WASHINGTON — A year of erratic U.S. rhetoric and steadily escalating diplomatic and economic pressure has failed to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, leaving the frustrated Trump administration to reconsider its options going into 2018 as the world wonders whether it’s on the edge of war.
“We’re not committed to a peaceful resolution — we’re committed to a resolution,” President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, told BBC News this week.
“We want the resolution to be peaceful, but as the president said, all options are on the table. And we have to be prepared, if necessary, to compel the denuclearization of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime,” McMaster said.
Inside the administration and in Congress, officials are looking at a wide range of options for dealing with the regime of Kim Jong Un. Some are conventional, like continuing to pressure countries to fully enforce international sanctions meant to starve North Korea of cash and isolate it diplomatically. Some are less so: Two U.S. officials said Trump could consider taking the largely symbolic step of naming a retired military official to coordinate North Korean policy across all of government. That job currently falls to the special representative for North Korea policy, career diplomat Joseph Yun. Some in Congress want the administration to take a much harder line on businesses and countries that flout sanctions.
“We are not on the same sheet of music, when it comes to North Korea, in the U.S. government,” a senator’s senior foreign policy aide who tracks the issue closely told Yahoo News.
And there are more radical options short of an all-out war, including a one-off strike that a former senior U.S. official referred to as “the bloody-nose option” to try to force Pyongyang to negotiate.
In that scenario, the United States would hit a target relevant to North Korea’s missile or nuclear programs, far from civilians, Dennis Wilder, the top East Asia expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, told Yahoo News in an interview on December 15. It would be consciously modeled on Trump’s decision to order airstrikes on a Syrian airfield in April in response to the regime’s chemical weapons attack on civilians.
“They have a belief that they can do this,” Wilder said of the administration. “Call it ‘the kick in the shin,’ or ‘the bloody nose option’ — you take a single strike, you make sure that the Chinese, the Russians, everybody knows that it’s a single strike.”
That would reduce, though not eliminate, the likelihood of escalation, Wilder said, adding: “You could take that facility out and say, ‘Enough, Mr. Kim, it’s time for you to come and talk.’”
Another option, two congressional officials and one former White House official told Yahoo News, would be for the United States to show it’s serious about interdicting ship-to-ship smuggling. That tactic, aimed at getting around international sanctions, involves North Korean ships swapping cargoes with foreign vessels, usually bearing refined petroleum products.
“I expect we’re going to see more pressure from the U.S., in the form of harsher sanctions (both multilateral and unilateral) and increased maritime interdictions,” Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under Obama, told Yahoo News via email.
Washington has already imposed unilateral sanctions on ships that visit North Korean ports. But now, the sources said, some administration officials advocate boarding ships suspected of carrying contraband. The United States would invoke the principles of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a global post-9/11 program to prevent the spread of dangerous technologies. But Washington would have to tread extremely carefully: China never joined the PSI, and boarding a Chinese firm’s ship without Beijing’s at-least-tacit approval would test Sino-U.S. relations. And just who would do the boarding is another extremely sensitive question.
Regional tensions have steadily built over the past few months, with North Korea testing its most powerful nuclear weapon yet and firing its most advanced missile to date — a rocket widely believed to be able to reach anywhere on U.S. soil. From a technical perspective, it’s not clear yet whether the regime has a guidance system reliable enough to hit a specific desired target, or whether it has perfected the technology needed for its warhead to survive the heat of reentry into the atmosphere
Meanwhile, the Trump administration successfully wrangled 15-0 U.N. Security Council votes to toughen sanctions, returned North Korea to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, cheered as nations like Singapore and Sudan cut economic ties with the regime in Pyongyang, and successfully encouraged allies — like Germany — to reduce diplomatic engagement with the secretive Stalinist prison state. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly suggested North Korea would be welcome at the negotiating table without needing to agree to preconditions, then seemed to rescind the invitation. Tillerson also surprised longtime observers of Asian power politics by revealing that the United States and China — Pyongyang’s de facto patron — had discussed in considerable detail how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event the regime collapsed.
At home, the administration has stepped up its campaign to paint North Korea as a bad actor. First, there was a late-November op-ed by senior State Department official Brian Hook in the New York Times that compared Kim’s elite entourage to intestinal parasites. Then, on Tuesday, Trump homeland security adviser Tom Bossert publicly blamed North Korea for the WannaCry “ransomware” attack that disabled computers around the word in May — an unusual step, given how difficult it can be to definitively determine the authorship of online attacks.
“North Korea has done everything wrong as an actor on the global stage that a country can do,” Bossert later told reporters in the White House briefing room. “President Trump has used just about every lever you can use, short of starving the people of North Korea to death, to change their behavior. And so we don’t have a lot of room left here to apply pressure to change their behavior.”
In a little-noticed section of the White House’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) — a nonbinding document that lays out the president’s view of the world — the administration effectively laid claim to the right to preemptively and unilaterally disrupt future North Korean missile launches.
“The United States is deploying a layered missile defense system focused on North Korea and Iran to defend our homeland against missile attacks. This system will include the ability to defeat missile threats prior to launch,” the document says.
The NSS did not spell out whether this ability would involve traditional military force — like cruise missile strikes — or high-tech capabilities like hacking or the introduction of a virus. It also does not lay out how the United States would determine whether a missile poses a threat, or to whom.
The warning about possible preemptive U.S. action doesn’t come as a major surprise. U.S. officials, past and present, have discussed that possibility for years. The New York Times reported in March that former President Barack Obama waged clandestine cyberwar on North Korea’s missile launches.
“The president has made it clear that he would not tolerate a North Korean capability to strike the United States with nuclear weapons, and it is highly possible that North Korea may attempt to cross that threshold in 2018,” said Denmark, the Obama official. “President Trump’s response will be the critical moment in this crisis and will define geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”
The blustery talk from Washington — threatening to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, or “totally destroy” it, or suggesting North Korean leaders “won’t be around much longer” — while playing down the value of negotiations has made some wonder whether the administration is giving diplomacy a shot.
Amid talk of war, another North Korea expert predicts that the Trump administration would be “muddling through” 2018 without dramatic shifts on policy.
“The risk of ending program militarily is enormous compared with the risk of managing it,” Mike Green, who preceded Wilder as the top Asia hand on Bush’s National Security Council, told Yahoo News.
“If they shoot back, it’s tens of thousands killed in a conventional war and potentially millions if they use chemical or biological weapons, or target Tokyo with a nuclear missile,” he added.
Still, Green said, “living with North Korea, it’s not going to be comfortable. The term ‘live with’ actually sounds too comfortable.” Instead of the mutual deterrence of the Cold War, Washington needs to prepare to counter a nuclear North Korea’s efforts “to blackmail, intimidate, threaten” in a kind of “ugly deterrence” he said.
Still, there are some things that could be a prelude to armed conflict, like the withdrawal of U.S. government officials or their relatives from South Korea, as happened in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
“If there’s an evacuation, that means I was wrong,” Green said.
Another clue could be how big business, including firms with ties to China, operates in South Korea.
“Keep an eye on companies. Do corporations visibly start pulling out dependents, or changing their supply chains?” Green said.
Pyongyang has a say in the standoff, of course.
“Look at what — and when and where — the North Koreans test,” Green said. “Do they demonstrate their capability undeniably by blowing up something in the atmosphere?”
There are other things to watch as well, Green said, like whether and how the United States helps South Korea and Japan develop offensive military capabilities – and whether and how Washington tries to calm skittish allies in the region.
Another open question is “does Tillerson stay in office, and does he get enough of a leash to try diplomacy,” Green said.
The next few months will also provide a clue as to “instability within North Korea – answering the question of just how stable is the regime under sanctions pressure, and as sanctions ramp up,” said Green.
But the most important factor to watch is Trump himself.
“The real question is if the president will use military force to prevent North Korea from crossing the threshold of achieving a credible nuclear deterrent,” said Denmark. “If that happens, there is no prediction what happens next.”
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