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U.S. Mulls Options Against North Korea After Latest Nuclear Weapons Test


And we're going to talk next with a man who once described North Korea to me as the land of lousy policy options. That's because military action could trigger catastrophic retaliation. Diplomacy hasn't worked, ditto economic measures such as sanctions. But some talk quietly of another tactic - something called the decapitation option, which is to say taking out North Korea's leadership. In joint military exercises with South Korea, U.S. forces have participated in a simulated decapitation strike. We have Dennis Wilder on the line. He served on George W. Bush's National Security Council and as deputy assistant director for East Asia at the CIA.

Dennis Wilder, good morning.

DENNIS WILDER: Good morning, how are you?

KELLY: I am well, thank you. So let me start here. How hard would it be to target Kim Jong-un? I mean, I'm assuming he's pretty well-guarded.

WILDER: He is very well-guarded. And if you think about it in comparison to the operation that took out Osama bin Laden, it's a lot more difficult. For example, Pyongyang has very strong air defenses, whereas the American team going in in Pakistan didn't have to deal with air defenses. Kim is surrounded by bodyguards at all times. He's moved at night. There are a huge number of bunkers and underground facilities in North Korea. So the difficulty of knowing exactly where he is is the first difficulty. But then, trying to get to him - when you think about it - is almost insurmountable.

KELLY: Well, and here's another difficulty, which is the legality of this. There is an executive order signed back under President Ford. It's been updated, but it's still in place, an executive order that would ban political assassinations.

WILDER: That is why when people talk about this, they talk about decapitation. Decapitation, from a legal standpoint, actually is legal for a president of the United States to make that decision. For example, with Osama Bin Laden, President Clinton, President Bush and then President Obama all signed the order for decapitation. In other words, to take out the leadership of al-Qaida.

KELLY: But isn't there a difference between the leader of al-Qaida - between a terror suspect - and a sitting head of state?

WILDER: There are certainly people who will make that distinction. And the question is, really comes down to, what kind of national security threat does this individual, you know, have? I mean, in the case of Ronald Reagan in 1986, you'll remember that he ordered strikes against Libya. We weren't at war with Libya, but the Libyans had done the bombing of the Berlin disco. And he decided to go after the command facilities in Libya. Now, you can argue that was an assassination attempt. But under these sorts of thinking, it's a decapitation attempt - not necessarily an assassination. It's a fine distinction, but it is a real distinction.

KELLY: I suppose the question you have to ask - circling us back to North Korea - is, what happens the day after? And there's no guarantee that whoever might follow Kim Jong-un would be more to the U.S.'s liking.

WILDER: Absolutely. I think this is fool's gold, to be honest with you. First of...

KELLY: You're not a supporter of this covert option.

WILDER: No, I am not because for one thing, we don't know what his standing orders to the military are. There may be a delegation of authority for launching missiles, for launching war. So if he was taken out, it may be that the North Korean military goes on automatic pilot. Secondly, what kind of chaos would we create in North Korea? As we learned in Iraq, you've got to have a plan afterwards. And we have not developed any kind of plan with the Chinese or anybody else. Moreover, you'd have loose nukes.

KELLY: Speaking of China, just briefly, Dennis Wilder, how might China react to something like this? They seem to value stability above everything. Taking out the leader of North Korea would seem to lead to instability.

WILDER: I've talked to the Chinese about these issues, and they would see it as an act of war. And they - remember that they do have a defense treaty with the North Koreans. So it would endanger a conflict with China.

KELLY: Dennis Wilder, thanks so much.

WILDER: Thank you.

KELLY: Dennis Wilder - he teaches at Georgetown University, and he's tracked North Korea from posts at the CIA and the National Security Council. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.