You remember The Interview — the 2014 Sony comedy film in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play two TV-tabloid American journalists who land an interview with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un? Before they leave for Pyongyang, a CIA agent shows up at their California apartment to ask if while they are alone with Kim, they could assassinate him.
The agent says: "The CIA would love it if you two could take him out."
At first, they don't get it. "For drinks?" they ask. "Like to dinner?…Take him out to a meal?…On the town?…Party?"
That scene has come to mind more than once as American officials have veered again and again toward the idea that measures short of regime change in Pyongyang can somehow contain or even end the increasingly dangerous threats emanating from North Korea. The policy default seems to be, as Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified to the House Armed Services Committee on April 26, "In confronting the North Korean threat, it is critical that the U.S. be guided by a strong sense of resolve, both publicly and privately in order to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not his knees."
In other words, take Kim out…to the bargaining table? Again?
Unfortunately, that won't stop the malignant threat of North Korea. Kim, for his own purposes, appears to be in pretty good command of his senses — the catch being that he has priorities in which the imperatives include reigning as a god, terrorizing and brutalizing his countrymen, threatening America and some of its closest allies, and acquiring nuclear-tipped ICBMs. If, after more than five years of consolidating power via this approach, bequeathed to him by his totalitarian forebears, he tries at this stage to come to a more civilized set of senses — and there is no sign he's interested in doing so — he would likely be taken out, as soon as he relaxed his grip, by his own terrorized, starved, and brutalized countrymen. (Recall the 1989 fate of Romania's Ceausescus.)
Anyway, the "take him out" scene from The Interview came right to mind yesterday, when Business Insider published a piece headlined: "The US had a clear shot at killing Kim Jong Un on July 4 — here's why it didn't strike."
According to this article, for more than an hour, while North Korea prepared to test-launch its first ICBM, the U.S. had Kim in its crosshairs:
When North Korea shot off its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile in the early morning hours of July 4, US military and intelligence personnel watched leader Kim Jong Un smoke cigarettes and stroll around the launchpad for a full 70 minutes, a source told The Diplomat's Ankit Panda.
The article notes that smoking cigarettes next to a liquid-fueled ICBM might not be a good idea, and links to an earlier Business Insider piece that includes a short video clip of a pudgy Kim-like figure strolling around near the rocket. (More accounts of that here.)
But the main message of the piece is not simply that the U.S. watched and did nothing, but that the U.S. apparently wants North Korea to know just how closely it was watching, and that it does have the firepower and precision to take out both the rocket, and anyone who might be near it, including Kim. The article concludes, on a coy note:
Perhaps rather than kill Kim and trigger a North Korean response, which could be massive, the US elected to signal to him that the best path to regime security would be to stay indoors and not play around near dangerous rocket engines, which have a habit of blowing up.
Here we enter the hall of mirrors that accompanies almost anything to do with North Korea's regime. I'm not sure what to make of some of the details in this Business Insider account. The basic point seems on target. I'm quite prepared to believe that the U.S. was scrutinizing every move connected with the road-mobile ICBM launched on July 4th (I sure hope so), and quite evidently the U.S. did nothing to stop the launch. But beyond that, the details are hazy. The source cited for the leak that the U.S. watched for more than an hour is identified (or not) only as "a source" (unnamed) of The Diplomat's Ankit Panda, who in turn spotted the video clip cited in this article. The video clip of the pudgy erstwhile Kim bears the logo in this instance of RT, which is a Russian international TV network, which presumably got its footage from North Korean state media (North Korea has no other kind).
There's nothing in the origin of the clip or chain of transmission to inspire confidence that what we're seeing in the clip was the real Kim, cigarette in hand, strolling around in the open, next to the real road-mobile missile, effectively offering himself as a target, just before it was launched. If it was, that suggests an absolute swaggering confidence — grounded in both experience and U.S. official statements — that the U.S. would not dream of taking him out. Or was it a body double? I'd hope there are U.S. military and intelligence experts who would know, but from what's on public offer, I can't tell.
The rest of the sourcing has its blurry moments as well. The line quoted above from Admiral Harris — about bringing Kim to his senses, not his knees — is attributed in this piece not to Harris, but to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Maybe Tillerson has been replicating Harris's line, word for word, but if so, I have yet to find it.
All that said, whatever the real, muddled or fabricated elements that went into this story, there is something compelling about the idea that with one strike, while Kim Jong Un was strutting around in the open, cigarette in hand, by his new road-mobile ICBM, the U.S. could have simply taken him out.
That would have been quite a blow to a totalitarian regime centered around its "supreme leader," and quite a message to such North Korean partners-in-proliferation as Iran, which, under its own "supreme leader," has been also been developing and testing ballistic missiles.
The risk is that such a strike could trigger a massive North Korean attack on South Korea, potentially killing an enormous number of people in Seoul, and turning the 1953 armistice into another hot war. That's one of the big reasons that U.S. officials, instead of aiming to bring Kim to his knees (or knock him right off his feet), keep hoping — in the face of all experience and evidence — to threaten, woo, and sanction Kim into stopping his nuclear missile program.
Is there no other way?
That brings me back the "The Interview," which for all its slapstick did us the favor of highlighting one of the real vulnerabilities of the North Korean regime — the absolute requirement, under North Korea's rigid totalitarian system, that no one disrespect Kim, or question his activities. You might recall that North Korea responded to "The Interview" by hacking and humiliating Sony Pictures Entertainment, while American would-be moviegoers were subjected to widely publicized anonymous email threats to stay away from the picture:
The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September, 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at the time. (If your house is nearby, you'd better leave.)
President Obama — who was chiefly occupied at the time with embracing Cuban tyrant Raul Castro — responded by scolding Sony for delaying the release of the movie. True to his passive North Korea policy of "strategic patience," Obama shrugged off the entire saga as nothing much to worry about, confirming at an end-of-year press conference — just before heading to Hawaii for a Christmas holiday — that the U.S. government blamed North Korea for what he downplayed as "these kinds of criminal attacks."
With the Trump administration declaring that the era of "strategic patience" is finally over, the big question ought to be not how to bring Kim to his senses, but how to take him down without triggering a war. Is there, perhaps, a lot more that America could do to exploit the North Korean regime's well-founded terror of seeing Kim Jong Un mocked? Is there more than could be done to invite distrust between Kim and his most faithful lieutenants? To stir the quicksand beneath the totalitarian lies and swagger that help sustain Kim's regime?
Tipping reporters that the U.S. was watching every move while Kim strolled around with a cigarette near his ICBM might be a good start. But why stop there? I'm not keen to see the media manipulated, so my caveat is that I hope reporters will make every effort to know their sources, and document and double-check what they report. But in the current climate of endless anonymous leaks, migrating quotes and viral virtual realities, is there not more on this front that America could be doing to undermine Kim Jong Un?
Would it, for instance, have incurred a certain amount of inconvenience in the back corridors of Pyongyang had the unnamed source cited via a reporter for The Diplomat in the Business Insider piece appended a comment that the U.S., for all its technological wizardry, couldn't be quite sure whether Kim on July 4th had been standing so close to the missile that during its launch he accidentally incinerated himself. Unless, of course, that pudgy figure was never Kim to begin with.
Not a statement of fact, mind you, and certainly not an official statement. Nonsense, I'm sure. But there's something intrinsically ridiculous about a totalitarian thug, or his minions, protesting that he is neither dead, nor somebody else. Surely, in the quest to cope with North Korea, creative minds could come up with a great deal more along such lines? Maybe there's an approach here worth thinking about?