May 17th, 2022


How Trump can immediately take control of Pyongyang situation

Marc A. Thiessen

By Marc A. Thiessen The Washington Post

Published Nov. 9, 2017

How Trump can immediately take control of Pyongyang situation

In his speech to the South Korean legislature, President Trump had a message for Kim Jong Un. "The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer," Trump told the North Korean tyrant Tuesday. "They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face."

The problem is that Kim believes precisely the opposite, and it will take action, not just words, for Trump to disabuse him of that notion. Fortunately, Trump has shown that there is a way to do just that.

After the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on its people in April, Trump launched a military strike that took out the base from which that chemical attack was launched. The message to Syrian President Bashar Assad was clear: Use of chemical weapons will no longer be tolerated. Do it again, and more military action will follow.

If Trump wants to stop North Korea's drive for nuclear missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland, he should look to the success of his Syrian strike as a model. Specifically, he should announce that North Korean nuclear and missile tests will no longer be tolerated - that, henceforth, North Korea is a ballistic missile "no-fly zone" and a nuclear weapons "no-test zone." Any attempt by North Korea to launch a ballistic missile will be met with a targeted military strike either taking out the missile on the launchpad or blowing it up in the air using missile defense technology. And any attempt to test a nuclear weapon will be met with a targeted strike taking out the test site and other related nuclear facilities.

Trump should make clear that so long as North Korea does not retaliate, he will take no further military action against the regime - just as he did not take further action against Assad. However, if North Korea does retaliate, then the United States reserves the right to, as Trump put it to the U.N. General Assembly, "totally destroy North Korea."

The historical record suggests North Korea would opt for regime survival and not retaliate. After Israel destroyed Syria's (North Korean-built) nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zour in 2007, the Assad regime essentially pretended the attack never happened. Similarly, when Israel took out Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Saddam Hussein executed Iraqi officials responsible for defense of the reactor but did not retaliate against Israel.

Both Israeli actions were part of what is known as the "Begin Doctrine" - named for then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who in 1981 declared that "on no account shall we permit an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel." Now is the time to announce a "Trump Doctrine" that North Korea shall not be permitted to develop weapons of mass destruction, or the means to deliver them, against the American people.

Trump would have bipartisan support for this doctrine. Former Democratic secretaries of defense Ashton Carter and William Perry proposed a similar policy a decade ago (though neither applied it during their times in office). Just this week, former Obama director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair proposed that any further missile tests be met with "a massive American and South Korean air and missile strike against all known DPRK nuclear test facilities and missile launching and support facilities."

Preventing such tests test would be a justifiable act of self-defense. As former acting CIA director Michael Morell recently pointed out in The Post, "North Korea may have the capability today to successfully conduct a nuclear attack on the United States." We should therefore operate on the assumption that it does have this capability and that any missile launch could in fact be a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States - which the United States has the right and responsibility to prevent.

Announcing an end to all North Korean nuclear and missile tests would take control of the situation away from Pyongyang. U.S. national security would no longer depend on unreliable assurances from the North Korean regime, but rather on our military deterrent. Today, the Kim regime holds the initiative and can escalate tensions by carrying out nuclear or missile tests without consequences.

Removing the regime's ability to do so would give the initiative back to the United States and its allies and stabilize the Korean Peninsula. It could also prevent an accidental war. A test missile that North Korea intended to land in the Sea of Japan could accidentally land in Japan itself. It is safer to take out North Korea's ballistic missiles before launch rather than risking an accidental strike on Tokyo or Seoul.

Such a policy is not without risk. It is possible that North Korea could miscalculate and retaliate for a U.S. strike, thus sparking a full-scale military conflict. But if the Kim regime is so prone to irrational behavior, then it is better to find out now before it possesses the ability to destroy New York or Washington. If we cannot deter Kim from testing a nuclear missile, can we really deter him from using one once he has it?

Trump should simultaneously announce a massive increase in funding for U.S. ballistic missile defenses, including boost-phase defenses that can take out a North Korean missile when it is still over enemy territory and presents a large, slower-moving target. And he should direct the intelligence community to focus its assets on providing early warning of any pending North Korean tests.

With a Trump Doctrine declaring North Korea a "no-fly" and "no-test zone," Trump can accomplish what three American presidents before him could not - an immediate halt to North Korea's efforts to threaten American cities with nuclear missiles.

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