Trump is showing a real willingness to gamble with the lives of millions as his saber-rattling with North Korea extends beyond his Twitter account.
The Diplomat reported over the weekend that: “While the world watched the two Koreas walk together at the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, there was one person not in attendance: the U.S. ambassador to Seoul. The reason was simple: despite being in office for over a year, the Trump administration has yet to appoint one. As has been widely reported, the previously presumed appointment of Victor Cha as the next ambassador was withdrawn last week, allegedly the result of a fundamental disagreement over North Korea policy between Cha on the one hand and President Donald Trump and his advisers on the other.”
As Rolling Stone reported last week, 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?”
So what are the implications when it comes to U.S. Korea policy moving forwards?
As The Diplomat explained, there are two schools of thought:
Either the inconsistency and backpedalling is deliberate and done by design or it reflects real, ongoing divisions within the administration as well as an overall incompetence in crafting a steady foreign policy toward Korea (North and South). While the Cha episode is somewhat consonant with the Trump administration’s apparent determination to gut the U.S. State Department and undermine the traditional foreign policymaking bureaucracy, it simply makes no sense deliberately to act this way in a policy area as fraught as Korea. As the reporting above shows (and common sense would indicate), there is no logical design to such behavior.
Rather, the administration’s behavior is an outgrowth of ongoing debates about North Korea. On one side, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while never tiring of stressing the military option, hedge against any precipitous military strike (read: bloody nose) and toward diplomacy. On the other side, reports indicate Trump, his National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and other White House aides are eagerly requesting that the Pentagon provide them actionable options for just such a strike. Drawing up such options has never been a question of capability, for the United States undoubtedly has the capacity to strike North Korea in any number of ways. Instead, it is a questionable of viability and basic strategic sense. The reason the White House is frustrated over the lack of options is that, simply put, none exist.
Frightened yet? You should be. Check out what Foreign Policy has to say about the likelihood of success of a preemptive military strike aimed at hitting North Korea’s nuclear installations.
The allure of a punitive strike on North Korea is its seeming simplicity. North Korea continues its missile testing, or opts to detonate another nuclear device in a test shaft, and the United States fires a few missiles and fixes the problem. But this conclusion comes from a series of bad assumptions. We assume that the North Korean regime can detect with any realistic degree of confidence that a limited strike is in fact limited. We assume that North Korea will only analyze the costs and benefits of retaliating based on the merits of a fleeting crisis. And we assume that Kim Jong Un’s power is limitless and that he has none of his own constituencies to placate in the hours and days after a strike.
These assumptions are shaky at best. North Korea’s early warning network, fragile enough that a clean strike seems somehow viable, is more likely apt to encourage Pyongyang to take more aggressive action. Kim doesn’t have to consider just the ensuing hours and days after a strike, but also many years (and presumably other crises) in the future. And Kim is riding a tiger, and opting to blink will likely lead to his being thrown and eaten.
Limited wars have sometimes, if rarely, worked in the past, even between other nuclear-armed powers, such as the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan in 1999. Yet everything we know of the messy politics of Pyongyang suggests that the chances of keeping any conflict limited are small at best — and the alternative is far too horrific to take such a risk.
The Diplomat offered the following conclusion to their analysis:
While the glow of the Olympics in PyeongChang may hold for the next few months, it will inevitably pass. North Korea will be the same regime it has always been, with weapons it refuses to relinquish. The Trump administration will likely maintain its “maximum pressure” campaign and demand for Pyongyang’s complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Vice President Mike Pence is currently reiterating as much at his several stops in the region, including Seoul. Meanwhile, fissures between Seoul and Washington, while already apparent, continue to grow.
And all the while, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul is not in attendance.
Foreign Policy concluded that:
If the United States keeps operating under flawed assumptions about the North, it could lead to a strike that, at best, will not end North Korea’s WMD program and, at worst, might provoke an escalation that results in the first battlefield use of nuclear weapons since 1945. The in-between possibilities are equally unattractive: limited retaliations that threaten the United States and its allies, and target civilians and military alike? A wider war on the Korean peninsula? No war, but allies that are forced to re-evaluate their own security relationships in the wake of a massive U.S. miscalculation? None of these can be said to be in the United States’ best interest.
Rolling Stone closed their analysis, reporting:
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.”
A separate article by Foreign Policy reported on what they called a “hair-raising article about nuclear weapons” published in the Spring 2017 issue of International Security magazine.
“Low-fatality nuclear strikes are now possible,” conclude the authors, Georgetown’s Keir Lieber and Dartmouth’s Daryl Press. That’s mainly because of changes in the accuracy of targeting.
So what’s the problem? The problems are first: No first use has been a good global rule, and second: Once a war starts, no one knows how or where it will end. It is the most unpredictable of all human activities.