Since February, the North Korean government has followed one threatening move with another. The spiral began with an underground nuclear test. Then the North declared the armistice that ended the Korean War invalid. The young dictator Kim Jong-un followed with a flurry of threats to attack civilian targets in South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Earlier this week, North Korea closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the only facility where citizens from North and South Korea work together. And now the North is openly threatening (and visibly preparing) to fire a mobile-launcher-based Musudan missile with a range that could reach many of the places Mr. Kim has menaced in his public statements. American intelligence agencies believe that North Korea is working to prepare even longer-range delivery systems to carry the nuclear warheads already in its arsenal.
The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.
President Obama should state clearly and forthrightly that this is an act of self-defense in response to explicit threats from North Korea and clear evidence of a prepared weapon. He should give the leaders of South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan advance notice before acting. And he should explain that this is a limited defensive strike on a military target — an operation that poses no threat to civilians — and that America does not intend to bring about regime change. The purpose is to neutralize a clear and present danger. That is all.
If North Korea is left to continue its threatening behavior, it will jeopardize the fragile economies of the region and it will encourage South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons — a policy already advocated by hawks in both countries. Most of all, North Korean threats will encourage isolated states across the world to follow suit. The Iranians are certainly watching. If North Korea can use its small nuclear arsenal to blackmail the region with impunity, why shouldn’t the mullahs in Tehran try to do the same?
The United States and its allies in East Asia have a legitimate right to self-defense and they have a deep interest in deterring future threats on this scale.
Thanks to precise satellite reconnaissance, striking the North Korean missile on the ground would be much easier than after it was launched. Since the United States cannot possibly know the missile’s trajectory before a launch, and Mr. Kim has said he is targeting America and its allies, we have reason to believe that civilians face serious danger.
Since a missile on the ground is an obvious and largely undefended target, we can be reasonably sure that a strike would destroy it and preserve regional stability and the safety of our allies. An American pre-emptive strike would also re-establish necessary red lines for North Korea and other countries in similar circumstances.
As President Xi Jinping of China stated earlier this month, “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” By eliminating the most recent North Korean missile threat, the United States will reduce the threat posed by the North’s arsenal. The United States would also reassure everyone in the region, and those watching from other parts of the world, that although it is not seeking regime change, America and its allies will not be blackmailed by threatened missile launches.
The North Korean government would certainly view the American strike as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea, as many fear. First, the Chinese government would do everything it could to prevent such a reaction. Even if they oppose an American strike, China’s leaders understand that a full-scale war would be far worse. Second, Mr. Kim would see in the American strike a renewed commitment to the defense of South Korea. Any attack on Seoul would be an act of suicide for him, and he knows that.
A war on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely after an American strike, but it is not inconceivable. The North Koreans might continue to escalate, and Mr. Kim might feel obligated to start a war to save face. Under these unfortunate circumstances, the United States and its allies would still be better off fighting a war with North Korea today, when the conflict could still be confined largely to the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea’s actions over the last two months have shown, Mr. Kim’s government is willing to escalate its threats much more rapidly than his father’s regime did. An unending crisis would merely postpone war to a later date, when the damage caused by North Korea would be even greater.
China’s role in a potential war on the Korean Peninsula is hard to predict. Beijing will continue to worry about the United States extending its influence up to the Chinese border. If armed hostilities erupt, President Obama should be prepared for direct and close consultations with Chinese leaders to negotiate a postwar settlement, in a larger multinational framework, that respects Beijing’s legitimate security interests in North Korea. The United States has no interest in occupying North Korea. The Chinese are unlikely to pursue an occupation of their own.
Destroying the North Korean missile before it is launched is the best of bad options on the Korean Peninsula. A prolonged crisis would undermine regional security and global efforts to stop nuclear proliferation. And a future war would be much worse. The most prudent move is to eliminate the most imminent military threat in self-defense, establish clear and reasonable limits on future belligerence, and maintain allied unity for stability — not forced regime change — in the region. This is the kind of pre-emptive action that would save lives and maybe even preserve the uneasy peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Jeremi Suri, a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building From the Founders to Obama.