­bil­ity, an as­sess­ment by the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency (DIA) was re­ported by the Wash­ing­ton Post on July 26. The as­sess­ment said Py­ongyang will have a “re­li­able” ICBM that can reach the U.S. by next year, not in three or four years that most an­a­lysts had pre­dicted. It may not rep­re­sent a con­sen­sus among the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity, com­pris­ing 17 in­de­pen­dent agen­cies.

How­ever, the ac­cu­racy of the DIA’s re­port is be­ing ques­tioned by sev­eral ex­perts of North Korea’s weapons de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing an­a­lysts at the South Korean min- istry of de­fense. They be­lieve that the North is yet to over­come the tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties for at­mo­spheric reen­try and minia­tur­iza­tion of a nu­clear war­head to mount on an ICBM. Ac­cu­racy of tar­get­ing is an­other un­proven is­sue.

Re­cently, Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee that Py­ongyang’s mis­sile test lacked “the ca­pac­ity to strike the United States with any de­gree of ac­cu­racy or rea­son­able con­fi­dence of suc­cess.”

Trump says he does not want to say what he is go­ing to do be­fore­hand. He does not re­spect ex­perts’ views. His un­pre­dictabil­ity can have a de­ter­rent ef­fect on Kim Jong-un from tak­ing a sui­ci­dal path, but it will not stop him from con­tin­u­ing to de­velop his nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­ity.

De­spite in­creas­ing sanc­tions that will make it harder for him to ad­vance his WMD pro­grams, he will keep the deadly weapons that he be­lieves are the only pro­tec­tion of his regime.

With or with­out him, the North Korean nu­clear weapons will not go away, un­less there is a po­lit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the North and the South, and be­tween North Korea and the United States. What’s your take?

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