Trump faces perilous options wrestling with North Korea

Although the Pentagon still hopes for a diplomatic solution, highly classified military options are at the ready.

WASHINGTON — North Korea’s threat Thursday to test-fire ballistic missiles soon near the U.S. territory of Guam deepened the challenge confronting the Trump administration: how to defang Pyongyang’s missile programs without risking all-out war.

President Donald Trump has made clear that his goal is to deny North Korea the capability to field a long-range nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the United States.

And though the Pentagon still hopes for a diplomatic solution, highly classified military options are at the ready, last seriously debated when the Clinton administration pondered pre-emptive action to try to thwart North Korea’s nuclear program.

Even a limited strike against a North Korean missile on its launchpad or a shoot-down of a missile in midair would pose risks that the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, might retaliate, setting off a spiral of escalation that could plunge the Korean Peninsula into war.

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“In the event of a first strike against Kim, even a non-nuclear option, it is highly likely that Kim would retaliate at least conventionally against South Korea,” said James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral who is now dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “This almost certainly would create an upward spiral of violence which would be extremely difficult to manage or to mitigate.”

The Trump administration’s first recourse has been diplomacy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to head off North Korea’s missile program this week by suggesting that the United States could open talks with Pyongyang if North Korea would halt its missile tests.

On Thursday, however, North Korea raised the stakes by saying it was considering a plan to test-fire four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missiles in international waters near Guam, home to U.S. air and naval bases as well as a THAAD antimissile system.

Trump hinted broadly later in the day that he has his own military options in mind. “Obviously we’re spending a lot of time looking at, in particular, North Korea,” he said, “and we are preparing for many different alternative events.”

But few of the military options are straightforward, and some former Pentagon officials involved in war planning for North Korea pointed to the…

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