Can’t someone just off Kim Jong Un already?

A little over three years into the unpredictable and often violent reign of Kim Jong Un, the question often asked is “Why can we not just pop this clown with a drone or something and end all this nonsense?” It’s not an unfair question — the US has long had a shifting and opaque policy towards adversary leadership targets. The executive order signed during the Reagan years prohibiting the assasination of foreign leaders has been tested greatly in the post 9–11 world, with even loose ties to terror groups being seen as reason enough to be issued a robotic death warrant. With the latest US murmers about restoring North Korea to the ultimate bad-guy list of “State Sponsor of Terror”, it is not inconceivable that some fancy legal footwork on the part of the Trump administration could allow for the targeted killing of Kim Jong Un himself.

The ramifications of abruptly removing the strongman-spider from the center of his web in a relatively closed society would be chaotic, ethically troubling and incredibly risky for US allies in the region. But if such a dangerous mission were to be undertaken by the Trump administration, what would be the method used? Here are three possibilities:

The RQ 170

1: Pop the clown with a drone or something

It sounds easy, because it is easy. Obama showed us how. Okay, sure, the airspace over North Korea might be SLIGHTLY more contested than that of the Afghan-Pakistan border, but that’s why we’re using COMPUTERS and not REAL PEOPLE! We’ve seen one stealth drone operational, many technology demonstrators and there is near certainty in the aviation community that at least a few operational penetrating, low observable unmanned aircraft that can carry munitions internally exist in some dusty desert hangers. This would almost certainly be the sword, rather than the straight — winged Reapers of the past.

But how to FIND the target to begin with? Kim is notoriously paranoid, and with good reason — there are an incredible number of intelligence assets facing North Korea at any given time, from electronic signals gathering to space based imaging systems. Like the Soviets before them, it is thought that the North Korean military has become adept at concealing their activities from predictable reconnaissance satellite passes, and such systems are not typically useful against human sized targets at any rate. A loitering asset would be needed, likely in conjunction with human intelligence. Of course it is certainly possible that ISR and strike could be integrated as one platform, like the Predators and Reapers of today — but regardless of the platform the challenge would be daunting.

2. SEAL Team Six him while he’s at Un-A-Lago

Like his American counterpart, the ruler of the reclusive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems to enjoy the salty sea whistling through his sculpted helmet of dictator — hair. His seaside resort north of Wonson has all the amenities and comforts of any western resort, with anti-diver netting, coastal patrols, his own train station and 24 hour guard by the most well fed handpicked troops in the land.

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Thanks to the Bin Laden mission and years of Global War on Terror, America’s elite SEAL teams have been more associated with their operations in desert locales than the maritime environments they were originally tasked with operating in. Quietly deploying from the back of converted Ohio-class submarines, a platoon of SEALs in a small submersible could potentially infiltrate and attack the resort when Kim’s presence is assured. With the help of loitering intelligence assets and offshore fire support, such a mission could go from ‘outlandish’ to ‘feasible’ as geopolitical realities change.

USS Michigan (SSGN-726) arrives at Busan. Note the SDV pod aft of the sail.

3. Hit him with 154 cruise missiles at once

Again leveraging the converted Ohio class SSGN “Arsenal Ships”, the strike could be delivered by that perennial agent of American foreign policy, the Tomahawk missile. One hundred fifty-four missiles, many with independent approaches to target, all launched within the space of a few minues — such a strike is almost impossible for anyone but a near-peer to detect and avoid. Even if a few peter out on the way and plop into the ocean, which statistics show at least three or four certainly will — only a hardened shelter could survive.

Sometimes Tomahawks just won’t hack it

If Kim is known to be in a soft, non-moving location with no expectation of a strike, the Tomahawk missile could be the method employed. Even a moving Kim Jong Un could conceivably be targeted and attacked by the loitering Block IV variant. However, as demonstrated in Syria, the venerable BGM-109 is limited by its non-penetrating warhead and 1000 lb payload of conventional explosives. If given time to retreat to one of his super-hardened shelters underneath the rugged mountains outside Pyongyang or another city, the strike would have no effect.

The failure of any of these methods would certainly invite swift retaliation by the North Korean regime, as threatening the Kim continuity of rule is almost certainly a “Red Line”. Whether that would take the form of a conventional attack against South Korea, a nuclear attack against US bases in the region or all-out war can only be speculated. Even if successful, killing another head of state would deal yet another black eye to United States post 9–11 foreign policy and plant the same seeds of distrust in Asia that we now see blossoming in the Middle East.

The narrative that Kim Jong Un’s death would immediately unshackle the hearts and minds of millions of North Koreans that have lived for decades under repressive rule is in itself a dangerous one. There is little reason to believe that outside forces would be welcomed by the populace at large, and reunification — when it eventually happens — will be a painful process. As convenient as it seems it would be, the act of killing Kim Jong Un will not in itself wipe away decades of programmed ideology.

In the case of North Korea, the idea truly is bigger than the man.