President Donald Trump's first choice for secretary of defense says the US may only have one option for dealing with North Korea — a large-scale military strike.
"A pre-emptive strike against launch facilities, underground nuclear sites, artillery and rocket response forces and regime leadership targets may be the only option left on the table," Keane told The Times of London. "We are rapidly and dangerously moving towards a military option."
Keane, who is said to be close to Trump, declined the role of secretary of defense offered to him by the president, citing the recent death of his wife.
Keane's statement, that a military strike, which several experts have told Business Insider would involve an unthinkable number of civilian casualties, echoes sentiments from Trump in a recent interview with the Financial Times.
Ahead of his meeting with Xi Jinping, the President of North Korea's biggest backer, China, Trump took a hard line on North Korea, saying "China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't," adding that "if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will."
As North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs reach the stage where they need frequent and detectable testing, Trump and his top officials have repeatedly stressed military strikes as an option.
In particular, the type of strike proposed by Keane would require a massive air campaign to strike literally hundreds of targets across the mountainous, densely-wooded country while defending Seoul against artillery fire and nuclear missile salvos.
North Korean military ground troops. (Photo: KCN)
While experts conclude that the US has the means to unilaterally decapitate the Kim regime, the operation if carried out today would most likely provoke a counterattack with conventional artillery and, as Thae suggested, nuclear strikes. South Korea and Japan would be at the greatest risk from a North Korean nuclear attack, and such an operation could easily cost millions of lives, including citizens of those countries and US troops stationed in Asia.
Thae's testimony fits with what experts have told Business Insider: The focus of North Korea's nuclear program has shifted from a bargaining chip — something it could trade away for concessions from the international community — to an insurance policy.
Thae stressed that "Kim Jong Un is a person who did not even hesitate to kill his uncle and a few weeks ago, even his half-brother ... So, he is a man who can do anything to remove [anyone in] his way."
Trump is due to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping later this week, and he has made clear his intentions to talk about North Korea.