Is Donald Trump looking for an option to go to war against North Korea? That’s the unsettling conclusion from a report last week in The New York Times – that even Trump’s own generals and national security advisers, who are not exactly doves themselves, are afraid of giving the president any ideas. The Pentagon, “worried that the White House is moving too hastily toward military action on the Korean peninsula,” is resisting demands from Trump to explain how he might do precisely that, and so U.S. officials have consequently circumscribed how much they’re willing to tell the president. “Giving the president too many options,” the officials said, “could increase the odds that he will act,” reports the Times.
For months, White House officials, including Gen. H.R. McMaster, who heads Trump’s National Security Council, have been making worrisome threats about taking out North Korea’s arsenal. In December, McMaster said that the likelihood of war with North Korea is “increasing every day.” There are widespread reports now that people within the Trump administration are considering giving North Korea a “bloody nose,” using a limited lightning strike. And hawks such as Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham declared that chances are at least 70 percent that the United States will launch all-out war with North Korea if there’s one more nuclear test. “If you ever use the military option, it’s not to just neutralize their nuclear facilities – you gotta be willing to take the regime completely down,” said Graham, adding that the idea “comes up all the time” when he plays golf with Trump
The Pentagon, and most professional military men, don’t support the idea of a surgical strike against North Korea, and opposition to the idea from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is particularly strong, says Daniel Sneider, a veteran Asia analyst and a visiting scholar at the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “McMaster doesn’t really know much about this part of the world, and he’s trapped within the framework of the White House, taking Trump’s wandering thoughts and trying to put them in some sort of policy framework,” he tells Rolling Stone.
But the terrifying scenarios came into sharper focus last week when Victor Cha, an Asia strategist and professor at Georgetown University, suddenly found that his appointment to serve as U.S. ambassador to South Korea was withdrawn. The withdrawal – weeks after he’d been vetted and after he’d been approved by the South Korean government – came after Cha told the White House and the NSC that he thought the idea of a bloody-nose, limited strike on Pyongyang was a terrible idea. Following the cancellation of his appointment, in a courageous op-ed in the Washington Post, Cha outlined his belief that even a modest attack would “escalat[e] into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.” Yet, said Cha, that’s exactly what’s being considered by Trump administration officials.
Donald Trump’s current thinking on North Korea goes something like this: Because the North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, is irrational, the traditional policy of nuclear deterrence – modeled on the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union – won’t work with him. Kim, the White House argues, is so unreliable that he’s likely to lash out, possibly striking the United States or American targets, if and when his fast-developing nuclear arsenal is ready, even if such an attack would be suicidal. Therefore, some inside the Trump administration (and, it appears, the president himself) believe that a preemptive military strike aimed at hitting North Korea’s nuclear installations is a viable, even unavoidable, action. Doing so, goes the argument, will neutralize Kim’s nuclear arms, teach him a lesson and force him to come meekly to the bargaining table.
But here’s the problem. If, as they believe, Kim is aggressive-minded and irrational, then who’s to say he won’t respond to even a limited attack by the United States with all-out war, striking military targets and South Korean civilian population centers, U.S. facilities and bases, and Japanese cities? Cha himself highlighted exactly this paradox in his op-ed. “If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?” he wrote. “And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?”
Little of that appears to register with the White House. Trump singled out North Korea in his State of the Union speech last week, seeming to blame the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations for not being tough with Pyongyang. “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this very dangerous position.”
By referring to “the mistakes of past administrations,” Trump means the record of diplomatic engagements with North Korea since the 1990s. None of that diplomacy ultimately dissuaded North Korea from expanding its nuclear-weapons program and its ballistic-missile development. Yet, a war on the Korean Peninsula would end up being so catastrophic – with as many as 300,000 killed even without the use of nuclear weapons by either side – that the vast majority of experts familiar with Korea believe that diplomacy is the only plausible option. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the beleaguered and put-upon chief diplomat for Trump, is one who apparently agrees with the proposition that diplomacy can still work.
But since last fall Trump has repeatedly shot down Tillerson when it comes to diplomatic talks with North Korea. In October, when Tillerson opened the door on negotiations, Trump tweeted that his own secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” In December, when Tillerson declared that the United States was “ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk,” the White House contradicted him again. Since then, there have been persistent rumors that Tillerson could be replaced by a more hawkish successor.
One party decidedly unnerved by Trump’s saber-rattling is America’s ostensible partner, South Korea, whose leader, President Moon Jae-in, is determined to seek détente with Kim Jung-un. Since taking office last May, Moon, who represents a progressive coalition in South Korean politics, has made no secret of his desire to seek an understanding with the North and to return to the “sunshine” era of North-South dialogue.
“The Moon administration, and South Korean progressives generally, have a very clear set of views about the South’s relationship with the United States and with North Korea,” says Sneider, the Stanford-based analyst. “They think that the only way forward is an agreement between North Korea and South Korea, and they believe that it’s failed so far because of hardline policies from the United States.”
By carefully balancing his ties to the United States with his policy of seeking talks with North Korea, Moon has managed a breakthrough of sorts. Following Kim’s New Year speech, in which he suggested his country’s participation in the Winter Olympics, Moon responded positively. And with North Korean officials slated to accompany their athletes to the games, it’s not impossible that the two Koreas could open the door a crack toward a North-South truce. But Moon can’t afford to stray too far from his American allies, and Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Japan and South Korea this week to make sure that doesn’t happen and that North Korea remains isolated. Pence, who’s reportedly bringing along the father of an American who died after being imprisoned in North Korea, isn’t likely to endorse the North-South dialogue, instead opting to raise tensions further. And without high-level U.S. support, South Korea’s diplomatic efforts will get only so far.
So where can diplomacy go, if Tillerson is able to convince the White House to participate in talks that would include the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia? A first step could be a freeze-for-freeze plan, already backed by Beijing and Moscow, in which North Korea would freeze its nuclear-weapons and missile-testing program in exchange for a freeze on U.S. and South Korean military exercises. Further down the road – though it might take many years – could be an accord that would have all sides agree to denuclearize the entire Korean Peninsula.
For now, however – at least as far as the White House is concerned – it’s war, not peace, that seem to be on the horizon. “I’m extremely worried – not just based on what I’m hearing out of the White House but also what I’m hearing out of the defense community,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, last month. “We are far closer to actual conflict over North Korea than the American people realize.”
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