There has been a lot of talk about Trump giving the Little Rocket Man a "bloody nose" in a limited military strike that would somehow put a stop to North Korea's emerging ability to incinerate American cities - and actually there are several attack options that might give the North pause, without provoking a massive response that would lead to general war and the regime's downfall.
Trump threatened to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea and has called negotiation a waste of time. Trump called Kim Jong-un everything from "a sick puppy" to "Little Rocket Man" to "short and fat", prompting Pyongyang to unleash its own official diatribe.
On 30 January 2018, Victor Cha, a hardliner widely seen as the incoming US ambassador to South Korea, had been rejected by the White House for the job. Cha's nomination was cancelled because he didn't support the "bloody nose" option - a limited strike to warn Pyongyang. The New York Times reported 01 February 2018 that the White House wanted the Pentagon to come up with detailed plans for a military attack against North Korea.
Victor Cha wrote in a 31 January 2018 opinion piece for the Washington Post that "The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size US city ... on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of US kinetic power..."
Herman Kahn (1922-1983) was a renowned strategist. Among his many books are "Thinking About the Unthinkable", "On Thermonuclear War", and "On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios". Kahn constructed an escalation ladder by which nations might work their way up a series of forty-four graduated rungs, all the way from "peace" to "insensate wargasm". But in between there were many other rungs, such as "slowmotion counterproperty," moving through "augmented disarming attacks," and so on. Escalation control was seen to have worked for JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and failed for LBJ in Vietnam.
What are some of the rungs in the Korean escalation ladder? This is the sort of stuff to which "clever briefers" are assigned, but these details have been in short supply in the public discourse.
1 - The US could use missile defense assets to shoot down North Korean missiles shortly after launch. These intercept attempts would probably succeed most of the time, and would deny the North test data on the performance of their missiles. Intercepting North Korean missiles would demonstrate American resolve to go beyond words and sanctions, and would not kill any North Koreans. The United States need not announce that it had destroyed a North Korean missile in flight, and the crew of the US Navy ship that fired the interceptor would be sworn to secrecy. Surely rumors would leak out, but it is a well known fact that not all missile tests succeed, so the North need not lose face in the process. It could just be "our little secret" between Washington and Pyongyang, that further long range missile tests will also prove futile.
2 - The most obvious option is to attack DPRK long range missiles while they are being fueled. North Korea launched the Hwasong-15 ICBM from a mobile launcher. This thing is way too big to be erected in a fully fueled state. Instead, they erect and then fuel it. There would be a convoy of fuel tank trucks, pump trucks, fire trucks in case there was a spill, and so forth. It would be an entire convoy, a large marching band of a dozen or so vehicles. The fueling would take about an hour. The ROK Kill Chain was launched 6 minutes after the Hwasong-15 launch, but if needed, could have been launched half an hour before the launch - striking first in the last resort - things could get pretty exciting. The DPRK knows this, and over the next few years will move to solid fuel missiles, which the regime could just drive it out of a highway tunnel and fire it, with essentially no warning.
But in the meantime, the ICBMs are vulnerable on the ground while they are being fueled. Even if the convoy of vehicles converged as a flash mob to a pre-arranged locations [rather than a sore thumb string of trucks on a road], the launch process would be visible to US reconnaissance aircraft. During the Cold War, LeMay thought he could "foresee" a Soviet sneak attack, with SIGINT detecting a pause in Soviet air operations as everything was grounded before the sneak attack to load fuel and bombs etc, hence no airborne radio traffic [ maybe so, maybe not]. The "fueling their missiles" plot device in Crimson Tide was silly, but it would in fact hold true here.
For bonus points, it is a widely advertised fact that the Supreme Leader likes a front row seat at these launches, and he might be turned into collateral damage. Since he was not being targeted "per se" it would not constitute an illegal political assassination.
A pre-launch strike against the Hwasong-15 ICBM would only kill the two hundred or so North Korean troops actually associated with the launch, with minimal collateral damage [apart from possibly the Supreme Leader]. The United States need not announced that it had conducted such as strike, and the North would likewise be under no obligation to advertise the fact. If rumors leaked out, it could be explained away as an industrial accident. The permanent absence of the Supreme Leader might initially prove a bit awkward, but Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un, seems to be ready to take over the job of Fearless Leader.
3 - Bomb leadership facilities. The North seems to have a string of a dozen of leadership compounds scattered around the country, much as Saddam Hussein had an archipelago of palaces strewn across Iraq. The precise function of these facilities is unclear, although a few include an impressive array of cookie-cutter mansionette guest houses that are presumably for the use of top echelon leaders. This target array has literally hundreds of aimpoints, but B-2 stealth bombers loaded out with hundreds of Small Diameter Bombs should do the trick nicely.
There is no particular reason to assume that anyone of importance would be killed in the process, but the resulting smoking ruin should be food for thought for Northern leaders. Or is is possible that the Americans have "exqusite" intelligence on these compounds, and could time the attack to bag some collection of big-wigs gathered for a pow-wow in furtherance of their criminal enterprise [what if the RAF had bombed the Wannsee Conference?].
As with the in-flight interception of North Korean missiles, or a pre-launch attack on a mobile ICBM launcher, the US need not claim the attack, and the North need no acknowledge the attack [unless it materially changed the leadership lineup]. Rumors would surely leak out, and could be denied with a wink and a nod.
4 - Bomb high visibility regime prestige monuments. Pyongyang alone has a string of large, highly visible monuments and other structers that proclaim the power and the glory of the regime, and their sudden destruction would strike at the prestige of the regime. These structures include Kim Il-sung Square, the Grand People's Study House, the Juche Tower, the Museum of the Three Revolutions, the Triumphal Arch [slightly larger than that of Paris], the Mansu Hill with the Grand Monument [the enormous bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il]. Or possibly the notorious Ryugyong Hotel, unfinishable 105-story, 330 meter-tall pyramid-shaped skyscraper in downtown Pyongyang.
These prestige targets would normally be rather deserted in the wee hours of the morning, and so they could be demolished at the risk of only modest civilian casualties.
Unlike the previous attack options, such a Baedeker Raid [you can look it up] would lack plausible deniability on either side, which is sort of the point. The Americans might face charges of war crimes, since the protection of cultural property during armed conflict is based on the principle that damage to the cultural property of any people means, in the words of the 1954 Hague Convention, "damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind." Because cultural property is normally civilian in nature, the general provisions of humanitarian law protecting civilian property apply.
But the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that "A belligerent reprisal consists of an action that would otherwise be unlawful but that in exceptional cases is considered lawful under international law when used as an enforcement measure in reaction to unlawful acts of an adversary." American lawyers might argue that the North Koreans have committed so many transgressions of international law in recent decades that they have left themselves open to reprisal. Other lawyers would disagree, but lawyers exist to disagree.
5 - Bomb the housing. Human resource managers like to blather on about how people are our most valuable resource, but for the North Korean nuclear program this is literally true. Some fraction of the North's nuclear weapons complex may be scattered away in magic mountains, but clearly a substantial fraction of the program is out in the open at Yongbyon. A couple of reactors, enrichment, reprocessing, and all sorts of other activities associated with bomb-making.
And housing - lots of housing for the thousands of workers who are essential to the North's bomb program. This housing has been substantially expanded in recent years, and one might argue that the larger West housing area is for North Koreans, while the smaller East housing area is for Iranian personnel. But in any event, there is housing for on the order of 5,000 people, who clearly work on the bomb program, and are not innocent bystanders.
When the Brits finally screwed their courage to the sticking place and launched a massive air raid to destroy the V-2 rocket program facilities at Peenemunde, one of the main targets was the worker's housing. But the RAF had waited too long, and by then the center of the program had shifted to Nordhousen. An argument for striking too soon rather than too late.
Bombing individual facilities at Yongbyon [or in Iran, for that matter], might set back the nuclear program for a few years. Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear program in 1981, but by the end of the decade Saddam was up to his old tricks. The staff of North Korea's nuclear program has taken decades to assemble, and would take decades to re-assemble.