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To break the cycle of North Korea threats, US must put Kim on his heels (+video)

To break the cycle of threats from North Korea, the United States must take a much more assertive stance. Leader Kim Jong-un must be put on the defensive by sending him a clear warning of preemptive action if America and its allies find themselves threatened.

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And it gets worse. North Korea has taken advantage of America’s altruism in negotiations to extract aid and de facto political recognition, while systematically ignoring or violating the terms of agreements.

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To put an end to this, and to bring real stability to the peninsula, the US should find ways to tell Kim privately in clear and unmistakable terms that now things are different, given the North's claim that it will no longer abide by the armistice that halted the Korean War 60 years ago, and that it is at war with South Korea.

The message should also indicate that the US will defend itself and its allies even to the point of taking preemptive action against military moves it finds threatening – for instance, to disrupt North Korean preparations for short- or long-range missile launches or submarine operations that look to be targeted against US or South Korean forces, or even the US homeland. Washington should demonstrate its commitment to follow through, for example, by conducting close-in air and naval patrols, including overflights of the North. America has never undertaken the types of aggressive reconnaissance against the North that it routinely did against the Soviet Union.

If the US shows resolve, it will get the North’s attention and put it on the defensive. That’s what happened in August 1976. President Ford took the unusual step of placing US military forces on high alert in the region in response to the North’s murder of two US Army officers in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. Pyongyang quickly backed down.

Such a US diplomatic shift would probably shock North Korea’s main ally and benefactor, China, into action and get it to move against the North in ways that American diplomatic imploring has failed to do so far. In addition, South Korea and Japan would gain renewed confidence in the US security commitment, and other countries in Asia would view Washington as a credible partner at a time they fear Chinese military assertiveness in the region.

A tougher approach is not risk free. Kim Jong-un might believe Washington is bluffing, overplay his hand in response, and start a shooting war inadvertently or otherwise.

The US must accept these short-term risks and be prepared to respond forcefully if it ever hopes to end the cycle of provocative behavior and promote long-term stability on the Korean Peninsula.

There is nothing North Korean leaders fear more than a US that turns its full gaze on them with the intent of possibly doing harm. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, after identifying it along with Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” Kim Jong-il disappeared in hiding for nearly two months.

Washington must now remember this lesson.

The author is a former CIA intelligence officer who specialized in the Korean Peninsula and China for more than a decade.

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