At the office of the secretary of Defense in the Pentagon, a plan for a preemptive military attack on North Korea was being presented to “a small, grim group.”
“The plan was impressive,” recalled an official who was at the presentation by US military strategists. “It could be executed with only a few days’ alert, and it would entail little or no risk of US casualties during the attack.”
It was also designed to have a low risk of North Korean casualties. But it allowed for some troubling contingencies.
“In particular, we wanted the plan to fully reflect that nuclear weapons were not the only weapons of mass destruction that North Korea had been working on. They clearly had chemical weapons, and their interest in biological weapons and ballistic missiles was also evident,” the official recalled. “We all knew that we were poised on the brink of a war that might involve weapons of mass destruction.”
The official was then-Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the year was 1994. He recounts the episode in a book he cowrote with Ashton Carter, who is now the No. 2 civilian at the Pentagon: “Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America.”
Such an attack didn’t occur in 1994, but today, in the face of North Korea’s belligerence, some are suggesting that the Pentagon dust off its plans.
“They have made a threat, and they have made a weapon – and it seems to me that is a legitimate reason for self-defense,” says Jeremi Suri, a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin.
“We don’t want the Iranians, or North Koreans, or anyone else thinking it’s not – and if we wait for the next threat, the damage could be far worse,” Dr. Suri argues. “The safest thing to do is to destroy this weapon on the launchpad.”
It is an argument that Suri made in a New York Times op-ed on Friday entitled, “Bomb North Korea, Before It’s Too Late.”
“President Obama should state clearly and forthrightly that this is an act of self-defense in response to explicit threats from North Korea and clear evidence of a prepared weapon,” Suri writes.
“And he should explain that this is a limited defensive strike on a military target – an operation that poses no threat to civilians – and that America does not intend to bring about regime change. The purpose is to neutralize a clear and present danger. That is all,” he writes.
Suri says that the feedback he has received on his piece has run the spectrum, from those who accuse him of being a warmonger to US military planners sympathetic to the idea.
“A lot are frustrated that we’re playing this game with North Korea every year,” he says.
The consequences of a strike could be dire, Suri concedes. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un could decide, for example, to fire off some of the thousands of artillery rounds in his possession toward Seoul, South Korea, potentially killing tens of thousands of people.
But there’s some likelihood that Kim will instead “save face at home by saying, ‘Look, we’re so important that they have to attack us’ and retaliate instead on a smaller scale,” Suri says.
This might include “trying to assassinate someone in South Korea or attacking an island” – in other words, one of the responses they have tried in the past.
“My belief is that if we take out this missile now, and we make it clear it’s an act of self-defense, the choice they have is face suicide or not respond,” Suri says. “I think they will choose not to commit suicide.”
Indeed, it might boil down “to being the best of bad options,” he says.
It is similar to an argument that Messrs. Perry and Carter recall making in their book.
“I went over the ‘talking points’ prepared by my staff, which sketched out how we should explain to the president the difficult choice he had to make,” they wrote.
As the assistant secretary of Defense for international security policy, Carter supported the development of the strike plan.
Perry decided to begin his briefing to the president with a statement attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith: “Politics is not the art of the possible. Rather it consists of choosing between what is disastrous and what is merely unpalatable.”
“We were about to give the president a choice between a disastrous option – allowing North Korea to get a nuclear arsenal, which we might have to face someday – and an unpalatable option, blocking this development, but thereby risking a destructive non-nuclear war,” they wrote. “How had we gotten to this position?”
President Clinton was “within minutes of selecting and authorizing” a deployment option when the meeting was interrupted by a phone call from former President Carter, who had been dispatched to North Korea to negotiate on behalf of the United States. Kim Il-sung, then the aging leader of the regime, had agreed to negotiate.
What will happen this time?