The Trump administration’s North Korea policy has been articulated as “maximum pressure and engagement” since the policy review was completed in April, but in recent weeks, senior officials—including the president—have been strongly hinting about “military options.”
Even as the senior advisors are trying to tone down the inflammatory rhetoric from President Trump, emphasizing that U.S. policy does not include regime change and reiterating Washington’s commitment to peaceful resolution, the drumbeat of military action has been drowning out the “engagement” part of the formula. While it is absolutely appropriate to consider military options, loose talk of war could take on a dangerous life and momentum of its own.
Prioritizing “maximum pressure”
Amid ongoing tweets from the president that “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea and his ominous “calm before the storm” message of Oct. 6, senior administration officials have continued to indicate that diplomacy is the preferred approach to dealing with North Korea’s advanced nuclear weapons capabilities.
But they have also repeated the refrain about U.S.“military options,” suggesting that a real plan is possibly advancing. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster commented on the possibility of “preventive war.” Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Association of the U.S. Army that the army has “got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ if needed.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CNN on Oct. 16 that “diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.”
The apparently coordinated messaging hinting at kinetic strikes against the North Korean regime leaves no doubt that administration officials are considering such options, but it is also vague enough to suggest that these threats are being used to compel Kim Jong-un to come to the negotiating table, appropriately chastened and scared straight. It’s also likely intended to get China to use its overwhelming economic leverage to get Kim’s knees to buckle.
For many of us, such martial talk from usually reserved and measured officials—combined with the president’s bull-in-a-china-shop attitude to national security—raise the specter of a military confrontation that could lead to millions dead, nuclear and humanitarian disaster, and possibly even World War III.
The logic of threatening military action…
Using a credible military threat to unnerve Kim Jong-un, disabuse him of his perception that he is driving events on the Korean Peninsula, and intimidate Beijing into finally using its “leverage” makes sense — on paper.
The intent is probably to make Kim choose between his nuclear weapons or his survival, and to make Chinese leadership choose between maintaining regional stability (by pressuring Kim to cave) or face the prospect of another Korean war on its border. The dream scenario is one in which Kim sees the error of his ways and comes to the table, immediately freezes his nuclear weapons program, and allows International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into the country. In this vision, already highly unlikely, this would ultimately lead to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. Beijing and Washington would trade congratulatory messages, the North Korean people would be finally freed from a totalitarian state as the regime opens itself up, and South Korea and Japan could finally live without the fear of a North Korean attack.
…depends on U.S. credibility
The operative word, however, is “credible.”
If Kim does take the U.S. military threat seriously and wants to throw a wrench into the momentum, all he has to do is send a signal to Beijing or Moscow that he wants to talk, or murmur something about desiring denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. (His grandfather and father used much the same trick to manipulate regional dynamics.) Or he can accept South Korean proposals to allow reunions of families separated by the Korean war. Or he can tell Tokyo that he wants to talk about returning Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago.
Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo would find it hard to pass up this kind of outreach, not least because they want to lower the temperature on U.S.-North Korea tension, but also because of domestic political drivers, especially in South Korea and Japan where family reunions and the abductee issues are long-standing emotional touchstones.
What if Kim Jong-un does believe the United States will strike, and mistakes a military exercise as the prelude to an attack? Or views a cyberattack as eroding his ability to defend North Korea and responds militarily? Or the United States successfully conducts a limited strike inside North Korea and messages Kim Jong-un and the North Korean leadership that it’s not intended for regime change? Would Kim believe Washington that it’s really just a limited strike? In either case, Kim is likely to see his situation as a use-or-lose scenario, in which he has to decide whether to use nuclear weapons first or die knowing that his nuclear weapons failed at deterring a U.S. attack and ensuring regime survival. He would probably choose the former.
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On the other hand, if Kim does not believe in the credibility of the U.S. military threat, being inured to the empty bluster of President Trump, he could potentially be goaded by additional tweets or U.S.-South Korean military shows of force into following through on the threats to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific or fire ballistic missiles near Guam to show that he will not be cowed. In this scenario, the United States would be embarrassed either if it tried and failed to intercept the missiles, highlighting the inconsistency of the ballistic missile defense systems, or if it did nothing at all, which would reinforce to Pyongyang that Washington’s threats are meaningless. Or Kim could continue to escalate the war of words with Trump, on the assumption that the threats are merely rhetorical and that, sooner or later, the president will be reined in by his advisors, Congress, or the American public, showing him to be all growl and no bite.
Difficult to control consequences
Military options may be more emotionally satisfying to think about than deterrence and giving the latest sanctions a chance to work, especially for the president, who seems personally offended by Kim Jong-un, and for his senior advisors, who appear determined to solve the North Korea problem once and for all, perhaps calculating that the cost of not actively considering military action is unacceptable. The North Korean nuclear threat is serious and requires coordinated U.S. and allied actions. And it is absolutely appropriate to consider military options.
However, loose talk of war in today’s discourse, amplified by the media and fueled by the president’s constant belittling of diplomatic efforts, could take a life and momentum of its own, including potentially by accelerating preparations for a conflict that would serve nobody’s interests, leading leaders in Washington and Pyongyang to feel that their credibility is tied to their resolve in causing the other party to blink, and thereby increasing the potential for miscalculation.
Moreover, there are political consequences to conducting this brand of coercive diplomacy, as our partners in the region begin questioning Washington’s commitment to their security and prosperity, stoking fear and alarm there and in the United States, and smothering productive debate on what peaceful resolution of the North Korea problem would look like, while eroding U.S. credibility in East Asia.