Strategic impatienceDuring a private seminar sponsored by a large financial institution, former U.S. President Bill Clinton was asked what he regretted most while in office at the White House. After the first North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 1993, Clinton and his defense and policy aides studied the option of striking its nuclear facilities in June 1994. Then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam protested strongly. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) predicted casualties of 1 million if there was another military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
What the attendees at the meeting did not know was Clinton’s real thoughts. He told them he regretted having not gone through with the plan, seeing today’s developments in North Korea, meaning its remarkable advances in nuclear weapons and missile capabilities. I thought it shocking that the former U.S. president regretted preventing another war in Korea. I tried to confirm his comment, but could not get a response.
In an op-ed in “The Hill” last week, James Woolsey, who headed the CIA at the time and advised Clinton against a strike on North Korea, called on U.S. authorities to be prepared to pre-empt a North Korean nuclear attack even if they have to use their own atomic bombs. Woolsey, who was a senior adviser to then-president-elect Donald Trump before abruptly resigning in January, criticized Washington and the mainstream media of underestimating Pyongyang’s nuclear threat and capabilities,. He also seems to regret the inaction of Washington in 1994.
Despite the hawkish advice from the former Clinton team, officials in Seoul remain skeptical of a strike being implemented this time around.
Such optimism is based on three reasons.
First of all, Seoul believes Washington would not be able to consider a preemptive strike that could bring a catastrophic response from Pyongyang — as long as Seoul opposes.
Second, Washington can hardly take the option due to logistical problems. In other words, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact location of North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons. It also would not be easy to hack into the North’s computer systems for its weapons program. In addition, Seoul and Washington lack human networks of agents in North Korea.
Last but not least, there is an even graver risk of removing Kim Jong-un. The crumbling of the Kim dynasty would send the elite and military forces fighting among themselves to get their hands on the nuclear weapons and prompt thousands of North Koreans to flee, causing enormous confusion in neighboring countries. Seoul maintains Washington would not dare to take the risk.
All these points make perfect sense. The problem is that things do not always go in the sensible and desired way. After a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said in Seoul that all options were on the table to resolve the North’s ballistic missile and nuclear threats, the mood in Beijing has changed, according to a source well-connected with senior officials in Beijing. Chinese authorities feel that their U.S. counterparts were not merely bluffing but are quite serious about the military option.
Tillerson also told Chinese officials that there were calls in Washington for tougher actions against the North beyond the realm of economic sanctions. The Chinese believe U.S. defense authorities have studied the option of a preemptive strike on the North. Trump and Xi Jinping will likely address the nuclear conundrum during their talks on Thursday and Friday in Florida.
Whether bluffing played a part or not, we should be relieved to see that Washington and Beijing are seriously discussing and coordinating. But we should be prepared for the fact that Trump could be in Clinton’s shoes. And given his nature, Trump may not hesitate to take action. He may not think thoroughly about the consequences as Clinton did. Even Clinton now regrets not having attacked North Korea. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se claims that Washington won’t surprise us. But he should not be so certain. We must pull ourselves out of the backseat and jump into the driver’s seat on North Korean issues.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 4, Page 30
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.