Alfonse D'Amato

The wild card: North Korea


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson finished his trip to Asia by meeting with President Xi Jinping of China in what has been described as a public display of cooperation between the two nations. The leaders had much to discuss, as relations between China and the U.S. continue to be strained by several contentious issues, including the growing threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

As Tillerson arrived in China, North Korea conducted a ground test of a newly developed high-thrust missile engine. Analysts believe that this type of engine can be used in an intercontinental missile. It’s no secret that North Korea is actively expanding its missile capabilities. Since Kim Jong-un became the country’s leader, it has launched 46 ballistic missiles, 24 in the past year alone.

It appears that relations between North Korea and China have become strained over North Korea’s aggressive effort to develop nuclear weapons. For its part, however, China has done next to nothing to stop, or even slow, Kim’s weapons program, which has brought us to this point.

Understandably, Kim has become emboldened. The ruthless and irrational leader has made it clear on multiple occasions that he has little regard for human life. In late February it was reported that he had killed five senior officials with anti-aircraft guns. The stories of murder and atrocities go on and on, and they include feeding family members to wild dogs and burning others to death with flamethrowers. Does this sound like the kind of leader who should have access to nuclear weapons?

China is well aware of Kim’s actions, but continues to be the country’s biggest backer. China keeps North Korea’s feeble economy running by supplying almost all of the nation’s oil. The Institute for Science and International Security has also reported that North Korea has been purchasing mercury and lithium hydroxide from China, two key ingredients of hydrogen bombs.

As Kim becomes more aggressive, it puts the U.S. in a more difficult position. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was recently quoted saying, “The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other with neither side willing to give way.” The question is, are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?

For nearly 20 years, the U.S. has tried, and failed, to appease, coax and bribe North Korea into giving up its nuclear ambitions. Three administrations, going back to President Clinton, have offered cash and concessions to stop the nuclear program. The result has been the same since 1994: North Korea never fulfills its promises.

The United States has threatened force in the past, but now it’s time to get serious. The secretary of state recently sent that message to China and North Korea, saying, “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended.”

This situation is extremely delicate, considering that any plan of action brings with it a high risk of all-out war, which would put millions of innocent civilians in South Korea and Japan in peril. But the Trump administration must contemplate a pre-emptive strike to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Launching an air strike to take out nuclear and missile facilities would delay, if not destroy, Kim’s weapons program, and would put pressure on him to negotiate.

The U.S. could also potentially launch a cyber-attack, which could disrupt military command and create chaos. This would all be very risky, however, given Kim’s willingness to use violence in the past. In 2010 he ordered the shelling of a South Korean island and the sinking of a South Korean battleship.

That’s why a limited American attack may be out of the question. While it may seem frightening and complex, I believe it’s time to stop bluffing and make China and North Korea believe that a larger pre-emptive attack targeting strategic nuclear facilities in North Korea and key government officials is a real option.

It’s extremely hard to fight a wild card like Kim Jung-un. Unfortunately, the last 20 years of appeasement have led us to this point, and a large problem is now dumped on the Trump administration to solve. This administration must not bluff and appease; action is needed. The question is, how much are we willing to risk to end North Korea’s nuclearization?

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column?