The more things change…The rhetoric of war surrounding the Korean Peninsula the past few weeks is almost unprecedented. The hysteria about war in 2002 was based on one line in President George H.W. Bush’s State of the Union address calling North Korea part of an “axis of evil,” which the left-leaning press in South Korea amplified, while the 1994 fears of war were based on contingency planning in case North Korea reacted belligerently to implementation of UN Security Council sanctions. This time the rhetoric is far more intense, with President Donald Trump threatening to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Meanwhile, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is making sure that the world knows the United States is prepared for the option of a pre-emptive military strike to stop the North’s aggressive development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
In response Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called on all sides to lower the level of tension and President Moon Jae-in has declared that the United States cannot conduct any military action without prior consultation with Seoul, prompting U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Dunford to reconfirm that the United States would of course consult with Seoul first in any such scenario. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed appreciation for North Korea’s pause in escalation, but the military option is still clearly on the table.
So where is this heading?
At one level, there are compelling reasons why the United States (and South Korea) must show greater resolve and military readiness right now. First, it is critical that Pyongyang not conclude that greater long-range missile capabilities will weaken American extended (nuclear) deterrence. The North likely hopes for “de-coupling” — the idea that the United States will lose its resolve to use nuclear weapons to defend allies if the U.S. homeland itself is threatened. The fact is that American policy makers and Congress have faced this challenge before during the Cold War and recent U.S. opinion polls continue to show the highest levels of support for defending South Korea ever. It is still appropriate to give a robust demonstration of capability and commitment in joint exercises and declaratory policy.
Second, it is vital that the United States and South Korea demonstrate that Pyongyang’s increasing nuclear and missile capabilities will not deter us from resolutely responding to provocations. We must not let the North think that they now have greater impunity to conduct dangerous attacks like the treacherous attack on the Cheonan.
Third, credible joint exercises and resolve are necessary to shake Beijing out of its complacency. The North Korea nuclear threat has reached a new level, and Beijing’s cooperation at the UN Security Council notwithstanding, China has been too ecumenical with North Korea, too hard-line on Seoul, and too eager to park the North Korea problem in a U.S.-DPRK dialogue that would go nowhere.
In fact, it is very likely that a President Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush would have taken very similar steps to those now being taken by the Trump administration, given the new level of the threat. These hypothetical administrations would also probably have asked for the military’s options for pre-emptive strikes as a prudent precaution. The big difference would have been that they would not have used the hyped-up, pro-wrestling rhetoric of Trump.
But there is no doubt that the experienced national security leaders working for Trump know full well the political-military situation on the Korean Peninsula, including the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ and the potential for calamitous casualties should there be escalation. There is also realism about how effective a pre-emptive strike would be in terms of actually eliminating the North Korean arsenal, which is dispersed and hidden. At the same time, resorting to pre-emption because diplomacy has failed is only one scenario. There are other scenarios that could involve North Korean preparation to launch a nuclear-tipped missile where the option of pre-emption would look somewhat less extreme.
It is also useful to consider how the new Trump administration has used military power elsewhere in the world. In Syria, the President responded to the use of nerve agents on civilians by turning to his generals for a prudent and proportional missile strike on Syrian forces. The administration’s recent decision to increase U.S. force levels and execute a new military strategy in Afghanistan, while controversial with the left and with “America First” isolationists on the right like former Presidential advisor Steve Bannon, was nevertheless also a proportionate, deliberate and prudent use of military power.
None of this is entirely predictive. North Korean actions are increasingly dangerous and will shape how the United States, South Korea and the international community respond. But setting aside the President’s hyperbolic rhetoric, there is more continuity and bipartisanship to the tough stance of the Trump administration than meets the eye, as well as full recognition by the professionals that whatever we do, we go together.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 25, Page 27
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.