The U.S. as regional riskThe recent launch of a Hwasong-15 missile should underline clearly that North Korea is the ultimate source of risk on the peninsula. But recent statements coming out of Washington have compounded rather than relieved anxieties. With the United States about to enter a period of profound political — and even constitutional — challenges, is the Trump administration now the most significant source of short-term risk in Northeast Asia?
Recent remarks by high-ranking officials have claimed the chances of war are increasing. For those who believe in the overwhelming military superiority of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, these statements are puzzling. A strong deterrent — maintained by South Korean presidents on both the left and right — has prevented the outbreak of major conflict on the peninsula since the armistice was signed. Why would that deterrent fail now?
The answers coming from the Trump administration are surprisingly straightforward: that the initiation of conflict could well come from the United States rather than North Korea.
In two important interviews last week, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster denied that the logic of deterrence will continue to work against Kim Jong-un. McMaster outlined a far-fetched scenario in which North Korea would use its nuclear weapons to undermine the alliance, drive U.S. forces out of the South and even seek to unify the peninsula on its own terms.
McMaster evaded a direct question on the prospect of a preventive or pre-emptive war. But the conclusions were hard to avoid. He claimed that the potential for war “was increasing every day” and that in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough, “the president’s going to take care of it by, if we have to, doing more ourselves.”
A second striking remark came from Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, considered an expert on foreign policy. Graham made the startling assertion that the U.S. military should stop allowing dependents to accompany American soldiers stationed in Korea.
The reason? Not only that North Korea was behaving provocatively but because the United States might be forced to take pre-emptive action. Graham said he believes Trump had authority to initiate such an attack, and that it would be justified in the name of denying North Korea an effective nuclear capability.
Imagine the mood in Seoul if the president were to stop accompanying dependents from living in Korea, or worse still, issued a Noncombatant Evacuation Order. The conclusion would not be that North Korea was poised to strike, but that the United States was.
These bits of news are known to most Koreans that follow the U.S.-Korea relationship. But harder to follow is the trail of evidence suggesting illegal conduct by the Trump campaign, administration officials and even the president himself.
The investigation by Robert Mueller was set up to probe Russian interference in the U.S. election but is now asking whether his team colluded with the Russians, whether illicit funding entered the campaign, and even whether the president obstructed justice by seeking to block the investigation.
As the circumstantial evidence of wrongdoing by key advisers mounts, the president has been more and more brazen in his conduct. The purpose is not simply to distract attention from his potential legal woes. The purpose appears to be to make statements and take actions that are so outside the norm that they project an air of impunity.
Will his Korea policy become the victim of this deepening domestic drama? I have two sources of confidence that worst-case scenarios won’t materialize.
The first is the alliance. I admit to discomfort about President Moon Jae-in’s continual claims that war “cannot be allowed to happen.” Even if North Korea crosses crucial red lines? Unwillingness to act in the face of provocations is not stabilizing; it is destabilizing.
Nonetheless, Moon — and the deeper U.S.-South Korea relationship — will hopefully act as a brake on extreme risk-taking. No action in and around the peninsula should be taken without prior consultation between Washington and Seoul.
Second, even as a critic of Trump, I have confidence in the military backgrounds of a number of his closest advisers. Those who have actually fought are often more cautious than civilians who haven’t.
As a result, it is not surprising that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sometimes appears a more ardent defendant of a negotiated settlement than his boss. Strategies like the interdiction of North Korean vessels — not to be confused with a blockade — would mark an escalation in the standoff with North Korea. Yet such measures could serve as a palatable option to military action.
But what confidence do any of us have in where Trump might go? That uncertainty runs deeper, and is precisely why the United States may now be the greatest source of short-term risk on the peninsula.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog.