Daniel R. DePetris
Freedom for North Korea or chaos?
North Korea is an entirely different situation than Iraq was in 2003. Kim Jong-un is solidly in power, having killed or marginalized anyone (including his uncle and half-brother) perceived to be even a minimal threat to his control. Unlike Iraq, whose military was demoralized and degraded by the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and by a sanctions regime over the next decade, North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state with ballistic missiles that have the capability to level Seoul quickly and target U.S. bases in the region. Killing Kim and banking on the idea that the regime would change how it does business after seven decades would be a high price to pay if that untested theory proved to be wrong. Because North Korea is such a black-hole in terms of human intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community wouldn’t be able to confidently assess that the man or woman (Kim’s sister, for instance) who replaces Kim wouldn’t be just as vicious or unpredictable. Assassinating a head-of-state is the definition of an act of war, and nobody can accurately guess whether cooler heads in Pyongyang would prevail over those who would be itching to demonstrate strength through retaliation.
When the first images of a sarin gas attack streamed into the White House Situation Room, President Donald Trump ordered his National Security Council to come back to him the next day with some concrete options. Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford did just that; after rounds of meetings with national-security principles, President Trump ordered the U.S. Navy to launch fifty-nine cruise missiles on an Assad regime airbase where the gas attack originated.