In response to worries that it is planning a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea, the Trump administration has been offering an odd reassurance. Any attack on the regime of Kim Jong Un would not be limited, officials and surrogates are saying, but enormous and overwhelming. That, of course, is not reassuring at all: A massive attack on North Korea would be massively stupid.
The White House calls reports that President Trump is considering a small-scale North Korea military option exaggerated. The administration understands that there is no guarantee Kim won’t respond with his full military might — a nightmare scenario. But embedded in every denial is a consistent pledge that Trump will not accept North Korea achieving the capability to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile — a clear red line.
That means the military option Trump is actually considering foremost is one that would be huge, complex and devastating. At the recent Munich Security Conference, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) said he was told the conflict would be brief and would cause “mass casualties the likes of which the planet has never seen.”
On Friday, Trump himself warned that if North Korea doesn’t buckle under sanctions, he would move to “Phase 2.”
“Phase 2 may be a very rough thing, may be very unfortunate for the world,” he said. “It we can make a deal, it will be a great thing, and if we can’t, something will have to happen.”
Nobody truly knows what Trump will do when the intelligence community tells him that Kim can strike Washington. Trump’s two main foreign-policy instincts are to avoid starting wars and to reject President Barack Obama’s practice of allowing dangerous threats to fester. Those instincts clash when dealing with North Korea.
Trump is “frustrated” with the situation, senior officials said, and believes the military threat must be credible to work. He also believes he has the authority to order a strike at any time.
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whom Trump reportedly is considering to replace H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, supports preventive war through a massive strike, if sanctions fail. During an appearance last week at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security, he said the United States would have to simultaneously destroy all known North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile sites, submarine bases, and artillery, mortar and missile installments along the North’s border with South Korea.
The Kim regime would soon collapse, Bolton predicted, which would then require the deployment of American and South Korean troops inside North Korea to secure the nuclear sites. China could, in advance, be offered a chance to participate, to protect its interests and minimize the adverse effects, Bolton said.
“My argument to China would be, look, we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Bolton said. “I would like to find a way to convince the Chinese to do this with us, to have a controlled collapse of the North Korean regime.”
Bolton acknowledged that we can’t be sure of where Kim is hiding all his weapons and that there would be massive humanitarian consequences. But he calculated that the risks of Kim threatening the world with nuclear weapons or selling them to others outweigh the potential costs.
But a true accounting of those costs would also include the likelihood that the U.S.-South Korea alliance would be shattered, along with the regional stability the United States spent 70 years trying to build. The global economy would be thrown into disarray; America would be on the hook for untold billions in reconstruction and refugee assistance. China would then move to replace the United States as the responsible regional leader.
“The big strategic objective in the region is to be able to be more competitive with a rising China. If we have a war with North Korea, we throw everything away,” said Patrick Cronin, senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security.
Trump’s coming decision is not a binary choice between war and accepting a nuclear North Korea. A middle option would be to first follow the South Korean government’s lead to exhaust every diplomatic avenue. If that fails, we turn to the plan of the South’s conservative opposition: deterrence, containment and escalation.
The United States, Japan and South Korea should recognize that Pyongyang has already altered the regional strategic balance through its acquisition of nuclear weapons, and they should set about returning the balance to our favor with a new military buildup and a trilateral military alliance. That would get Beijing’s attention more than any sanctions, although more of those couldn’t hurt.
Then, the U.S. government should drastically increase investment in strategies that mitigate North Korea’s danger externally and challenge its legitimacy internally — including proliferation security, maritime interdiction, cyber-offense and information penetration.
The United States must still insist that North Korea completely denuclearize. But it needs a long-term strategy to make it happen, not a reckless and catastrophic war.
Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Follow @joshrogin