North Korea’s outrageous and provocative threats to the United States and our allies Japan and South Korea have certainly had the intended effect of causing world attention to focus on the hermit kingdom and its new “dear leader,” Kim Jong-un. It appears that the main purpose of these outbursts is to promote the young leader’s image as a powerful military figure who can handle international crises. For example, last year when the United States announced an agreement to send food aid to North Korea in exchange for “close” international monitoring of its nuclear program, the new leader responded arrogantly by ordering the launch of a long-range missile in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Obviously, food aid was canceled.
Besides China, the real power in Pyongyang today and the driving force behind the orchestrated rise of North Korea’s new supreme leader is his aunt, Kim Kyong-hui. She, along with husband Jang Sung-taek, was chosen by her brother, Kim Jong-il, before he died, as the one to consolidate the son’s authority. It should be noted that Jang Sung-taek is the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and most importantly, is the regime’s key link with Beijing.
In response to North Korea’s continuing threats and following its third nuclear-weapon test on Feb. 12 (with Iranian technicians on-site), plus its deployment of medium-range missiles, the Obama administration took some appropriate counteractions by flying B-52 bombers over South Korea; deploying stealth B-2 bombers and F-22 stealth fighters as well as moving two U.S. Navy Aegis ABM-capable destroyers off the coast of South Korea. The administration also announced plans to upgrade missile defense for Guam and Alaska.
These moves were certainly welcomed by our Western Pacific allies, but were quickly undercut by our announcement of how we would respond to an overt North Korean aggressive act. In effect, we stated that our response would be limited to a “proportional response in kind.” This defies logic. Why would you announce in advance how you would respond to an aggressive act by your enemy? With essentially nothing to lose, North Korea cannot only control the engagement, but the outcome. When are we going to learn proportional responses in war don’t work? They only invite aggression. You must keep your enemy off-balance. You must retain the initiative by creating a situation e.g., force-posturing that if he takes aggressive action, our response will be “unpredictable but devastating.” The enemy must be made to realize that he has nothing to gain, and that’s how you maintain deterrence.
We further weakened our military demonstration of resolve by postponing an intercontinental ballistic-missile test that we needed to conduct. The reason given was that it may be seen as being provocative. I would hope so, but I am sure North Korea viewed the announced postponement as a sign of weakness.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s visit to Beijing on April 13 further undercut our military moves by offering to curtail the recent beefing up of our anti-ballistic-missile defenses if only North Korea would abandoned its nuclear program. This ineptness in statecraft bargaining is mind-boggling. What Mr. Kerry obtained in Beijing was nothing more than the old, tired statement that the two countries announced that they endorsed the principle of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. China must be made to understand that their direct assistance to North Korea’s (and Iran’s) nuclear and missile programs is not only destabilizing, but that we consider this assistance an unfriendly act and provocative.
I was meeting in Beijing with Gen. Liu Huaqing, China’s top military officer, when Kim Jong-un’s father took over after the death of his father, “Eternal Leader” Kim Il-sung, and was making erratic statements. The general told me, “Don’t worry, nothing happens in North Korea that we are not aware of.” Since this control still exists, I believe, we should in our negotiations with China make it clear that if Beijing actually wants a nuclear-free peninsula, they need to take some positive steps. A good indication of their sincerity would be for them to withdraw the 16-wheel trucks they transferred to North Korea so that they could launch their new missiles against the United States. That would be a significant signal.
Until China takes such a visibly constructive act, we should not participate in any future “Six-Party” talks. Other actions we should take include:
Immediately rescind the “proportional response in kind” strategy.
Announce that we are restoring the tactical nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles to our inventory. It would be carried primarily by our nuclear submarines so that we have a secure tactical nuclear capability.
For too long, we have let an illegal action stand. We should demand that North Korea return the USS Pueblo, an unarmed surveillance ship, which was seized illegally in international waters in 1969. If it’s not returned, we will retain the option to destroy it.
If we take the above actions, we will be, along with our allies, in a much stronger position to achieve our objectives of peace and stability in the Western Pacific. We will also have sent a strong message to Iran.
James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.