The real reason for Mattis’ visit

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The real reason for Mattis’ visit

The biggest blessing of the internet is that it has made information free and open. It has brought doom to those who have capitalized on restricted accessibility to information. Today, anyone with the will can dig up the truth from the vast sea of the World Wide Web.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ recent visit to Seoul is one example. Mattis chose South Korea for his first overseas trip as secretary to reaffirm the United States’ “ironclad” commitment to defending its allies and upholding extended deterrence, including its plan to deploy the missile defense system known as Thaad in South Korea. Most traditional media outlets have echoed the statement, highlighting his pledge of an “effective and overwhelming” response to North Korean attacks and his reiterated support for Thaad.

But Washington had another motive that could easily be gleaned from looking at releases available on the Defense Department’s website.

According to transcripts of a press conference held onboard Mattis’ jet as he was flying to South Korea, the defense secretary made clear the primary purpose of his visit to Seoul and Tokyo. “Together, we confront the North Korean situation. And so I want to come. I want to listen to them, engage with their political leaders, listen to some of their briefs, get an understanding of their view of the situation.”

In short, Mattis has traveled to Asia before even devising Donald Trump’s strategy on North Korea. Trump’s stance on North Korea has been confusing. His recent response was to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address. “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” he tweeted. He has so far blamed China for doing too little to resolve the situation. But his policy direction on North Korea remains unclear.

The mood in Washington has, however, turned decisively hawkish ever since Kim declared Pyongyang was in the final stage of testing a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The U.S. government is toying with the idea of both preventive and pre-emptive strikes. During a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Bob Corker, chairman of the committee, challenged the new administration on whether it was ready to take policy alternatives like “pre-emptively striking a North Korean ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] on a launch pad.”

Although they sound similar, the ideas are quite different. A pre-emptive strike is the removal of potential weapons on signs of imminent danger from an enemy. A preventive strike destroys infrastructure to disable weapons before imminent danger occurs. A pre-emptive strike is condoned under international law; a preventive strike is not.

Trump’s idea of a precision attack on North Korea is not new. He has long thought about it, as he clearly wrote in his book “The America We Deserve” in 2000, where he envisioned a theoretical Trump administration nearly two decades ago. “What would I do in North Korea?
… Am I ready to bomb this reactor? You’re damned right. … As an experienced negotiator, I can tell you that negotiation with these madmen will be fruitless once they have the ability to lob a nuclear missile into Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. I don’t advocate thermonuclear war, but if negotiations fail, I advocate a surgical strike against these outlaws before they pose a real threat.”

There have been many mixed projections about what kind of a president Trump might turn out to be. Many believed he would not be able to pursue his unconventional agenda. But from the way he has been bulldozing ahead with his campaign pledge of building a wall along the United States’ southern border and clamping down on immigration, bombing North Korean nuclear facilities should no longer be shunned as an outlandish option.

Washington is concerned that North Korea now owns more than 10 nuclear weapons as well as ICBM technology. A dozen is quite different from one or two. It would be impossible to destroy a dozen with one strike. Instead, it will give North Korea the excuse to make its own counterattack. America may have to take a riskier choice before Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities reach that level.

The ironclad alliance and deployment of Thaad is important. But what should concern us more is Trump’s policy on North Korea. If authorities discussed the option of a precision attack or other details of Trump’s North Korea policy during Mattis’ visit in Seoul, they should share them with the public so that policy makers, presidential hopefuls and the people become seriously aware of the urgent state of our security.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 6, Page 30

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Nam Jeong-ho
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