Back to the ‘bloody nose’?
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, DC.
Amidst the euphoria in Seoul and among President Trump’s loyalists over the outbreak of “peace” on the Korean Peninsula, few are remembering that it was the president himself who originally threatened to use military force to end Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. The president was not alone: outgoing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton were both advocates of limited military strikes, as was then-CIA Director and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Though the White House officially denied having a plan for a “bloody nose,” that was merely a semantic dodge, since the term “bloody nose” was coined by Pentagon planners and not the President or the National Security Council. There clearly was a serious look at stopping North Korea with force.
Moreover, there was a certain logic to that military option, even if the majority of security experts in the United States (including this author) strongly opposed it because of the risk of general war and the improbability of eliminating all of the North’s capability. North Korea’s November 2017 Hwasong-15 test had demonstrated Pyongyang’s ability to strike the United States with an ICBM capable of mounting a nuclear warhead. Because the missile was solid-fueled and road-mobile, the United States would have had only limited options for pre-emptively destroying the missile before launch. That meant the North Koreans for the first time would have to be deterred by what is called “mutual assured destruction” (MAD) — the concept that Pyongyang would not attack with nuclear weapons for fear of being completely destroyed by a U.S. counter strike. The advocates of military action last summer argued that Kim’s regime was too criminal, too aggressive, and too cult-like to be deterred by the same rational calculations that worked with the Soviet Union and China. They simply saw Kim Jong-un as too much of a gambler. Last summer, the CIA assessed that the last step before the North perfected their ICBM capability would be testing a re-entry vehicle that would enable the nuclear warhead to survive.
Donald Trump convinced only his hard-core Republican supporters when he said that he completely solved the North Korean threat in Singapore in June (this is ironic, since those same voters two years ago were the most hardline on North Korea in public opinion polls). Despite positive gestures such as the return of U.S. remains from the Korean War and possibly the shuttering of a rocket test site at Sohae, there is no substantial diminishment of the North Korean nuclear and missile threat nor any evidence beyond conjecture that Kim Jong-in has any intention of going down the denuclearization path. This reality has thus far not had any apparent effect on Donald Trump’s calculation. He continues to brag about the number of media who attended the Singapore summit as if that were the measure of success. However, his national security team has been forced to explain the limited progress on denuclearization to Congress and Secretary Pompeo and others have put in the position of having to ask for patience and more time.
Politically, there is little merit for Trump to announce before the U.S. mid-term elections in November that he was duped by Kim Jong-un, and as long as Pyongyang does not visibly betray him by testing missiles or nuclear weapons before then, the President’s loyal supporters in the media and Congress will refrain from calling the Singapore summit anything less than a success. In addition, the realists on Trump’s national security team (which is most of them) can take some measure of comfort from the fact that the diplomacy has at least forestalled testing of the North’s re-entry capability.
That is only small comfort, though. The price was high — legitimizing Kim Jong-un; cancelling bilateral military exercises with the Republic of Korea in a way that rewarded Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang’s longer-term goal of delegitimizing alliance-based deterrence; and ignoring human rights abuses in the North. And the virtual “freeze-for-freeze” has only limited shelf-life. As Bruce Klingner highlighted in a recent Heritage Foundation report, the U.S. intelligence community has warned that North Korea has increased its production of fissile material and has upgraded its missile launcher, re-entry vehicle and warhead facilities. The Sohae facility is irrelevant to these capabilities at this point and even if shuttered would not constitute a significant reduction of the material threat from the North. More troubling, Kim Jong-un has ordered mass production of nuclear weapons and missiles since Singapore. The “freeze” — such as it is — will melt in real terms in a matter of months given these other developments.
While Trump declared victory in Singapore, he did not take military options off the table rhetorically and his national security has not done so substantively. U.S. military firepower has only increased in Northeast Asia in recent months. Indeed, given the nature of the North Korean threat, it is prudent to keep all military options on the table.
A preventive attack will be a harder sell to the international community and the U.S. Congress than it was last summer. In part this is because there was little support in Congress in the first place. To some extent, Trump’s excessive triumphalism after Singapore will also weaken his credibility as a messenger for military action in the future. However, his unprecedented summit could also provide grounds for his administration to argue that they tested diplomacy and proved conclusively that it failed.
Some in the Blue House will be tempted to prevent the return of military options by hyping the results from engagement. That would be a mistake. Seoul will need to think hard about sticks that it can bring to the table when it becomes obvious that Pyongyang is on the path of increasing nuclear weapons rather than eliminating them. If the discussion switches from carrots back to sticks, the Moon government will want to be ready to argue for the right kind of sticks.