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Trump impatience could yet trigger war

US saber-rattling over North Korea remains a risk despite Pyongyang-Seoul talks

U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One upon departure from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Jan. 12.   © Reuters

Do the recent conciliatory talks between North and South Korea portend a new opening for diplomacy in the peninsula's security crisis, or is a U.S. military strike on North Korea, one with likely catastrophic consequences, still looming?

The respite created by the negotiations is a welcome, but almost certainly, temporary palliative. The upcoming Winter Olympics spurred U.S.  President Donald Trump to agree to postpone military exercises, which in turn helped enable successful North-South Korea diplomacy that resulted in North Korea's proposed participation in the games and a relaxation of tensions.

Unfortunately, it is more likely to cause a rift between Washington and Seoul than to spur meaningful diplomacy.

Why? As sure as night follows day, major U.S.-South Korean military exercises set for April will go forward, and satellite imagery shows North Korea tunneling at its nuclear test site. Nor has Pyongyang abandoned its quest for a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile -- still several steps, and likely two-three years away -- according to informed technical analysis.

Iraq War rhetoric

More worrisome, the Trump administration's rhetoric sounds disturbingly like that of the Bush administration in 2002 before the Iraq War. The argument is there is a growing threat and time is running out. Just recall the then National Security Advisor Condeleeza Rice warning of taking action over Iraq before there was "a mushroom cloud." In short, the Trump White House is seriously overstating the urgency and the threat while grossly underestimating the risks and consequences of military intervention.

The Trump administration continues to actively debate what Trump National Security Advisor Gen. H.R. McMaster called "preventive war." The term being bandied about in the White House and among U.S. forces in Korea is giving Kim Jong Un "a bloody nose." Likely triggers for U.S. action would be another ICBM test or a North Korean atmospheric nuclear test.

There is a dubious logic behind this debate, based on a belief articulated by McMaster that North Korea is "undeterrable." For half a century, we lived with 30,000 Soviet nuclear weapons. Since 1964, we have lived with Chinese nuclear weapons -- which at the time sparked similar fears of the consequences if Mao Zedong got nuclear weapons. Containment and deterrence have an impressive track record.

To be fair, there is legitimate concern about Kim Jong Un's intentions. He may want an ICBM tipped with an H-bomb to up the ante and better deter U.S. attack. But he could also use it for coercive purposes. He might threaten a limited nuclear war to try and intimidate the U.S. off the peninsula, and/or to coerce South Korea into unification on Kim's terms. After the recent North-South talks, Cho Myoung-gyon, the South's unification minister, observed that, "Now that they are at the completion phase [with their nuclear weapons], they are coming up with new rhetoric that they haven't been emphasizing for a long time, like unifying the peninsula under a socialist regime."

This perceived shift is very troubling. But if moves in that direction were discerned, why couldn't the US wait until then to launch a pre-emptive attack?

It must be said that the U.S. administration is not of one mind on whether a pre-emptive strike is necessary soon, even without a North Korean attack.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford have spoken of assured and overwhelming U.S. force -- but only in response to North Korean military aggression. However, according to McMaster, "classic deterrence theory" does not apply to Pyongyang because it "engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people," and "poses a continuous threat to its neighbors in the region and may now post a direct threat to the U.S." McMaster says that "If they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States. It's intolerable from the president's perspective."

From this view, the mere possession of a nuclear-armed ICBM by North Korea is an intolerable threat. Thus, Trump has said he "will solve the problem." What is meant by "a bloody nose" is a limited strike, likely on North Korea missile launch sites since we do not know what tunnels and mountains Kim's mobile missiles are hidden in nor how many and exactly where all his nuclear weapons are.

Irrational rationale

There appears an unstated assumption that Pyongyang would not retaliate and risk escalation. This is a contradictory argument: Deterrence does not work because Kim is irrational and brutal, but he will not retaliate to a pre-emptive U.S attack because his priority is regime survival (thus he is rational). A "bloody nose" would therefore be a U.S. strike to demonstrate American seriousness and perhaps force Kim to the reconsider his options.

This is a serious mistake. Pyongyang has thousands of long-range artillery pieces within reach of Seoul that could fire more than 1,000 rounds per minute, tens of thousands or more dead -- including some of the roughly 200,000 Americans in Seoul at any given time -- even if it did not escalate further. What is more, Kim would likely respond and put it on the U.S. to escalate further. Never underestimate the "fog of war" factor.

A military conflict could break Asia the way the U.S. invasion and protracted war in Iraq sparked the unraveling of the Middle East. A worst case, but not implausible scenario, could see people killed not only in Korea, but Japan as well, the end of U.S. alliances, a nuclear South Korea and Japan, a greatly reduced U.S. role in the region -- not to mention the impact on the global economy.

The irony and potential tragedy would be if all this were brought on by U.S. impatience. The comprehensive U.N. Security Council economic sanctions may be starting to disrupt the North Korean economy. The last two rounds of sanctions, passed after Pyongyang's last ICBM, and then nuclear tests, dramatically curb all North Korean exports and severely limit imports of oil. This may be one reason why Kim Jong Un declared in his New Year speech, which also offered North-South talks, that: "We achieved the goal of completing our state nuclear force in 2017."

Kim's newfound conciliation may be the first hint of sanctions disrupting the North Korean economy. Recent reports are that China's trade with North Korea (which is 90% of the total) was down 84% last year, as Beijing appears to be implementing sanctions. It took more than two years of financial sanctions to bring Iran to the table, it is possible Kim's survival instincts could trump his ambitions. Premature U.S. action could invoke Thomas Hobbes' warning that, "Hell is truth seen too late."

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.

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