There was a moment at Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s White House briefing Monday that was significant. Asked by a reporter about North Korea’s missile launch last weekend, Mr. Spicer said the administration was aware of the launch and that “it failed.” End of story. Next question, please.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary in Britain, might provide an explanation for Mr. Spicer’s tight-lipped response. Mr. Rifkind told the BBC Sunday that “there is a very strong belief that the U.S. — through cyber methods — has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail.”
At present, there are no direct links to a cyberattack on North Korea from the United States, but that hasn’t stopped media outlets from reporting the possibility of one.
Last month, the United States began sending the first elements of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system to South Korea, though China opposed the move. When it becomes operational will it, along with cyber-attacks, be enough to deter North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un from conducting new missile tests capable of hitting the United States with a nuclear warhead, which he has repeatedly threatened to do? Mr. Kim has said he will conduct missile tests “weekly” in response to U.S. threats.
On a recent visit to South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence vowed that “the era of strategic patience is over,” a strategy adopted by the Obama administration to explain its long-term view on global conflict resolution. Mr. Pence added, “North Korea would do well not to test [President Trump’s] resolve — or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”
How much of this is bluster on both sides no one can say for sure. After President Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there is some optimism that China might be able to exert sufficient pressure on its unpredictable ally to pull back from a direct confrontation with the United States. Of greatest concern for the Trump administration, in addition to South Korean civilians who would likely suffer massive casualties should there be a North Korean invasion, are the more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Mr. Kim has threatened to attack them and flood South Korea with his ground forces.
What is our goal with North Korea? Is it regime change? If so, who and what would follow if Mr. Kim is ousted? Mr. Kim, his father and grandfather have established such an atmosphere of complete control and cultlike obedience with North Koreans, who have been cut off from all outside information, that it is hard to predict how the people would react. It’s a good bet political prisoners in North Korea’s prison camps would be overjoyed if the regime fell and they were set free.
Humanrights.gov estimates between “80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners and family members are detained in these camps, where starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape, forced abortion and infanticide are commonplace.”
Those who wish to hold off on further challenges to North Korea must ask themselves a question. Given the erratic behavior of Kim Jong-un and his bellicose promises to strike the United States with a nuclear missile, is it better to take him seriously and stop him now, or wait until he has the capability to carry out his threat?
Last week, Hawaii’s House public safety committee passed a resolution calling for the state’s defense agency to repair hundreds of fallout shelters that have not been updated since the 1980s and restock them with medical supplies, food and water.
We haven’t yet reached the tension level of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which put the United States in direct confrontation with the Soviet Union and brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, but the current tension between the United States and North Korea could quickly spiral downward.
Will the “peace through strength” doctrine of the Reagan administration, which suggested that military power could help preserve peace, work today? During the Reagan years, Soviet leaders were not unstable, as Kim Jong-un appears to be, and a nuclear confrontation was avoided. Perhaps a demonstration of what the United States can do with cyberwarfare, a missile defense system and help from China will be enough.
One can only hope.
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).
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