Will Trump shoot first?

February 9, 2018

Hawks inside and outside the Trump administration are talking more loudly about a pre-emptive attack on North Korea. David Whitehouse explains what's going on.

AS THE Winter Olympics open in South Korea, the Trump administration and North Korea's Kim Jong-un are engaged in a tug-of-war for influence over South Korea's President Moon Jae-in--with the U.S. stepping up its threats of war.

The North agreed late last year to resume long-suspended face-to-face talks with the South, discussions that have brokered joint participation in the Games and the reopening of a military hotline at the border.

The Moon administration is hoping, perhaps unrealistically, to use the talks with the North to set the groundwork for direct discussions between the North and the United States over North Korea's nuclear missile program.

Donald Trump even agreed to postpone the massive annual U.S.-South Korean war games until after the Olympics and Paralympics are over.

Nevertheless, despite the lip service of support to North-South talks, the Trump administration and its militarist friends have repeatedly undercut Moon's Olympic "peace interlude" with a regular drumbeat of hostility toward the North. The harsh notes include highlighting North Korean human rights abuses, promising to tighten sanctions--and dropping ominous hints that the U.S. is getting ready to make a pre-emptive attack on Northern military or command facilities.

President Trump speaks outside the Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia

Is Trump serious about shooting first and risking the outbreak of a major war?

H.R. McMASTER, Trump's national security advisor, has long championed the idea of a pre-emptive attack on North Korea. The aim would be either to set back North Korea's nuclear and missile programs or convince the regime to renounce the programs altogether.

There may be little sense to this if we take into account the North's ability to retaliate--and thus, the possibility of a catastrophic escalation following a U.S. attack. If an attack makes any sense at all, there's not much time left to make the strike, since the North may be within months of creating an effective deterrent--a nuclear missile that could reach the U.S.

The time pressure resulting from North Korea's weapons development explains why advocates of a military strike have been so vocal lately. Last month, Foreign Affairs carried an article bluntly titled "It's time to bomb North Korea."

The author, Edward Luttwak, is a right-wing political scientist-for-hire to clients such as the Pentagon and National Security Council.

He acknowledges that the North could respond by attacking the Southern capital of Seoul with thousands of rockets and artillery pieces. That shouldn't stop the U.S. from attacking, says Luttwak, because it's the South's fault for not making better defenses.

This disregard for South Korean lives recalls what Trump told Sen. Lindsey Graham last year: "If there's going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong-un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they're going to die over there. They're not going to die here."

Overall, Luttwak envisages a broad attack that targets missile and nuclear facilities--if they can be found, since many targets are mobile or underground--plus an assault on the North's conventional batteries. In other words, he's calling for all-out war, soon.

Henry Kissinger also thinks an attack is a reasonable option--but maybe not such an extensive assault. Early this month, the 94-year-old Cold War criminal told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the case for a pre-emptive attack is "strong and the argument rational."

Kissinger, like McMaster, seems to advocate a "limited" strike to deliver what's been called a "bloody nose" to the regime, with the aim of avoiding a major escalation.

Unsurprisingly, the "bloody nose" theory is based on shaky assumptions. The idea that a military strike could be "limited" is based on an unfounded idea that the North wouldn't retaliate. If Kim Jong-un believes that the attack is the opening shot in a war, he certainly would fight back, since the survival of the regime would be at stake.

The "best-case scenario," in the words of analyst Van Jackson, writing for Politico, is that "Kim errs on the side of caution and decides that a U.S. preventive attack is not a war-launching action." But Jackson, who worked in Barack Obama's Defense Department, points out that Kim would still retaliate, even in this "best case":

If Kim recognizes a limited attack as being limited, then he's less likely to launch nuclear strikes, but much more likely to launch a retaliatory campaign of violence at a time and place of his choosing. To do otherwise would open him to charges of weakness and risk a coup d'état that ousts him from power...

[T]here is no way Kim and his advisers will accept a precedent of being bullied by its larger adversary, especially if they believe that adversary is pulling its punches to avoid war.

The other unfounded assumption of the "bloody nose" theory is that a limited strike would intimidate the regime into disarming. It's virtually certain that any U.S. attack which the North's regime survives will strengthen, not weaken, its resolve to build a deterrent that can target the U.S. directly.

THE TALK of war isn't just coming from foreign policy "consultants" outside the administration.

Two days after the State of the Union address, the New York Times reported:

The White House has grown frustrated in recent weeks by what it considers the Pentagon's reluctance to provide President Trump with options for a military strike against North Korea, according to officials, the latest sign of a deepening split in the administration over how to confront the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong-un.

Earlier the same week, the White House withdrew its endorsement from Victor Cha to serve as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, a post that has been empty since Trump took office. Cha has impeccable conservative credentials, but opposes a "bloody nose" strike on North Korea, as he soon made public in a Washington Post op-ed.

The leak to the Times and the administration's apparent pro-war litmus test for the ambassador's position both seem to indicate that Trump is serious about going to war. That, by itself, should make anybody take the threat seriously.

The evidence, however, is also consistent with the administration's desire to appear willing to make an unprovoked attack. It's in Trump's interest to create this impression.

For one thing, floating the idea of an attack can give the administration a reading of public opinion on the topic and may even influence opinion in the direction of favoring war.

For another, the threat of war fits right in with Trump's scheme of "maximum pressure" on the North Korean regime. It wouldn't be the first time that Trump cranked up the bluster against North Korea for this purpose.

And, of course, it's quite possible that both things are true. The signals about a possible attack may be chest-thumping--at the same time that the administration is really searching for an attack plan that it can use.

THE UNRELENTING campaign of "maximum pressure" isn't just directed at the North. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and assorted war hawks are also pressuring the South's Moon Jae-in to carry the hardest line in discussions with the North.

The Trump plan for tightening the noose around North Korea, sketched out late last year in the National Security Strategy document, requires U.S. regional allies Japan and South Korea to march in military and diplomatic lockstep with the U.S.

The administration's recent focus on North Korean human rights abuses has a special resonance in South Korea. Trump hailed a North Korean defector in the State of the Union Address and later met in the Oval Office with several more defectors. Scenes like these play into the hands of Moon's right-wing critics at home, who hope to make political gains against him by claiming that he's conceding too much to the dictatorship.

Pence himself will meet with Northern defectors in South Korea before the Winter Games begin.

At the opening ceremonies, Pence plans to sit with Fred Warmbier, who also served as a prop at Trump's State of the Union. He is the father of Otto Warmbier, an American tourist who fell into a coma while in North Korean custody and died last year, shortly after his return to the U.S. His presence is clearly calculated to throw cold water on the moment when North and South Korean athletes march into the stadium together under a "united Korea" flag.

For its part, the North is avidly competing with the U.S. to influence Moon's government.

The goal is to convince Moon that something useful may come from the recent engagement. To make this credible, Kim decided to send Kim Yong-nam, North Korea's ceremonial head of state, to head the North's delegation. The 90-year-old is not just a figurehead, but has experience as a negotiator through several U.S. presidencies.

Then Kim Jong-un upped the ante by assigning his sister, Kim Yo-jong, to attend the Games as well. She not only carries the semi-royal Kim name, but now acts as a high functionary in the operational center of the Northern state, the Organization and Guidance Department. She has been on the U.S. "sanctions list" since last year, but the Moon administration is seeking an exemption to allow her to visit.

Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have been noncommittal on whether Pence will meet with North Korean officials during the Games, though Moon does plan to meet with them.

Not to be outdone by Kim Jong-un, Trump will also be sending a family member, his daughter Ivanka, to preside over the U.S. delegation at the closing ceremonies.

MOON MAY be especially susceptible to pressure from the U.S. side, because the South Korean public is far from unanimous in approving of his recent engagement with the North. His approval rating dropped more than 10 percentage points in the past month, from a sky-high 73 percent down to 60 percent.

Young people in particular are angry with the way he has handled preparations for the Olympics, since he agreed to displace women hockey players to accommodate North Koreans on a joint team. Not to mention the sexism of disrupting the women's team--there was no question of fielding a joint men's team. South Korea's younger generations feel little affinity for North Korea.

For generations since the end of the Korean War in 1953, both the Korean left and right have been nationalists of a certain sort: They agreed on the goal of reunification of the partitioned nation.

The right favored force to achieve unity. By the 1990s, the liberals came up with the "Sunshine Policy" of President Kim Dae-jung, who favored peaceful reunification following Southern-assisted development of the North. Like the right's militarist policy, Kim's "Sunshine" was a program for taking over the North, except by economic absorption instead of conquest.

Moon was a protegé of Kim Dae-jung's, but Moon's version of Sunshine illustrates the rightward drift of South Korean liberalism. Kim is pursuing a course of militarization and seems to accept South Korea's status as a client of the U.S.

The generational shift of opinion complicates Moon's position further, because many of the "2030s"--South Koreans in their 20s and 30s--express a new kind of South Korean nationalism, one that does not dream of reunification and considers the North as a separate and hostile country.

The anger over displacement of South Korean women Olympians is not a small thing: It reflects the degradation of the basis for the past generation of liberal nationalism.

The upshot is that Trump may not have much trouble making Moon fall into line.

The liberal president who held office between Kim and Moon, Roh Moo-hyun, won election in the 1990s under the slogan of "A Korea that can say no [to the great powers]." Roh struggled with only partial success to live up to that mandate. Moon is even less independent.

Further Reading

From the archives