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Woodward book about Trump shows how close Korea came to war

Sept 13,2018
The newly released book “Fear” by Bob Woodward is displayed at Book Passage on Tuesday in Corte Madera, California. [AFP/YONHAP]
In a chilling account of how close the Korean Peninsula came to war last year, Pulitzer-winning American journalist Bob Woodward recounts in his new book that H.R. McMaster, the former U.S. national security adviser, argued that if the United States was going to attack North Korea, it was better to do it earlier.

Woodward, an associate editor of The Washington Post, in his best-selling book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” released Tuesday, describes efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump’s aides to thwart his attempts at undermining relations with allies, including South Korea, and also preventing potential war.

Just one month into his presidency, Trump was said to have asked for a new plan for a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea in February 2017 from Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dunford was reportedly shaken by the question and said more intelligence was needed.

Others, like McMaster, were said to have argued internally in the White House that, if Trump was going to attack, it was better to do it early before the North improved its missiles and nuclear weapons.

On July 3, 2017, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a Hwasong-14 that could possibly put
U.S. mainland in range, alarming Washington because the Pentagon had been confident Pyongyang would not have such capability for at least two years.

Military contingency plans at that point included possible strikes in North Korea, which ranged from “limited pinpoints to an all-out attack,” and even a leadership strike to take out Kim Jong-un.

At one point during a national security meeting in 2017, Sen. Lindsey Graham, a republican of South Carolina, proposed to McMaster that the Chinese government should assassinate Kim Jong-un and “replace him with a North Korean general they control.”

Operation Plan (Oplan) 5027, the Pentagon’s top-secret contingency war plan in response to an attack, was for regime change in North Korea. Oplan 5015 was a more refined war plan that included strikes on the leadership, namely Kim Jong-un. The U.S. Air Force was said to have run simulated air strikes from Oct. 17 to 19, 2017, in the Missouri Ozarks, a region that has topography similar to North Korea’s,
according to the book.

The alarmingly bellicose rhetoric between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Trump boasting of their nuclear arsenals was closely monitored by the world at the beginning of this year. Kim, in a New Year’s address, declared he had a nuclear button on his desk, putting the U.S. mainland within range. Trump on Jan. 2 sent out his now famous tweet that he, too, had a nuclear button, one that actually works and is “bigger” and “more powerful” than Kim’s.

Ahead of sending out that tweet, Trump was quoted as telling Rob Porter, a staff secretary at the time, that Kim was a “bully” and that the “way to deal with those people is by being tough,” adding he was going to “outfox” the North Korean leader.

Woodward writes that Trump even proposed sending a tweet declaring that he was ordering all U.S. military dependents out of South Korea, an act that would likely be read in North Korea as a signal that the United States was preparing for war.

The tweet never went out.
On Dec. 3, after another North Korean ICBM test, Sen. Lindsay Graham advocated removing U.S. troops’ families from South Korea in an interview. The book says that, the following day, McMaster was informed that Ri Su-yong, a vice chairman of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and director of the committee’s International Affairs Department, told intermediaries “that the North would take the evacuation of U.S. civilians as a sign of imminent attack.”

Hence, withdrawing the dependents of American troops should be “one of the last cards to play,” and the possible tweets were described by Woodward as having “scared the daylights out of the Pentagon leadership,” Defense Secretary James Mattis and Dunford.

Graham, in a change of heart, was said to have advised Trump in a phone call in January that a decision to withdraw U.S. troops’ families is “hard to go back” on, and that it would “rock the South Korean stock market and the Japanese economy.” When asked by Trump if he should delay such an evacuation, Graham, who has been a hard-liner on the North, was quoted as telling him, “I don’t think you should ever start this process unless you’re ready to go to war.”

At the beginning of the year, there had been escalated concerns in Seoul that the Trump administration was preparing a so-called bloody nose strike on North Korea.

But the book says that former U.S. President Barack Obama also mulled a pre-emptive military strike on North Korea after its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9, 2016.

The book describes the mercurial whims of Trump, with the president demanding that the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system be relocated to Portland, Oregon, angered that the United States had paid for it while South Korea provided the land.
The deployment of the controversial Thaad antimissile system last year at a former Lotte-owned golf course in Seongju County, North Gyeongsang, came at a large cost for South Korea. Its deployment, meant to defend against North Korean missiles, was protested by locals and also resulted in Chinese economic retaliations against South Korea.

In the prologue of the book, Gary Cohn, then Trump’s top economic adviser and former president of Goldman Sachs, is described as having swiped from the president’s desk in the Oval Office a letter from Trump addressed to South Korean President Moon Jae-in terminating the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) last September.

In a White House National Security Council meeting on Jan. 19 of this year, Trump asked the point of maintaining a massive U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula. Mattis and Dunford briefed Trump on the benefits of the alliance with South Korea, a stable democracy and the 11th largest economy in the world with a GDP of $1.5 trillion, the same as Russia’s.

This meeting, arranged by McMaster, came after Trump was described as having badgered South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whom he disliked, in phone conversations threatening to terminate the Korea-U.S. FTA and criticizing the trade deficit and the cost of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. Moon was said to have been conciliatory, saying Seoul wanted to work with Washington since trade and security matters were intertwined.

At one point, Mattis told the president, “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III.” He was said to have explained that without the intelligence capability and the forward deployment of the U.S. troops, the risk of war would vastly increase, and without such assets, the “only option left is the nuclear option.”

There was a détente on the Korean Peninsula following the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February, hosted by the South Korea, putting on hold the so-called U.S. maximum pressure campaign on the North. At one point, Dunford had to halt a U.S. Air Force test of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles from California into the Pacific Ocean, which had been scheduled to take place right before and after the Olympics. Those tests would have been seen as provocative by the North.

Kim Eui-kyeom, South Korea’s Blue House spokesman, told reporters Wednesday, “Journalist Woodward’s book is creating a lot of controversy within the United States. I believe it’s not appropriate for our government to say this or that on the issue.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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