TAMPA — Hours before news broke that President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Merrill McPeak sat in the restaurant of a Tampa hotel and offered a dire warning.
Any overtures by Kim, McPeak said, may amount to a delaying tactic as his nascent nuclear weapons program takes a pause for research on how to wed warheads with missiles.
"My fear is that the North is really playing for time," said McPeak, 82, who is no stranger to the conundrum of Pyongyang. The Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994, and before that head of U.S. Air Force operations in the Pacific, McPeak was read into plans for attacking the North Korean military infrastructure.
"They agreed to stop testing, but they did the testing they needed to do," McPeak said. "Naturally, they quit testing because they are working on something they don’t need to test."
The retired four-star general, who lives in Oregon, was visiting Tampa as a board member of cancer research firm Iovance Biotherapeutics. He recently released the third of a three-volume memoir.
McPeak had a hand in many of the defining military operations of his time. He flew nearly 300 combat sorties during the Vietnam War and led the aerial campaign that helped win the first Gulf War. He also was the first Air Force Thunderbird pilot to crash during an air show.
Politically, he has followed his conscience, heading George W. Bush’s veterans outreach during the 2000 campaign, then switching parties to Independent in opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Later, he worked with President Barack Obama on restoring overseas battlefield monuments.
Today, he has some advice for President Trump that’s as tough as the Twitter war of words Trump has engaged in with Kim.
"North Korea either already has, or will soon have, the capability to destroy American cities. We can’t allow that."
The first step, he said, is holding Kim to a deadline for halting his nuclear program. If he misses the deadline, send in the Air Force and make him quit, McPeak said.
"You either agree to dismantle the nuclear weapons delivery capability or we will help you dismantle it."
Still, he holds out little hope Kim will voluntarily end his nuclear ambitions. The North Korean dictator, he said, knows the fates that befell Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Both men wound up dead after their nuclear programs were halted.
"I think we will have to end up taking them away from him. He won’t give them away."
Quick to insist he isn’t calling for U.S. ground troops to fight in North Korea, McPeak said that mission should be left to the Chinese.
"My idea is that China should invade and occupy that territory, cooperating with us. They have enough troops across the Yalu River and enough military capacity to move quickly."
China has motivation, as well, he said.
"China is threatened more than we are by North Korea’s nuclear program. Beijing is in easy range."
Can an attack on North Korea end in anything short of catastrophe given the artillery and rockets Kim can aim at Seoul, just 30 miles from his borders?
"No," McPeak said.
Seoul, the South Korean capital and home to about 20 million people, "is going to be heavily damaged in the opening moments of any military action. If I were a South Korean general, I would not be talking the way I am talking.
"But my interest is in Seattle, Chicago, New York City, and I don’t think we can stand to see our cities held hostage by a guy who’s thinking we can’t figure out."
Likening the situation to the Battle of Britain during World War II, when German planes routinely bombed English cities, McPeak said the world has faced such devastation before.
"If we are not willing to stand up to that kind of requirement, let’s just surrender."
During a conversation in the hours before Trump announced he would meet with Kim, McPeak said he has concerns about how Trump handles the conundrum he inherited.
"The president claims to be a stable genius, but I doubt both assertions," McPeak said. Trump "has been lucky he really hasn’t had to deal with a first-rate surprise package. I worry about his second year, because things are piling up, including Korea."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman