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General: Aiming Nuclearized ICBM at US May Trigger Preemptive Strike on N. Korea

General Jack Keane, U.S. Army (ret.), chairman, Institute for the Study of War (ISW), answers a question about Russia and Crimea as he speaks at a panel discussion at the SALT conference in Las Vegas May 15, 2014.
General Jack Keane, U.S. Army (ret.), chairman, Institute for the Study of War (ISW), answers a question about Russia and Crimea as he speaks at a panel discussion at the SALT conference in Las Vegas May 15, 2014.

As North Korea appears to accelerate the development of its nuclear and missile programs, tensions are escalating between the United States and the communist state.

President Donald Trump has publicly criticized the policies of past administrations, saying North Korea is “a problem that has to be solved” after a quarter century of unsuccessful U.S. policy toward North Korea, and that the U.S. has “no choice” but to “totally destroy North Korea” if it is forced to defend itself or its allies.

Critics suggest this is an unrealistic option given the consequences of an all-out war on the Korean peninsula. Or is it?

Jack Keane, a retired four-star general and former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army who has close ties to the Trump administration, told VOA’s Korean Service that it would not be unrealistic for the U.S to pre-emptively strike North Korea if Pyongyang aims nuclearized intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) at America, which includes Guam. To Trump, that would be “an act of war,” according to Keane, who discussed possible military strategies for countering the North Korean threat. His remarks have been edited for clarity and length.

In the past, you have said a large-scale military strike, or a pre-emptive strike, on North Korea might be the only option left. Why?

First of all, it really would be the last option, assuming that all of the major economic sanctions that we are imposing on North Korea have not changed the regime. I do believe that the Trump administration would not permit North Korea to have nuclearized ICBM capabilities. And if they have such capability, we will not be able to get them to stand down, so a pre-emptive strike would be likely. But I think before we do that there are other military options that we will likely exercise.

One would be a naval blockade to further increase economic pressures. Secondly, we will begin to shoot down some of [North Korea’s] ICBMs. In other words, we will graduate to more serious military options. If all else fails, then U.S. military options would go against [North Korea’s] missile launch facilities, its nuclear weapons, its rockets and missiles, and also probably leadership targets in Pyongyang.

Of course, this would mean an all-out war, and there is no way to conduct a military strike like this, and have this so limited, that this would not lead to war.

This is why this option is probably something that the Trump administration knows is horrific, and does not want to do. But at the same time, the Trump administration would not permit North Korea to point nuclearized ICBMs at the American people.

What do you mean by the naval blockade?

A naval blockade would just shut off all commerce going into North Korea to further create an economic stranglehold on to the country. I think one of the options that plays out here, certainly [one that] is possible is, as economic sanctions begin to take hold on the country, it begins to economically collapse.

It’s also an option---at that point---that the leaders around Kim Jong Un have to change out their leader, and put somebody else in who is not jeopardizing the very survival of their country. Obviously we have no control over that option and it is something that they would have to do themselves.

Also, China at some point, not wanting to destabilize North Korea and the peninsula, may indeed change out the leadership themselves. In other words, replacing Kim Jong Un with another communist leader but one that is more responsible and is not jeopardizing and destabilizing the peninsula and North Korea, [potentially] creating thousands of refugees that would flood into China.

The United States has no control over those options to be sure, but they are possibilities.

How do you view the argument that war on the Korean peninsula is unrealistic, endangering South Koreans and Americans residing in Korea?

Well, it is a realistic option because what President Trump is saying to North Korea and China is that he is not going to accept nuclearized ICBMs pointing at the American people. He looks at that as of act of war by North Korea. So that is what introduces that option.

We can say that war on the peninsula is not realistic, but if Kim Jong Un is going to bring it to that point, that is what is going to exactly happen.

More and more South Koreans are calling on Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons or to ask the United States to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the country. What do you think about this ongoing debate?

Well, first of all, we would not like to see more nuclear proliferation and that is why we want to denuclearize the North. But we also understand that our allies have options. South Korea and Japan both have options to move toward nuclear weapons to further protect their own people. And that is the decision that they would have to make. We would, this administration would likely discourage it, at least in the near term as we are trying to work diplomatic and economic sanctions options as a main effort.

Some legal experts say Trump can’t initiate war or order a preemptive strike without consent from Congress?

We are not depending on those critics to tell us what the military capability of North Korea is. We are depending on our intelligence agencies who have significant capability to be able to ascertain what is taking place in North Korea. All those [critics] have opinions, but it is not based on any fact. Our intelligence agencies are monitoring what is going on in North Korea and what they conclude is based on facts, not on opinion. The president of the United States [and] the president of South Korea will make those decisions based on facts, not opinion.