JULY 6, 2017 — North Korea’s protracted policy of nuclear belligerence toward the United States has reached a long-feared tipping point. Despite a diligent campaign of sabotage and defensive saber-rattling by the Obama and now Trump administrations, Pyongyang has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, raising the specter of another launch, this time armed with a nuclear warhead.
Even if the cities of America’s Pacific coast are somehow kept safe from obliteration, a nuclear North is intolerable. Action must be taken now.
The trouble is that so few options for action exist, and those there are have sharply limited appeal. Economic leverage through China appears to have been exhausted, whether as a result of Chinese anxiety over the Kim regime’s collapse or sheer geopolitical opportunism. A naval blockade or quarantine alone cannot stop the regime’s nuclear advances. And a conventional or limited nuclear war against the North would most likely result in the regime unleashing the full force of its formidable army, dealing death to South Korea’s military and civilian population, not to mention America’s troops stationed along the Korean peninsula’s demilitarized zone.
U.S. policymakers must find a way to avoid responding through a combination of desperate measures.
That’s why attention should turn, if it has not turned already, to America’s limited but potentially decisive asymmetric cyber operations capabilities. Efforts in this area have already proven their worth in slowing down the North’s march to nuclear intimidation or worse. Now they should be pressed into service to deprive the regime of the one thing it needs to wage war and maintain its iron grip: electrical power.
Although not a silver bullet, crashing North Korea’s grid — repeatedly, if necessary — has the strong potential to force a coup, cripple the army, forestall further nuclear progress or drive the regime to sue for peace. This is a better option than the others the president has to choose from. It is also attractive in concert with more conventional action.
The American people expect the White House to meet the Korean crisis forcefully yet prudently — and successfully. After so much trouble with cyber conflict, the United States should turn the tables for a win.