A week of verbal volleying between President Trump and the North Korean regime has left many wondering: what would the so-called military option look like?
Experts and military officials have long said any military action against North Korea could have devastating consequences.
The United States would win in the end, they say, but the conflict could leave Seoul leveled and millions dead.
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Nonetheless, President Trump appears intent on making Kim Jong Un believe he’s ready to not only consider, but use his military options.
“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” he tweeted on Friday.
He followed that up by retweeting a U.S. Pacific Command post on the B-1B bombers located on Guam, which have done show-of-force flights over the Korean peninsula as recently as this week and would likely be used in any strike on North Korea.
Some experts have interpreted Trump’s tweet simply as him putting U.S. Forces Korea’s longtime motto — “Fight Tonight” — in his own words.
“‘Locked and loaded’ is another way of saying ‘ready to fight tonight,’ the mantra of U.S. and [Republic of Korea] troops to help maintain peace and deterrence on the peninsula,” Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said in an email. “The point is to not let North Korea use risk to force us to back down, but to keep the dangers in mind so as to strongly encourage China to strongarm Pyongyang into negotiation.”
But others worry the escalating war of words could lead to an actual war.
“Kim needs to understand that he needs to give Trump a way down, and Trump needs to understand that he needs to give Kim a way down,” said retired Air Force Col. Richard Klass, now on the board of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation. “I don’t know how this ends. … There still are and never will be any good military options.”
Still, The Associated Press reported Friday that the United States and North Korea have been engaged in back-channel talks, showing diplomacy remains in play evens as war rhetoric heats up.
Shooting down a missile
In terms of military options, one scenario for the United States would be to shoot down the next missile North Korea launches.
Pyongyang has threatened to fire a salvo of missiles into the waters off Guam, a Pacific island home to two U.S. military bases and about 7,000 U.S. military personnel. If carried out, it would be North Korea’s most provocative missile launch to date.
Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said it’s “pretty clear” either the United States or Japan would shoot down the missiles if Pyongyang fulfills that threat. That’s because of the risk of a missile missing its target and accidentally hitting Japan or Guam.
The United States also already has good intelligence on North Korea’s medium-range missiles, he said, meaning there’s not as much of a reason to let them travel their course as there is for North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
But Klass said there’s risk in attempting to shoot down a missile, mainly that the United States could miss, demonstrating the country’s limitations on missile defense and emboldening Kim.
“What if we try to intercept it and fail? Then we’re far worse off than if we didn’t do anything,” Klass said.
While Kim would consider a missile intercept provocative, Kazianis said, he would likely not respond with an attack on the United States or its allies. Kazianis predicted Kim might respond with a new nuclear test.
Then there’s option of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s nuclear testing facilities and missile launchers.
Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the United States would likely need to carry out a near-simultaneous, multi-dimensional attack to take out as much of North Korea’s artillery, launch sites and nuclear weapons at one time. Hendrix stressed that he has not been briefed on any specific plans and was speaking only from his own analysis.
While U.S. forces from other locations would have to be moved into the region, Hendrix said, Trump’s assertion that the military option is “locked and loaded” is correct in the sense that U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan maintain a “high state of readiness.”
The layered attack means the B-1 bombers from Guam, and perhaps B-2 bombers from Oklahoma, would take out priority targets from the air, while the U.S. guided missile cruisers and destroyers based in Japan launch Tomahawk missiles from the sea, he said.
“That’s just for the opening move, then it gets even more complicated,” he said, explaining the United States would then need to consider logistics such as resupplying for a sustained operation.
Even with the layered first strike, the United States would not be able to take out all of North Korea’s assets as many are underground and would be hard to locate.
Kim has more than 10,000 artillery tubes just outside the demilitarized zone and a reported 60 nuclear weapons in his arsenal.
“If we missed one nuke, he’s going to use it on Seoul, Tokyo or Los Angeles,” Kazianis said. “Even if we did take the nuclear arsenal, he has something like 5,000 tons of chemical weapons.”
100,000 could die in first days
Up to 100,000 people could die in the first days of the conflict if North Korea attacked Seoul, according to a 2005 war game published by The Atlantic.
Hendrix said U.S. officials are likely right now weighing the near term risk of thousands dying in Seoul against the long-term risk of Kim having nuclear weapons capable of hitting the United States.
“This is not someone that we can really trust his rationality and so we have to take responsibility for our own safety,” Hendrix said.
Retired Gen. James Thurman, who led U.S. Forces Korea from 2011 to 2013, said the greatest risk right now is with miscalculation.
“I think right now our greatest threat is a miscalculation with all of this rhetoric,” he said. “This needs to be tamped down.”
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