What if America Tried to Assassinate North Korea’s Kim Jong Un?
North Korea is an entirely different situation than Iraq was in 2003. Kim Jong-un is solidly in power, having killed or marginalized anyone (including his uncle and half-brother) perceived to be even a minimal threat to his control. Unlike Iraq, whose military was demoralized and degraded by the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and by a sanctions regime over the next decade, North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state with ballistic missiles that have the capability to level Seoul quickly and target U.S. bases in the region. Killing Kim and banking on the idea that the regime would change how it does business after seven decades would be a high price to pay if that untested theory proved to be wrong. Because North Korea is such a black-hole in terms of human intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community wouldn’t be able to confidently assess that the man or woman (Kim’s sister, for instance) who replaces Kim wouldn’t be just as vicious or unpredictable. Assassinating a head-of-state is the definition of an act of war, and nobody can accurately guess whether cooler heads in Pyongyang would prevail over those who would be itching to demonstrate strength through retaliation.
When the first images of a sarin gas attack streamed into the White House Situation Room, President Donald Trump ordered his National Security Council to come back to him the next day with some concrete options. Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford did just that; after rounds of meetings with national-security principles, President Trump ordered the U.S. Navy to launch fifty-nine cruise missiles on an Assad regime airbase where the gas attack originated.
At the same time, the NSC was putting the final touches on a North Korea policy review that has been an ongoing project for months. Unlike the administration’s deliberations on the Syrian chemical weapons attack, President Trump is giving his national security advisers far more time and a wider degree of flexibility. Before the policy review began, the Wall Street Journal reported in March that Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland directed aides to include “ideas that one official described as well outside the mainstream.”
We now know just how unconventional some of these options are: they apparently include everything from reintroducing nuclear weapons to South Korea as a show of force and deterrence to assassinating Kim Jong-un and his top commanders. “We have 20 years of diplomacy and sanctions under our belt that has failed to stop the North Korean program,” a senior intelligence official involved with the review told NBC News. Read between the lines and it’s obvious what the overall message from the Trump administration is: North Korea is a problem that has been on Washington’s hot-plate for way too long, so it’s time to shake up the establishment and look for new alternatives.
There was a time when assassinating a foreign leader was an integral component of America’s national-security toolkit. During the Cold War, leaders who were either insufficiently supportive of U.S. policy goals or in bed with the Soviets were targets for removal. Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Congo’s Patrice Lumumba the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo and Guatemala's Jacobo Árbenz were all on the CIA’s hit-list at one point in time, and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi was a frequent target due to his sponsorship of international terrorism. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan authorized an air strike on Qaddafi’s compound in the hope that he would be in the building. After three months of interviews across the national-security bureaucracy, the New York Times Magazine concluded that “the assassination of Qaddafi was the primary goal of the Libyan bombing” in 1986.