A look at the US military's options to confront North Korea

With tensions rising between the two nations, officials are examining options.

ByABC News
July 6, 2017, 7:05 PM

— -- President Trump on Thursday may have said, "I have pretty severe things that we're thinking about" with regards to North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but military options are probably at the bottom of the list because of the reality that any military action could trigger an all-out war with North Korea.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized to reporters Thursday that the administration is focused on diplomatic and economic sanctions efforts to deal with North Korea's ICBM launch.

Mattis also discounted the possibility that North Korea's new missile capability Brings us closer to war".

And while diplomatic efforts to rein North Korea's missile program have so far proved unsuccessful, Mattis stressed that "diplomacy has not failed. As Churchill put it, it's better to jaw-jaw than war- war.”

Below, ABC News takes a look at the limited military options the Trump administration might consider for North Korea in the future.

Pre-emptive Strike

North Korea's stated goal is to develop an ICBM capable of delivering a nuclear warhead towards the United States. North Korea's July 4 ICBM launch demonstrated it is making progress towards that goal since they can now reach Alaska. But it does not appear that North Korea has a miniaturized nuclear weapon small enough to place atop that ICBM or for that matter, aim it accurately at a target.

But what if in the future North Korea develops that capability?

The most likely option at that point would be a pre-emptive strike targeting North Korean missiles and nuclear facilities.

But a pre-emptive strike could immediately trigger a massive North Korean military response towards South Korea and possibly result in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. North Korea could also target American military bases in South Korea and Japan with its missile systems.

The vast majority of North Korea's million-man army is stationed just north of the demilitarized zone that separates it from South Korea.

North Korean artillery is also capable of reaching Seoul 30 miles south of the DMZ, which means civilians could be the victims of indiscriminate artillery fire.

In order to deter a potential North Korean military response, any initial preemptive military action would likely have to be massive in scope.

What would be targeted?

North Korea's nuclear facility at Yongbyon is well known, but striking it could cause an environmental disaster. It is also possible that North Korea may have secret nuclear facilities where it is working on miniaturizing a nuclear warhead small enough to be placed atop an ICBM.

The Sanum-dong missile production facility in Pyongyang could also be an easy target, though it is appears that North Korea has built additional missile factories that could also be targeted.

North Korea has two long-range missile facilities, the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on the country's northwest coast and the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground in the northeast.

But targeting missile launch sites has become harder as North Korea has consistently shown that it can launch its long range missiles on short notice from mobile launchers.

Over the past five months North Korea has used mobile launchers to fire a solid-fueled rocket, a single-stage intermediate range missile and a two-stage ICBM proving it no longer needs permanent launch facilities to test its new rockets.

These missiles were all launched on short notice from locations that had never been used before for missile launches. For example, Tuesday's ICBM launch took place on the grounds of an aircraft factory outside of Kusong.

That could mean detecting a nuclear-armed ICBM in the future could present a challenge to U.S. intelligence.

A U.S. official said that in advance of Tuesday's ICBM launch, U.S. satellites had picked up potential launch activity at the Kusong site, but determined it was likely a KN-17 intermediate range missile previously tested by North Korea.

It turned out to be a KN-17-like missile with a second stage attached, the 30 second burn executed by the second stage is what enabled the missile to go beyond the minimum 3,400 mile distance needed to qualify as an ICBM.

Other Military Options

Other U.S. military options are even more limited because they too could trigger a massive military response from North Korea.

For example, the U.S. could shoot down a North Korean missile while in flight, says David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.

The extreme option of a naval blockade to enforce potential economic sanctions would likely have little effect says Albright since most of its goods come through land routes via China and Russia.

Either of those options also carries the possibility that North Korea would respond with a massive conventional attack against South Korea.

Albright speculated the U.S. could launch a cyberattack against North Korea's missile systems, but does not think it make much of an impact given how basic their launch technology seems. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that North Korea's series of disastrous launch failures last year may have been the result of a secret U.S. sabotage effort targeting North Korea's missile launch systems.

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