John Kasich raises 'taking out' top North Korean leaders

The 2016 presidential candidate's views, shared Friday at a Monitor breakfast, come amid an escalation of rhetoric vis-a-vis North Korea, both from the Trump administration and Republican congressmen.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor
Ohio Governor John Kasich speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on April 28, 2017 in Washington.

“The North Korean top leadership has to go.”

With that bold assertion, Gov. John Kasich (R) of Ohio raised a controversial argument for American action aimed at neutralizing the North Korean nuclear threat.

“An ability to remove a number of the top people, and have a more benign leadership there that understands what’s at risk, I think is perhaps doable,” Governor Kasich told reporters Friday at a breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.

Kasich – the final competitor against Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 – has not fully closed the door to running again in 2020, one more reason that his views on policy command an audience. He is currently on tour to promote his new book, “Two Paths: America Divided or United.”

Amid an escalation of rhetoric vis-a-vis North Korea, Kasich suspects that his approach is under consideration by the Trump administration, though he acknowledges that he does not have access to the intelligence. To be successful, he said, the US would need “very good intelligence” and would have to move “very, very quickly.”

“I bet they’re thinking about it,” says Kasich, a former member of Congress who served 18 years on the House Armed Services Committee. “If I were there, I’d be asking them about it. Are you staging raids? Do you know how to land? Do you know how to get there? Are your helicopters going to work?”

The Trump administration has not publicly discussed such an approach. But speaking Friday at the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “all options” for dealing with North Korea must remain on the table if diplomacy fails. In an interview with NPR that aired Friday, Secretary Tillerson said the US is open to direct talks with the North Korean leadership.

On Wednesday, in an unusual move, the Trump administration summoned all 100 US senators to the White House complex for a briefing on North Korea, then provided the same briefing for House members on Capitol Hill.

But while Trump, Kasich, and others in Washington have been talking tough on North Korea, many observers have said that the likely outcome of current tensions is a gradual intensification, rather than imminent war.

Kasich on war: 'I don't think that's going to work'

Kasich’s suggestion raises legal questions, as well as the specter of history. The US has a long and storied past of assassination, and attempted assassination, of foreign leaders. In 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905, which banned political assassination as part of a broader reform of the US intelligence community.

Kasich praised Mr. Trump’s military strike against the Assad regime in Syria earlier this month, calling it an important message to world leaders. But there comes a point when “saber-rattling is not effective,” Kasich said.

The Ohio governor also praised the US deployment of an anti-missile system in South Korea as leverage to spur the Chinese to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. But he warned against a US military strike against North Korea.

“Moving warships in and having a war, I don’t think that’s going to work,” Kasich said. “The problem of bombing is, you’re going to lose a million people.”

The alternative “has to do with taking out the North Korean leadership,” he said.

Senator: 'I'm willing to obliterate N. Korea's missile program'

Speaking to reporters Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina praised Trump’s foreign policy, and called North Korea a central question, but did not openly discuss “regime change” as an option.

“Are you going to allow North Korea to develop an ICBM that can reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon on top?” Senator Graham said. If the answer is “no,” he added, then the two basic options are diplomacy and military force.

“You better believe I’m willing to obliterate North Korea’s missile program before I were to allow one to be built that could hit America,” Graham said.

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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