America Has Military Options for North Korea (but They’re All Bad)

Michael O’Hanlon

Security, Asia

A review of the plausible military options available to Washington shows that the odds of successfully disarming North Korea might be a pipe dream.

America Has Military Options for North Korea (but They’re All Bad)

Is the Trump administration considering preventive military action of some sort against the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un? With various U.S. officials saying that “time is running out” for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear and missile standoff with the DPRK, that may be the case—or at least the intended message.

A review of the plausible military options available to the United States underscores two central points. First, the Trump administration is not alone in thinking about them. Previous U.S. administrations, including Democratic ones, have done so too. Second, however, none of those options really hold water. The risks of escalation are not worth the potential benefits. Consider these options:

Shoot Down Long-Range Missile Launches

One military option would be to prevent North Korea from completing any more long-range missile tests to perfect ICBM technology. This idea was proposed in 2006 by two Democratic secretaries of defense, William Perry and Ashton Carter. The missiles could be destroyed by precision munitions launched from aircraft just before launch. Or they could be shot down in flight by a U.S. missile defense system; based on previous testing, any such shot might have a 25 to 75 percent chance of success.

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However, in response, North Korea might accelerate its development of solid-fueled ICBMs, which have a launch preparation process that is difficult to detect. The United States might not shoot down such ICBMs effectively in peacetime or in war. North Korea might also request permission from China or Russia to launch test ICBMs northward or westward rather than eastward, which means the missiles would land in Siberia or the Gobi desert (or even the Arctic Ocean).

Furthermore, this idea does not address North Korea’s growing…

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