The very fact that the DPRK has nuclear weapons with formidable conventional strike capabilities is unacceptable. Because of this, in dealing with Kim Jong-un, the risks are not unacceptable and they will have to be factored into any strategic and contingency plans.
However, accepting such risks with alacrity does not necessarily mean that a direct head-on kinetic confrontation with North Korea in a catastrophic conventional and nuclear shoot-out should be the only option.
President Donald Trump has said that Kim Jong-un is “on a suicide mission.” To deal with Kim as a suicide bomber with nuclear warheads strapped to his chest and multiple deadly conventional weapons in his hands, it would be similarly suicidal to confront him head-on in a near-distance shoot-out as the first and only option. Unless all other possible means are exhausted, you might be able to kill him in a direct and head-on confrontation, but you may also destroy, or at least severely harm, yourself along the way as nuclear annihilation is mutually assured.
Assuming assassination of Kim is an impossible option, what are other possible options?
First, we should pay more attention to the DPRK’s conventional capabilities, which are far more formidable and worrisome than its nuclear arsenal as it is being developed. Currently, roughly a quarter of North Korea’s entire population are armed and regimented, with 1.1 million on active duty (4th largest in the world) and nearly 6 million in reserve force (1st in the world). The Korean People’s Army (KPA) operates 4,100 tanks, 2,100 APCs (armored personnel carriers), 8,500 long-range artillery pieces and more than 5,000 rocket launchers, 60-plus submarines, more than 11,000 AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) guns, an equal number of shoulder-launched missiles, over 500 naval warships, and more than 800 combat aircraft, all of which will wreak havoc to Seoul and other South Korean metropolises.
Some of these conventional weapons may be outdated but the KPA has also developed impressive cyber warfare, anti-personnel laser, electromagnetic pulse bomb, and GPS jammer capabilities.
Second, operating such an enormous war machine on such a massive scale needs fuel, which is in short supply in the DPRK. Therefore, at the top of America's economic warfare policy agenda against North Korea should be an overwhelming focus on instituting an oil embargo and destroying the DPRK’s strategic oil reserve.
Third, make regime-change a top priority and the ultimate objective, in close association with a South Korea-led national unification. It was a big mistake for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to have promised the Chinese that regime change in Pyongyang would never be America’s objective in dealing with Kim Jong-un. Because it’s none of Beijing’s or Washington’s business, as to whether or not to change the Pyongyang regime. South Korea is the only legitimate government that could initiate and lead a regime change in Pyongyang, aided by its allies, through a variety of means—not just a military invasion of the DPRK—such as economic integration, psychological warfare, and cultural and religious infiltration.
Fourth, use economic and trade embargoes against the DPRK as strategic leverage to achieve the Trump administration’s announced economic program, i.e., to punish China for its predatory economic and trade warfare against the United States. The North Korean problem shares a symbiosis with China’s strategic view toward the United States. China has always used the North Korean nuclear issue to play the nuclear North Korea card in order to gain leverage against Washington on a variety of larger issues. President Trump is the first American leader to have turned the tables on Beijing and threaten China with a complete cutoff of trade with the communist autocrats in Beijing if it continues to aid furtively the Pyongyang regime, in violation of China’s own vows at the UN. Such a hardball approach seems to be working as Beijing only reacts to credible threats. POTUS should carry this approach out and fulfill his campaign promise to the American people and get a better deal with China on trade and economic relationship.