Malaysian police reported that Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of the lunatic ruler of North Korea Kim Jong Un, was killed by VX nerve agent. VX is listed as a chemical weapon and banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, of which North Koreas is, of course, not a signatory.
The New York Times noted that most global stockpiles of VX have been destroyed since 1997.
Let us put this in perspective. In 2003, President George W. Bush justified the invasion of Iraq by citing the consensus opinion of western intelligence agencies that Saddam Hussein maintained a stockpile of WMD, mostly chemical weapons. Hussein was documented to have used mustard gas in 1983 and the nerve agents Sarin and Tabun in 1988, killing up to 5,000 Kurd civilians.
VX is nasty stuff, and for a nuclear state like North Korea, it’s not hard to make. In fact, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used VX to carry out murders before their attempted mass killings using Sarin in the Tokyo subway. But just because a cult (albeit a rich cult) can manufacture nerve agents doesn’t absolve a nation state from responsibility and give the U.S. a pass to ignore its use.
That’s like saying that just because Timothy McVeigh could knock down a federal building in Oklahoma City using a fertilizer bomb, that the U.S. shouldn’t respond if Iran did it in Abu Dhabi to an American company.
Of course, America is not the World Police. We can’t go out and punish every nation that breaks a weapons treaty–the
Soviets Russians have been breaking the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty since 2008. But the Norks have crossed a red line implied by Trump himself when he tweeted that Kim Jong Un’s plan to deploy nuclear-capable ICBMs “won’t happen.”
If North Korea can get away with using a chemical weapon to commit murder on foreign soil, which even the Chinese think is a step over the line, the U.S. sends a signal that we are merely a “paper tiger,” and that President Trump is no more a threat to their plans than former President Obama.
We’ve made just about every economic and diplomatic sanction possible against the Norks. The only thing we have left is military sabre-rattling. But sabre-rattling might be the one thing Kim Jong Un understands. Maybe if the USS Carl Vinson, after its “freedom of navigation” exercise in the South China Sea, can park itself off the island of Baegryeong-do, 250 kilometers west of Pyongyang, and well inside cruise-missile range, Kim will listen.
Or maybe lobbing a few sub-launched Tomahawks at the Musudan-ri launch facility would get their attention. That might be a bit risky–inviting a large-scale response–but not as risky as you might think. You see, North Korea can either (1) invade South Korea, or (2) feed itself. Planting season is the late spring, when most of the army is in the rice field, not the battlefield. The entire country’s agricultural output is dependent on planting season.
If the U.S. conducted a limited strike, Kim would find himself in the position of either forcing his entire country to starve, which might move people to finally oust him, or choosing to respond in a less escalating fashion.
This small but significant line-crossing by Kim Jong Un could be exploited as his biggest blunder. It could finally break China away from the rogue regime, and give Trump a major foreign policy coup. But the U.S. must respond, or the opportunity will be lost. The next time around, Kim won’t stop at VX; he will do something far more threatening.