Dangers of a ‘bloody nose’This past week, Washington was full of drama as the media reported that the White House had halted plans to nominate my friend and colleague Victor Cha as the next ambassador to South Korea.
The Washington Post, New York Times and multiple other media outlets explained that the nomination was halted over Cha’s internal questioning of plans to hit North Korea with a military strike in order to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear and missile programs (sometimes referred to as the “bloody nose” option).
The exact state of that planning and the exact reasons for the White House retreat from nominating the widely respected Cha remain shrouded in some mystery, but one thing appears clear: The entire episode has forced open a debate on whether there is an immediate military solution to the North Korean problem.
This debate was building in Congress even before the White House decision on the ambassadorship. Briefed on the options to deal with the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, Republican members of Congress had been quietly expressing concern to the administration that the option of preventive war would be illegal under international law — and possibly under the U.S. Constitution, which gives basic war powers to the Congress.
On Jan. 30, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a full and open hearing on North Korea to air these concerns. I was invited as the majority — Republican — witness to give my views, together with Adm. Denny Blair, the former Pacific commander and director of National Intelligence, and Kelly Magsamen, the Obama administration’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia. We all gave different versions of the same argument against the use of preventive military force.
First, preventive military action designed to compel North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs would probably not work and would entail considerable risk of escalation. This would be less true, we argued, in the case of U.S. and South Korean retaliatory military action in response to North Korean provocations, since Pyongyang would better understand the scope and reasons for the military action.
Indeed, we all argued that the United States and South Korea had to be prepared for decisive responses to North Korean provocations, lest Pyongyang conclude that nuclear and missile programs gave it greater impunity for such provocations. But a preventive military strike would be counterproductive to our objectives.
Second, deterrence and containment of North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile capabilities are possible. We cannot rely on passive deterrence — the idea that our capability for massive nuclear retaliation alone will be sufficient to keep the North Korean threat at bay — but with more aggressive sanctions and interdiction to constrain inward and outward proliferation by the North, we can manage the threat without the unacceptable risk of escalation to war.
Third, we must recognize that part of Pyongyang’s goal is to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea so that Seoul might be isolated and coerced into making concessions. American talk of preventive military war ironically feeds into this strategy by increasing U.S. tensions with South Korea and Japan.
In response to these points, members of the Armed Services Committee asked questions on how the United States could work with South Korea and Japan to build a new strategy of containment and deterrence of North Korea. The members generally expressed support for a more robust military posture and aggressive implementation of sanctions and interdiction. None rose in support of a preventive military strike.
The next day, Cha published an article in the Washington Post expressing his opposition to preventive military action. The article galvanized editorial and congressional opinion. Anonymous White House sources tried to respond by arguing that there was no policy problem and that Cha had instead hit some vetting problem, but no reporters or members of Congress were buying that line since his name had already been sent to South Korea for agrément.
So then White House officials retreated somewhat and told Josh Rogin of the Washington Post that there had actually never been serious plans to conduct a so-called “bloody nose” hit on North Korea.
That was probably not true. The Senate hearings were based on concrete briefings members heard. There was ample evidence unearthed by the New York Times and others that serious consideration was being given to military options.
That may still be the case. Indeed, it would be prudent to keep all options on the table when dealing with a threatening and recalcitrant North Korea. But the broad sense in Washington is that some of the momentum behind unilateral military action has now abated, even if only temporarily.
Where does that leave the U.S.-South Korea alliance? Probably a bit shaken. But the Moon government needs to move away from a binary debate in which Seoul posits unrealistic scenarios for diplomatic breakthroughs with Pyongyang and parts of the Trump administration argue that military action will force the North to capitulate.
The reality is that despite the generally successful expansion of sanctions and application of “maximum pressure,” the United States and South Korea are very likely to face a North Korea that continues arming itself with nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. That will require a joint strategy of containment and deterrence.
The two governments should make the elements of that strategy an urgent matter for discussion and planning going forward. The Winter Olympics have provided something of a pause, but come spring, the North will be demanding concessions and preparing for another round of crisis escalation.
*The author is the senior vice president for the Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.