(USA TODAY) -- U.S. military options for confronting North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs are fraught with grave risks, unlike recent strikes in Syria and Afghanistan.
“Realistically, anything is on the table,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “It depends on what price you are willing to pay.”
The basic problem: It’s unlikely a U.S. strike could wipe out North Korea’s nuclear arsenal completely or prevent the country's unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, from launching a devastating artillery and missile attack on prosperous South Korea in retaliation. Seoul, the capital, is a mere 35 miles from the demilitarized zone separating the two countries, and its metropolitan area has a population of about 25 million.
“North Korea has demonstrated a willingness to do things like sink a South Korean warship without provocation,” Cheng said. “If you give them provocation we don’t know what their response is.” North Korea is suspected of firing a torpedo at the ship in 2010.
The limits on military options were illustrated by confusion about the whereabouts of a U.S. carrier strike group that the Trump administration said was dispatched to the region amid heightening tensions prior to last weekend's military parade in North Korea and subsequent failed ballistic missile test.
The Pentagon said last week it was dispatching the carrier strike group USS Carl Vinson to the Korean peninsula as North Korea prepared for weekend festivities to mark the 105th birthday of founding leader Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un.
In fact, at the time of the announcement, the flotilla was enroute to participate in planned exercises with the Australian navy and is only heading to the region now. It is scheduled to arrive in the Sea of Japan next week. The Pentagon blamed the confusion on communications miscues. It never specified when it would get to the region but didn't correct widespread media reports that the ships were steaming there immediately as a show of force.
For now, the Trump administration is limiting itself to such saber-rattling demonstrations and rhetoric that all military options remain on the table, even as the State Department says it is working with China on changing North Korea's behavior by squeezing its economy. “The United States of America will always seek peace but under President Trump, the shield stands guard and the sword stands ready,” Vice President Mike Pence told servicemen aboard the carrier USS Ronald Reagan in Japan on Wednesday.
Should a military confrontation erupt, North Korea could not win a sustained war against a far more powerful U.S. military aided by regional allies, but analysts say it could do a lot of damage before anyone could stop its forces.
North Korea has a massive amount of artillery dug into bunkers and pointed toward Seoul, and missiles that can reach Japan and other key U.S. allies in the region.
A pre-emptive U.S. strike might slow North Korea’s advancing nuclear program, but there is no effective way of knocking out its ability to retaliate.
“A military strike might alleviate our concerns” about North Korea developing nuclear missiles capable of reaching U.S. cities, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “But it would mean Seoul could get flattened.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have only sketchy knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which includes ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. They are scattered around in hardened bunkers. Specialized bombs capable of penetrating bunkers would be required to destroy them.
Some of the missiles are mounted on trucks and can be hidden. “All they would have to do is successfully hide the no-dong missiles,” Albright said. “They have hundreds of them.” The missiles have a range of about 800 to 900 miles.
The administration has shown a willingness to turn to military options. The cruise missile strike of a Syrian government airbase in retaliation for an alleged chemical attack, and a massive bomb dropped on the Islamic State in Afghanistan sent strong messages to Kim Jong Un, Pence said.
"Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," he said. "North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region."
The attacks in Afghanistan and Syria were far less risky. Neither the Islamic State nor Syrian President Bashar Assad have North Korea's military capability to respond.
Still, there are some military options short of a major strike that the Trump administration might consider. One is a partial naval blockade, Cheng said. It would put additional economic pressure on the country and further isolate it.
Another option is a cyberattack. The U.S. might be able to hack into North Korean networks to interfere with government or military operations or use cyber weapons to damage the country’s nuclear program.
For example, the computer worm Stuxnet was introduced into Iran to damage itss nuclear program. The operation was linked to the United States and Israel.
The advantage of a cyberattack for U.S. leaders is that America's role could be hidden and it could be less damaging and provocative as a military strike.The Trump administration would not comment when asked if a cyberattack caused the North Korean missile to blow up immediately after a test launch Sunday.
“You can measure out the pain you are going to impose with a great deal of precision,” said Michael Schmitt, a cyberwarfare expert at the Naval War College.