Think Before You Act: Towards a Possible US Strike on North Korea

The United States is capable of identifying the preparations for North Korean missile tests and can intercept the missiles before they are launched or immediately after launch. So, why did they avoid taking action? Is it possible that Pyongyang had managed to deter Washington? Special column by Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel

Think Before You Act: Towards a Possible US Strike on North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Kore (Photo: AP)

Sometimes, in order to understand a certain phenomenon or event we are required to draw a comparison, even though comparisons might, at first glance, distort reality.

Following Operation Protective Edge, I wrote a column published in Israel Defense magazine, dealing with the question of whether the State of Israel should enable Hamas to empower itself. Apparently, this is a rhetorical question, but at least with regard to one element it is relevant for two more fronts, minimum: the Israel-Hezbollah front (and eventually the front opposite Iran in Syria) and the front between the USA and North Korea.

In the Israel-Hamas case, the question arose against the background of a series of tests Hamas conducted with a new generation of medium-range rockets. These tests were conducted with the rockets fired into the sea or along the length of the Gaza Strip, in a manner that did not threaten the State of Israel. However, the very fact that these tests were conducted enabled Hamas empowerment and so, instead of dealing with the empowerment process, we are now compelled to deal with the outcome of that empowerment – many hundreds of rockets capable of reaching targets in central Israel.

The US vs. North Korea case is perfectly identical, namely – the USA had identified the preparations for the tests and could intercept the missiles before they were launched or immediately after launch.

So, why did the Americans avoid taking such measures? Is it possible that North Korea had managed to deter the USA? Are we deterred by Hamas? Naturally, the same questions apply to Hezbollah as well.

Well, my conclusion is complex. Apart from the issue of deterrence, I believe that a process is underway here, where international legitimacy for an attack is being built up gradually. Even the United States of America under President Donald Trump must build up international legitimacy. It is a process where, along with the activity at the UN Security Council which includes condemnations and continued sanctions, aggressive rhetoric is being developed, and each additional event takes us closer to the threshold of a US response, which cannot take place without this process – in the context of which international legitimacy is being developed as well (and that includes China and Russia, that traditionally maintain a position opposed to that of the USA).

Along with this process, a process aimed at preparing the population must be initiated as well. The emphasis, in this case, should be on southeast Asia, and, naturally – on the most extensive cooperation possible with the partners within the domain being threatened.

If that is, indeed, a realistic description of the current situation, then we are already undergoing a deterministic process and a US strike is only a matter of time. Is that really so? At this point we come to the issue of deterrence, which embodies the following questions: are we prepared to pay the price of the expected response by North Korea? Are we prepared to provide a solution to the civilian aspect? Are we prepared for the question of 'The Day After'?

These questions are relevant to the Gaza Strip sector (Hamas) as well as to the Lebanon sector (Hezbollah), and in the not-too-distant future, they will also be relevant to the consolidation of the Iranian forces in the depth of the Syrian territory.

Other aspects that should be raised for discussion have to do with the quality of the intelligence currently available and as a derivative from it – the question of the 'preemptive strike', which applies to a situation where you know that there is a near-certain probability that the enemy is going to attack you and you, as the defending side, choose to deliver a preemptive strike (as in the case of the attack staged by IAF against the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan on June 5, 1967), or to a preventive strike (interdiction) intended to deny the enemy of a capability that might place you in extreme danger.

Apparently, the USA has initiated a process of gaining international legitimacy for the purpose of attacking the missile capabilities of North Korea, either by way of a preemptive strike or by way of a preventing strike (interdiction), or alternately – by waiting for a North Korean mistake that would provide the cause for the US attack.

There is nothing much for us to do except hoping that all of the preliminary questions, as outlined above, are indeed being deliberated by the appropriate forums and that the required insights are being drawn. The Americans have a tradition of more than one hundred years in conducting these processes.

I sincerely hope that the new Head of the National Security Council observes these processes and implements them so that we, too, may develop a solid concept regarding the missile threats of Hamas and Hezbollah and – within the foreseeable future – those of the Iranians in Syria.


Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel is the former head of Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau. He served in the IDF for nearly 30 years, during which he served as the IDF Ground Forces attaché in Washington, among other roles

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