CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in January 2018 that Pyongyang was within “a handful of months” of being able to deliver nuclear warheads to the US. Donald Trump proposes to meet with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in May 2018. North Korea may agree to pause missile and nuclear testing while talks continue, but it is unlikely to agree to the long standing American demand for “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” [CVID]. Subsequently, Trump may declare the meeting a failure, and declare that having exhausted diplomacy and sanctions, the matter must be resolved by other means. Beginning in early 2018, the US military began an "OPSEC Reset" which greatly reduced the public visibility of ongoing activities. This heightened operational security would help presever the element of surprise for an American sneak attack on North Korea.
Korea Crisis - Trump 2018 "Bloody Nose"
Donald Trump said 18 January 2018 he was willing to negotiate directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over his country's nuclear weapons program but expressed doubts the crisis could be resolved "in a peaceful way." On 26 January 2018 U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States will continue to "hold the line and provide credible military options" to diplomats working to de-escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula and address Pyongyang's nuclear and missile threat.
Two former US secretaries of state on 25 January 2018 warned lawmakers of a marked rise in nuclear dangers stemming from North Korea's race to develop atomic weapons and the means to deliver them. 'We will hit that fork in the road, and the temptation to deal with it with a pre-emptive attack is strong, and the argument is rational, but I have seen no public statement by any leading official,' President Nixon's secretary of State told members of the Committee. 'The most immediate challenge to international security is posed by the evolution of the North Korea nuclear program,' Kissinger told the Senate Armed Services Committee, describing an 'unprecedented' scenario. "For the second time in a decade, an outcome that was widely considered unacceptable is now on the verge of becoming irreversible," he said.
Shultz expressed alarm about what he sees as changing attitudes regarding the use of atomic weapons. "President Reagan thought nuclear weapons were immoral, and we [the Reagan administration] worked hard to get them reduced," Schultz said. "I fear people have lost that sense of dread [about nuclear weapons], and now we see everything going in the other direction. The more countries have nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that one is going to go off somewhere, and the more fissile material is lying around, anybody who gets fissile material can make a weapon fairly easily."
Trump made statements during his State of the Union speech on 30 January 2018 that suggested that he was amenable to military action. "North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland," he said. "We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening. Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position."
The Washington Post reported on 30 January 2018 that the White House would pass on its original candidate for U.S. ambassador to South Korea Victor Cha after he disagreed with President Donald Trump's policy on North Korea. Seoul reportedly approved Washington’s nomination of Cha in December, hoping to have him in place before the start of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It is very rare that an ambassador designate is not appointed after securing his diplomatic approval from a relevant country.
Cha objected to the Trump administration's considerations of a limited military strike on North Korea designed to send a message to the regime without triggering a war. The report said that Cha, who served as director for Asian affairs for the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, also disapproved of Trump's threats to terminate a bilateral free trade agreement with South Korea.
In a Washington Post opinion piece (“Giving North Korea a ‘bloody nose’ carries a huge risk to Americans”, January 31, 2018), Victor Cha details telling the administration, “The answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike,’ before being dropped from contention for the ambassador post.
The White House distanced itself from Victor Cha in a press briefing on 01 February 2018. State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert stressed that Cha had never actually received an official nomination from President Trump, and that the media went ahead with the assumption that he would be appointed next Ambassador to South Korea. She also stressed that Washington's policy on North Korea remains the same, and that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula through diplomacy was the ultimate goal.
The statement came in response to the 'bloody nose' option that Trump officials were said to be considering, as described by Cha in his op-ed in the Washington Post. 'Bloody nose' refers to a preventive military strike on North Korea, to shock the regime into appreciating U.S. strength, or in other words, 'give Kim Jong-un a "bloody nose"'.
Cha said he voiced his opposition to the White House but the sudden withdrawal of Cha from consideration for ambassador led to speculation that the Trump administration was not only dissatisfied with Cha's stance on that policy but also considering the 'bloody nose' option much more seriously than previously thought.
However, a South Korean diplomatic source told reporters on 02 February 2018 that the withdrawal was not because of Cha's opposition to military options against North Korea, and that this was supported by credible information. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added that several other factors contributed to the decision, and while military action is not off the table, it was not a feasible option at this current time. North Korea watchers in Seoul also agree on this possibility.
"The U.S. is perceiving the completion of North Korean ICBM as a kind of red line. If that happens the U.S. territory will be threatened. Maybe the U.S. will use some of military options, but I think that would only be for the worst case, and until then the majority of U.S. policy will be sanctions and pressure."
The South Korean government was reluctant to comment on Cha's situation, as it was a White House internal affair, but with the PyeongChang Winter Olympics just around the corner and North Korea participating in the games, the reasons behind Washington's withdrawal of Cha as the next envoy to Seoul seemed to be gathering unwanted and untimely attention.
Victor Cha suggested that "there is a forceful military option available that can address the threat without escalating into a war ... the United States must build a maritime coalition around North Korea involving rings of South Korean, Japanese and broader U.S. assets to intercept any nuclear missiles or technologies leaving the country. China and Russia should be prepared to face the consequences if they allow North Korean proliferation across their borders."
On 22 October 1962, President Kennedy announced the establishment of a naval blockade or "quarantine" of Cuba. The US sent 183 naval ships into the Caribbean. Ship commanders received instructions to search cargo vessels headed for the island--a violation of the rules of international law. Soviet vessels, meanwhile, were proceeding to Cuba as well. The US warships stood in their path. Tensions heightened. A new stop-and-frisk blockade of North Korea would probably prove just as exciting.
But Cha did not unpack precisely what problem his proposed embargo of North Korean shipping would solve. If the concern was shipments of entire long range ballistic missiles to al-Qaeda affiliates, it might do some good, but this is rather far fetched. If the concern was the threat the North Korea's nuclear capabilities posed to the immediate region, such a blockade would be irrelvant. If the concern was collusion between Iran and North Korea, it would also do not much good. North Korea has direct non-stop commercial air connections with Iran. The material of greatest concern would be shipments of dozens of kilograms of plutonium - not hard to hide. The other material of concern would be technical data on missile designs, but this could reside on thumb drives, or in the heads of returning Iranian rocket scientists.
The New York Times reported 02 February 2018 that the Department of Defense (DoD) had been slow to release their detailed war plans with the White House as they fear US President Donald Trump may actually use them. The Times reported that the DoD had been "worried that the White House is moving too hastily toward military action on the Korean Peninsula that could escalate catastrophically" and that "giving the president too many options… could increase the odds that he will act."
The Times' anonymous source claimed that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr. were both heavily opposed to the use of force on the Korean Peninsula, as military action could have cataclysmic consequences. Instead they want to opt for diplomacy to deescalate the stand-off that has worn on since April 2017.
This put them in opposition to National Security Adviser H R McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who have floated the idea of a strategic military strike against North Korean nuclear sites in the case that diplomacy breaks down.
A US National Security Council (NSC) official reportedly suggested that a limited preemptive strike on North Korea could help the Republican Party in the upcoming midterm elections -- a claim rebutted by the White House. The alleged comment, which was sourced from a scathing opinion column published 02 February 2018 by the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, was also tweeted by a Wall Street Journal reporter.
"Indeed, White House National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs Matthew Pottinger was reported as saying in a recent closed-door meeting with US experts on Korean Peninsula issues that a limited strike on the North 'might help in the midterm elections,'" read the English-translated version of the op-ed.
However, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders fired back at the reporter, rejecting the claim by the Korean paper. The alleged quote first appeared in an earlier article by the Korean newspaper's Washington correspondent, which cited a source as saying that Pottinger's suggestion was implied, and not a direct quote, according to Business Insider.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|