Shoot First, Talk Later

A who's who of North Korea hawks.

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Getty Images

If you think Barack Obama’s recent posture toward North Korea has been hawkish — maybe even a little too hawkish — he remains far more dovish than many politicos and policy wonks inside and outside his administration. This week, the White House dialed back its posture toward Pyongyang after a series of provocative flybys of B-52 bombers, B-2 bombers, and F-22 fighter jets risked triggering an even deeper crisis. But others would have him do more. These foreign policy thinkers have seen the Kim dynasty develop nuclear weapons, threaten the United States, violate reams of international agreements — and they want to get tough. Though even the most extreme hawks have yet to endorse a preemptive strike in the current crisis, many have come very close. Behold, Washington’s North Korea Hawks:

Dick Cheney

Title: Former vice president of the United States

Views: Cheney has always had a fairly straightforward view of Pyongyang over the years: “We don’t negotiate with evil — we defeat it.” But in the new Showtime documentary about his life, which debuted in March, he revived his policy preferences on dealing with North Korea. In particular, he called former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “naive” for trying to negotiate with Pyongyang given its track record of deceit. He’s also continued to slam the Obama administration for underfunding, in his view, U.S. missile defenses. “One of the things that I think is a wrong thing to do is, at this particular time, to cut our program for missile defense in the Defense Department,” Cheney said of Obama’s first term. “We’ve gotten a long way on missile defense…but we need to a lot more work to defend the United States.”

John Bolton

Title: Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

Views: A vintage conservative, Bolton’s enthusiasm for foreign interventions hasn’t lessened since his time in the Bush administration. Last week, on Fox News, where he is now a contributor, Bolton said the long-reigning U.S. policy of pursuing negotiations with Pyongyang regarding its nuclear program is a “bad idea” that “hasn’t gotten any better with age.” He made a direct call for regime change. “The threat here is the irrationality of this regime, coupled with this potential to use a weapon of mass destruction against innocent civilians. And we’re not going to talk them out of it,” he told Greta Van Susteren. “The solution lies in eliminating the regime, which we could try and do through reunifying the peninsula.”

Peter King

Title: U.S. congressman and member of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Views: In a standoff with North Korea, King wouldn’t let Pyongyang get a shot off. He told CNN last week that Obama has a “moral obligation” to preemptively strike North Korea if intelligence indicates a forthcoming attack. “If we have good reason to believe there’s going to be an attack, I believe we have the right to take preemptive action,” he said. “I don’t think we have to wait until Americans are killed or wounded or injured in any way…. If we have solid evidence that North Korea’s going to take action, then I think we have a moral obligation and an absolute right to defend ourselves.”

Ashton Carter

Title:  Deputy secretary of defense

Views: Although a senior Pentagon official tells Foreign Policy that Carter is “completely in sync” with the administration, Carter’s past writing on North Korea tells a different story. With Pyongyang poised to test a new missile this week, The New York Times reports that Obama won’t shoot it down unless it heads toward the United States or its allies. In a similar situation in 2006, however, Carter opposed this level of restraint. Prior to a North Korean missile launch, Carter co-wrote a Washington Post op-ed urging George W. Bush to destroy the missile on its launch pad. “Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil?” he wrote. “We believe not.” It’s possible Carter has since changed his mind, but for further evidence of hawkishness, see his 2002 op-ed in the Post arguing that the reasons to risk all-out war “are even more powerful now” than they were in 1994, when the United States confronted North Korea over its production of plutonium. 

John McCain

Title: U.S. senator

Views: McCain has never been shy about advocating the use of American power abroad and that holds for the Korean Peninsula. In an interview with Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin on Monday, McCain said the United States should shoot down any missile that North Korea launches, no matter where it is headed. “If they launched a missile, we should take it out. It’s best to show them what some of our capabilities are,” he said. “Their missile would most likely miss, but the fact that they have the ability to launch one with that range is very escalatory at least.” When asked if a U.S. failure to hit the missile would cause unwanted embarrassment, he said, “That’s true, but I would hope that would be a minimal risk.”

Walter “Skip” Sharp

Title: Former commander of U.S. Combined Forces Command & USFK.

Views: He’s been retired for two years, but that hasn’t muted Skip Sharp’s support for a tough “kinetic” response to North Korean provocations. The four-star Army general, who spent years mapping out war scenarios on the peninsula, raised eyebrows last month when he advocated “strongly punishing North Korea” militarily if it struck anywhere in South Korea. “We’ve got to change the dynamic,” he told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 21. “There needs to be action taken that will make a next attack more difficult both technically and from a risk-benefit calculation for Kim Jong Un.” When the Huffington Post’s David Wood noted that such a strike greatly risked further escalation, Sharp held firm, arguing that Pyongyang has gotten away with provocations with “very little response” and that the United States needs to target a strategic asset deeply valuable to the regime. (See Sharp’s remarks at CSIS here.)

James Inhofe

Title: U.S. senator and ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.

Views: Inhofe has never been a huge fan of international diplomacy, but last week he leaped ahead of his conservative colleagues in advocating preparations for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea “right now,” he told The Steve Malzberg Show. “In terms of the capability we have out there with the F-22s and the battleships…a pre-emptive strike from something like that would get their attention,” Inhofe said. He also landed a few jabs on Kim Jong Un: “[He] is just as bad as his daddy was. He’s not reliable in terms of what he might do, what he might say, but he is capable of doing it because he’s deranged.”

William Perry

Title: Former secretary of defense

Views: Ashton Carter isn’t the only Democrat who’s staked out aggressive positions on North Korea: His former boss in the Clinton administration, William Perry, who led the Pentagon at the time, actually took steps to prepare for war during the 1994 crisis. Perry was the co-author of Carter’s 2006 article on preemptively striking North Korea’s missile site and his 2002 article emphasizing the “powerful” reasons for risking war with Pyongyang. Since his party has come into power, Perry has been relatively quiet on the issue of war with North Korea, but his trail of op-eds paint a fairly consistent picture of where he stands on North Korean provocations, despite the fact that he’s a reliable voice on nuclear disarmament. (Efforts to reach Perry were not successful.)

Jon Kyl

Title: Former U.S. senator and minority whip.

Views: Inside and outside of government, Kyl has been steadfast in his determination to “get tough” with North Korea. Last year, Kyl signed a letter accusing Obama of “embracing a policy of appeasement with Pyongyang” for his decision to provide 240,000 tons of food aid to North Korea in exchange for promises to temper its nuclear program. (The deal ended up falling through.) He’s been just as active outside government, writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month chastising Obama for his “antipathy” to missile defense, which he said leaves the United States “vulnerable not just to attack, but also to nuclear blackmail and proliferation.” Kyl advocates beefing up the country’s missile defenses, and he specifically called out Obama for canceling the final phase of the Europe-based missile-defense system, which he said “will please Russia.” (For honorable mention: Sens. Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, and James Risch also signed the appeasement” letter.)

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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