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.
The Cold War, however, has been over for twenty-five years. Killing foreign political officials, an option that was once always on the table, is now generally discouraged and frowned upon. In fact, It’s been U.S. policy since the Gerald Ford presidency to stay far away from anything that would suggest that the United States is a participant, involved in some way or complicit in an assassination attempt. President Ford’s executive order on this is quite clear: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” President Reagan restated—and some would say expanded—that restriction in executive order 12333, which says that “[n]o person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.”
Pursuing a policy that would lead to the assassination of Kim Jong-un and the decapitating of the North Korean leadership would therefore be a big reversal from a U.S. policy that has persisted for forty-one years. Policies, of course, can change and presidential directives and executive orders can be modified or rewritten. And there is no statutory prohibition that would prohibit the president of the United States to order a hit on a foreign leader. Although 18 U.S. Code, Section 1116 could be used to prosecute a U.S. person who attempts to kill a foreign leader, this statute only applies if the crime is committed in the United States or the leader is targeted “in a country other than his own.” If President Trump were willing to amend current executive orders on the books, his administration would presumably target Kim Jong-un and not be penalized under the criminal code.
A question that is just as important is whether assassinating Kim or the generals in charge of North Korea’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program, military or intelligence services would be a good policy. We tend to believe that if we just took out the top, bad guy in the regime, all of the other bad guys in that regime will be scared straight, change their behavior and suddenly turn their governments into bastions of human rights and democracy. We’ve had experience with his belief before: several days prior to major military operations in Iraq, Washington lobbed cruise missiles at Saddam and the Iraqi political leadership in the belief that perhaps further war could be avoided. Whether that hypothesis would have played out is unknown because Saddam survived those attacks—it’s comfortable to assume that the Baa’thist leadership would surrender to coalition forces the next day, but it’s just as likely that the war would go on.
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.
Putting Kim six feet underground is only one choice in a set of options that the National Security Council will present to President Trump for his consideration. It may even be a policy option that is so far outside the mainstream that Trump’s national-security aides would disabuse him of studying it further. Reaction from Beijing would be swift and unyielding, and as much as the South Korean and Japanese governments would like North Korea to behave more predictably, it’s not at all certain that Seoul and Tokyo would believe that assassinating the men at the top would achieve that objective.
One hopes that all of this talk is more of political gamesmanship to goad the Chinese into cooperating with the United States, and nothing more.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
Image: A U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit bomber aircraft approaches the rear of a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft before refueling during a training mission over the Midwest in August 2013. Flickr / U.S. Department of Defense / Airman 1st Class John Linzmeier.