In comments recently delivered at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster reaffirmed the administration’s objective of North Korean denuclearization, repeating that a posture of “accept and deter is unacceptable.” But as North Korea continues to view the possession of a stable nuclear capability as existentially crucial to its security, negotiated North Korean denuclearization appears to remain “non-negotiable.” Instead, the administration may be considering the preventive use of force to “[deny] North Korea from threatening the United States with a weapon.” This approach may target the Kim regime, the North’s nuclear and conventional deterrence forces, or both, according to different sources. Its costs, however, significantly outweigh the purported benefits. Not only would it pose tremendous technical challenges, but the intra-alliance tensions generated by a preventive strike posture would also exacerbate the ‘decoupling’ phenomenon. Of greatest concern is that an attempt to disarm or decapitate the Kim regime could precipitate a North Korean nuclear attack—the very event such a preventive strike would seek to prevent.
Intended to prevent North Korea from acquiring an operational nuclear capability, a U.S. preventive strike would likely rely on the sudden and rapid employment of a combination of standoff munitions, cyber warfare and special forces to disorient and disarm the North Korean regime. Though policymakers might consider several options for carrying out such an attack, the notion of a more limited, high-tech preventive approach—a simultaneous effort to surgically disarm North Korea’s nascent nuclear capabilities and incapacitate its regime—may offer an apparent quick-fix to an increasingly complex challenge. Here, a decapitation strategy, either targeting North Korean leadership directly or its command and control systems, would theoretically complement a conventional disarming strike, paralyzing North Korean leadership before it can organize an effective response and without significantly committing U.S. ground forces.
Read the full op-ed in The National Interest.