The ‘decapitation’ fantasy
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
After the United States eliminated top Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, some started talking about a “decapitation” operation to remove North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Local media have run articles with sensational headlines like, “What if the U.S. executes decapitation operations against the North’s leadership?” and “Trump capable of ordering Kim’s decapitation.” To those who loathe Kim, the idea is exciting.
A decapitation operation is a strategy to quickly remove top leaders who are in control and command of a country. There are innumerable methods. You can use a bomb or you can use poison. You just need to remove one man and the game is over. This is an extremely economical strategy. The United States must have considered it seriously.
When the North repeated long-range missile tests in 2017, the Donald Trump administration reportedly reviewed military actions including a decapitation operation under the rhetoric of “Fire and Fury.” The media reported about the possibility. In April 2017, Loren Thompson, a military expert, published an article in Forbes saying that a decapitation strike against Kim was legitimate and should be encouraged. He argued that China and Russia would not mind.
But there was no evidence that the United States actually pushed forward such an operation targeting Kim. Instead, Washington sent a threatening signal that it could engage in the operation at any time. According to a Japanese media outlet, the Bush administration in 2005 used several F-117 stealth fighters to infiltrate the sky over Pyongyang at night. They were ordered to rapidly descend with loud noises above North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s residence to scare him. Challenging the veracity of the reports, some said F-117s cannot make rapid descents. But Lieut. Michael Driscoll, who was a pilot of an F-117 in 2008, later told the Air Force Times in an interview that his most memorable moment was freely flying over North Korean territorial air space, which suggested the media reports had been correct.
It is hard to accurately know where the top leader is in Iraq, where the public is generally free to move around. It is almost impossible to pinpoint Kim’s location in North Korea, an extremely secretive and controlled country. Furthermore, Kim, feeling the threats, has been reportedly using his aides’ cars. He will be even more careful after the latest operation in Iran.
Second, there is no guarantee that Kim’s elimination will disable the North Korean military. The North Korean military leadership is filled with hardliners. After Kim’s death, they would likely attack South Korea, where 150,000 Americans are living, and they could even be willing to risk a full-scale war against the United States.
Former Soviet leaders created a system in which the military would automatically engage in retaliation if they were assassinated by the West. North Korea may have done the same. Besides, North Korea is armed with nuclear weapons, a big difference with Iran. It is horrifying to think about a North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea.
Even if more reasonable people took power after Kim’s elimination — and even if there was no armed conflict on the peninsula — nothing is guaranteed. The North Korean people have been brainwashed by the Kim family’s juche (self-reliance) ideology for the past seven decades. Whether the two Koreas are united or not, they will not likely accept the South’s system without resistance if their leader is assassinated. It is better to accomplish unification gradually in peace, although it may take more time.
Therefore, we must worry about the possibility that Trump might attempt a decapitation strike against Kim without consulting us. We must remember that Trump, when he ordered the latest mission in Iran, ignored the Congress and gave the green light — putting the entire world in danger.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 7, Page 30