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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Next Korean War

The White House had a shape-of-the-table announcement last week: North Korea would participate in six-sided talks with the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan. This was welcome but it changes nothing fundamental. Kim Jong Il has clearly demonstrated his capacity for falsehood in multilateral as well as bilateral forums. The bigger, and much worse, news is the overall course of events this summer.

In early July, krypton 85 was detected in locations that suggested that this gas, produced when spent nuclear fuel is reprocessed into plutonium for nuclear weapons, may have emanated from a site other than North Korea's known reprocessing facility at Yongbyon.

There would be nothing surprising about a hidden reprocessing plant -- North Korea has thousands of underground facilities. But if the reprocessing of the 8,000 spent fuel rods that the North Koreans took out of storage at Yongbyon last January -- when it ousted international inspectors and walked away from the Nonproliferation Treaty -- has been completed clandestinely, then Kim Jong Il may already have enough material for several more weapons to go with the one or two he is thought to have from previous reprocessing.

But even if the krypton was emanating from Yongbyon, this still means that several additional bombs' worth of plutonium could be available a few months from now. Add this to Pyongyang's breach of the 1994 Agreed Framework by its secret uranium-enrichment program, and its boast in April that it would sell weapons-grade plutonium to whomever it pleased (rogue states? terrorist groups?), and it is apparent that the world has weeks to months, at most, to deal with this issue, not months to years.

Interdiction of shipments out of North Korea will not stop the export of such fissionable material. Even if current efforts for nations to intercept North Korean shipping are successful, this would be completely inadequate to the purpose. The North Koreans' principal exports today are ballistic missiles and illegal drugs, both clandestine. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry recently noted, the amount of plutonium needed for a bomb is about the size of a soccer ball. There is no reason the North Koreans would refrain from using air shipments, including those protected by diplomatic immunity, to smuggle and sell such material.

In the midst of the just-announced six-way talks, one fact stands out: The only chance for a peaceful resolution of this crisis before North Korea moves clearly into the ranks of nuclear powers is for China to move decisively. Indeed we see no alternative but for China to use its substantial economic leverage, derived from North Korea's dependence on it for fuel and food, to press, hard and immediately, for a change in regime. Kim Jong Il's regime has shown that agreements signed with it, by anyone, mean nothing.

What could induce China to follow such an uncharacteristically decisive course? North Korea's escalating nuclear aspirations run the risk of creating not one but four new nuclear powers in Asia. South Korea, Japan and probably Taiwan will find it very difficult to refrain from moving toward nuclear capability as North Korea becomes more threatening. Also, China must be clearly told that North Korea's long-range ballistic missile program and the prospect of its sale of fissionable material to terrorists make this a direct matter of U.S. security. U.S. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun declared in May that they will "not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea."

Unfortunately, the reflexive rejection in the public debate of the use of force against North Korea has begun to undermine U.S. ability both to influence China to act and to take the preparatory steps necessary for effectiveness if force should be needed. The United States and South Korea must instead come together and begin to assess realistically what it would take to conduct a successful military operation to change the North Korean regime.

It is not reasonable to limit the use of force to a surgical strike destroying Yongbyon. Although the facility would need to be destroyed, the possible existence of another plutonium reprocessing plant or of uranium-enrichment facilities, or of plutonium hidden elsewhere, makes it infeasible to limit the use of force to such a single objective. Moreover, military action against North Korea must protect South Korea from certain attack (particularly from artillery just north of the DMZ that can reach Seoul). In short, we must be prepared to win a war, not execute a strike.

U.S. and South Korean forces have spent nearly half a century preparing to fight and win such a war. We should not be intimidated by North Korea's much-discussed artillery. Around half of North Korea's 11,000-plus artillery pieces, some of them in caves, are in position to fire on Seoul. But all are vulnerable to stealth and precision weapons -- e.g., caves can be sealed by accurate munitions.

Massive air power is the key to being able both to destroy Yongbyon and to protect South Korea from attack by missile or artillery. There is a significant number of hardened air bases available in South Korea and the South Koreans have an excellent air force of approximately 550 modern tactical aircraft. The United States should begin planning immediately to deploy the Patriot tactical ballistic missile defense system plus Aegis ships to South Korea and Japan, and also to reinforce our tactical air forces by moving in several air wings and aircraft carrier battle groups, together with the all-important surveillance aircraft and drones.

The goal of the planning should be to be prepared on short notice both to destroy the nuclear capabilities at Yongbyon and other key North Korean facilities and to protect South Korea against attack by destroying North Korean artillery and missile sites. Our stealth aircraft, equipped with precision bombs, and cruise missiles will be crucial -- these weapons can be tailored to incinerate the WMD and minimize radiation leakage.

The key point is that the base infrastructure available in the region and the accessibility of North Korea from the sea should make it possible to generate around 4,000 sorties a day compared to the 800 a day that were so effective in Iraq. When one contemplates that the vast majority of these sorties would use precision munitions, and that surveillance aircraft would permit immediate targeting of artillery pieces and ballistic missile launch sites, we believe the use of air power would be swifter and more devastating than it was in Iraq. North Korea's geriatric air defenses, both fighter aircraft and missiles, would not last long. As the Iraqis understood when facing U.S. air power, if you fly, you die.

Marine forces deployed off both coasts of North Korea could put both Pyongyang and Wonson at risk of rapid seizure, particularly given the fact that most of North Korea's armed forces are situated along the DMZ. With more than 20 of the Army's 33 combat brigades now committed it would be necessary to call up additional Reserve and National Guard units. However, the U.S. forces that would have the greatest immediate effect are Expeditionary Air Forces and Carrier Battle Groups, most of which have now been removed from Iraq.

The South Korean Army is well equipped to handle a counteroffensive into North Korea with help from perhaps two additional U.S. Army divisions, together with the above-mentioned Marine Expeditionary Force and dominant air power. We judge that the United States and South Korea could defeat North Korea decisively in 30 to 60 days with such a strategy. Importantly, there is "no doubt on the outcome" as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Meyers, said to the Senate at his reconfirmation hearing on July 26.

We are not eager to see force used on the Korean peninsula. It is better to resolve this crisis without war. However, unless China succeeds in ending North Korea's nuclear weapons development -- and we believe this will require a change in regime -- Americans will be left with the threat to their existence described by Perry when he recently said that the North Korean nuclear program "poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities." We can hate it that we are forced now to confront this choice. But we should not take refuge in denial.

R. James Woolsey was CIA director from 1993-95; Thomas G. McInerney is a retired three-star Air Force lieutenant general and former assistant vice chief of staff. This comment appeared in Monday's edition of The Wall Street Journal.