A question that is just as important is whether assassinating Kim or the generals in charge of North Korea’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program, military or intelligence services would be a good policy. We tend to believe that if we just took out the top, bad guy in the regime, all of the other bad guys in that regime will be scared straight, change their behavior and suddenly turn their governments into bastions of human rights and democracy. We’ve had experience with his belief before: several days prior to major military operations in Iraq, Washington lobbed cruise missiles at Saddam and the Iraqi political leadership in the belief that perhaps further war could be avoided. Whether that hypothesis would have played out is unknown because Saddam survived those attacks—it’s comfortable to assume that the Baa’thist leadership would surrender to coalition forces the next day, but it’s just as likely that the war would go on.
North Korea is an entirely different situation than Iraq was in 2003. Kim Jong-un is solidly in power, having killed or marginalized anyone (including his uncle and half-brother) perceived to be even a minimal threat to his control. Unlike Iraq, whose military was demoralized and degraded by the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and by a sanctions regime over the next decade, North Korea is a nuclear-weapons state with ballistic missiles that have the capability to level Seoul quickly and target U.S. bases in the region. Killing Kim and banking on the idea that the regime would change how it does business after seven decades would be a high price to pay if that untested theory proved to be wrong. Because North Korea is such a black-hole in terms of human intelligence, the U.S. intelligence community wouldn’t be able to confidently assess that the man or woman (Kim’s sister, for instance) who replaces Kim wouldn’t be just as vicious or unpredictable. Assassinating a head-of-state is the definition of an act of war, and nobody can accurately guess whether cooler heads in Pyongyang would prevail over those who would be itching to demonstrate strength through retaliation.
One hopes that all of this talk is more of political gamesmanship to goad the Chinese into cooperating with the United States, and nothing more.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.