FORMER CHAIR OF US INTELLIGENCE COUNCIL GREG TREVERTON WRITES: More than one American President has been tempted by some form of preemptive attack on North Korea. However, the rub with preemption is that for the limited purpose of taking out the country’s nuclear program, it isn’t likely to work, and for the grander goal of decapitating the regime, success could create more problems than it solves.

Military options against the North’s nuclear arsenal suffer from two problems: they might not succeed, and Pyongyang has devastating retaliatory options. Intelligence on the North’s nuclear program
is pretty good but hardly perfect. Since the beginning, the country has hidden key facilities, and as its missiles become more mobile, they are harder to target. Airstrikes on nuclear facilities, coupled with cyberattacks and perhaps commando raids, could do some damage, but since the program is now entirely indigenous, it could be re- paired soon enough.

And it is hard to imagine Kim Jong Un doing nothing while the U.S. and its allies pounded his nuclear program. Seoul lies within artillery range of the North. Kim could retaliate even without using nuclear weapons. That would mean any attack on nuclear facilities would have to be accompanied by attacks on other installations threatening the South. In other words, the war would widen even before Kim retaliated.

The other set of preemptive options, ones designed to overturn the regime, suffer their own set of imponderables. If Kim were killed, would the regime come apart or rally around the family? War gaming suggests that a dangerous stew of violence, refugees and a race
to control those nuclear weapons would ensue. In that stew,
the gaming suggests, allies, not to mention China, would be as much of a problem as opposition from residual North Korean forces.

As things stand, neither diplomacy nor sanctions seem likely
to derail the North’s nuclear pro-gram. So regime change looks more and more attractive. But better that it come from within. Given Kim’s reckless habits—drinking and driving are two of his favorite pastimes—a self-inflicted biological solution is more than possible. So is the chance that an insider will finally get angry enough to take him out, never mind the consequences.

Mr. Treverton, the former chair of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, a member of the Board of Directors of the Pacific Century Institute, and executive adviser to SM&A Corporation, is a member of Asia Media International’s Steering Committee.The above appears in the current issue of TIME Magazine. Asia Media International at Loyola Marymount University appreciates TIME’s courtesy for the reprinting.

 

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