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Jed Babbin: A red line for North Korea

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President Obama should be applying to North Korea now what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taught the world about "red lines" and nuclear weapons last year.

After months of threatening South Korea, the United States and Japan -- the last with nuclear holocaust -- North Korea may launch ballistic missiles on Monday capable of reaching the two Asian allies and American bases in the region.

More importantly, a new intelligence report indicates that the North has been able to reduce the size of its nuclear weapons to a size that is deliverable by missile.

Op-ed: A red line for North Korea

So far, Obama's answer, delivered by Secretary of State John Kerry, is to warn North Korea that it would be a "huge mistake" to launch the missiles and that we will defend our allies. But why would it be a mistake?

Kerry's other statements -- that we would re-engage in talks with North Korea, even on an unprecedented one-on-one basis, and possibly resume "humanitarian aid" -- already give the North most of what it seeks to gain from its continued threats.

Kerry also sought to muddy the effect of the newly leaked Defense Intelligence Agency report that says North Korea has produced nuclear warheads small enough to be launched by missile.

(DIA also questioned the "reliability" of the warheads, which means that the North Koreans may have solved the size problem but not the other enormous challenges in designing a nuclear warhead that can survive launch and re-entry.)

In his answer to DIA, Kerry spewed a pile of weasel words. He said that it is "inaccurate to suggest" that the North Koreans have "fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in [the DIA] report."

Not that they haven't "tested, developed or demonstrated" the capability, only that they haven't done so "fully" to Kerry's satisfaction.

Obama's policy is that we will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea. Which brings us back to the question of red lines. Our policies toward North Korea and Iran say we won't tolerate either nation becoming nuclear-armed, but we have done nothing that has stopped or even slowed their progress toward that goal. North Korea is speeding past every nuclear milestone without obstruction.

Netanyahu's U.N. speech warned that Iran was fast approaching a red line, when its nuclear weapons program had gone so far that a military strike against it might not be able to stop it. He implied that before Iran crossed the red line, Israel would have to strike.

North Korea has gone far beyond Netanyahu's "red line" for Iran. It has nuclear weapons that it has tested and missiles that are, or soon will be, capable of delivering those weapons to Japan and possibly America itself.

North Korea's threat to us and our allies is measured by its capability to deploy and launch missiles armed with nuclear warheads that we believe could be used against us.

They haven't quite reached that point, which means they have about reached the last red line we can draw. It's a policy line that the Obama-Kerry team insists on ignoring.

The only confidence we have is that we'll never talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons program. As many years of sanctions have proved, they won't stop Pyongyang's nukes. The same is true, on both counts, for Iran. But North Korea is apparently months, if not years, ahead of Iran.

Because we disdain the hard choices, Obama has no power to stop North Korea from developing and deploying a nuclear-armed system of intercontinental missiles.

It would be far better for us to draw a bright red line short of that event, and enforce it however may be required to ensure it is not crossed.

Jed Babbin was deputy undersecretary of defense during the first Bush presidency.

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Jed Babbin

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The Washington Examiner