Talk of ‘Preventive War’ Rises in White House Over North Korea

August 21, 2017



An Air Force Rockwell B-1B Lancer, left, and a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker on the tarmac at Andersen Air Force base in Yigo, Guam, this month. The North Koreans have delayed a threatened set of tests that they said would put four missiles into the waters off Guam. Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Not since 2002, as the United States built a case for war in Iraq, has there been so much debate inside the White House about the merits — and the enormous risks — of pre-emptive military action against an adversary nation.

Like its predecessors, the Trump administration is trying to pressure North Korea through sanctions to dismantle its nuclear program. But both President Trump and his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, have talked openly about a last-resort option if diplomacy fails and the nuclear threat mounts: what General McMaster describes as “preventive war.”

Though the Pentagon has prepared options to pre-emptively strike North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites for more than a decade and the past four presidents declared that “all options are on the table,” the rote phrase barely seemed credible, given the potential for a North Korean counterstrike against Seoul, South Korea, that could result in tremendous casualties in a metropolitan area of 25 million people.

But as the Trump administration moves ahead on Monday with a new round of long-planned military exercises that involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops, computer simulations of escalating conflict and perhaps overflights of nuclear-capable aircraft, the White House is determined to leave the impression the military option is real.

“Are we preparing plans for a preventive war?” General McMaster asked recently in a television interview, defining the term as “a war that would prevent North Korea from threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon.”

He answered his own question: “The president’s been very clear about it. He said he’s not going to tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States.”

Much of this could be posturing, designed to convince the North’s unpredictable dictator, Kim Jong-un, and Chinese leaders who are eager to preserve the status quo, that they are dealing with a different American president who is determined to “solve” the North Korean problem, as Mr. Trump puts it, rather than hope that sanctions will eventually take their toll.

But even if Mr. Trump has no real intention of using military force, convincing adversaries and allies that he is willing to make a move that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all considered too dangerous has significant value.

Whether Mr. Trump is truly prepared or bluffing, presidential advisers, military officials and experts whom the White House has consulted leave little doubt in conversations that the Trump administration is confronting North Korea’s nuclear program with a different set of assumptions than its three immediate predecessors.

There are two notable departures from past assumptions.

General McMaster, a military historian, insists that the United States cannot count on containing or deterring North Korea the way it deterred the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. That runs contrary to the conclusion of past senior policy makers that what worked against large nuclear powers will suffice against an economically broken nation with a modest arsenal.

And General McMaster and other administration officials have challenged the long-held view that there is no real military solution to the North Korea problem — though they are quick to acknowledge that it would be “horrible,” as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it.

Already those two new assumptions have prompted a sharp reaction. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, in an effort to calm his own public, insisted at a news conference last week that he holds a veto to any military action.

“No matter what options the United States and President Trump want to use, they have promised to have full consultation with South Korea and get our consent in advance,” he said. “The people can be assured that there will be no war.”

The North has also seized upon General McMaster’s line and declared on Sunday that as the military exercises begin, “the Korean People’s Army is keeping a high alert” and “will take resolute steps the moment even a slight sign of the preventive war is spotted.”

Mr. Trump’s top national security officials seem to be trying to walk a fine line, stopping short of the kind of bald threats that the president has issued in tweets but making clear he is ready to wield a big stick.

“Knowing that North Korea sits with a significant capability already within their grasp, I think it is only prudent that they fully understand the consequences should they make a bad choice for themselves,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson told reporters on Thursday after meeting with the Japanese foreign and defense ministers in Washington.

He never specified the “bad choice.” But as George F. Kennan, the diplomat and the author of the theories for containing the Soviet Union, told students at the National War College in 1946, “You have no idea how much it contributes to the general politeness and pleasantness of diplomacy when you have a little quiet armed force in the background.” Mr. Tillerson seems to be adhering to that advice.

At the same news conference, Mr. Mattis described a situation in which the United States would act without seeking agreement from the South. If American forces in the Pacific detected a missile launch by North Korea toward American or allied soil, “we would take immediate, specific actions to take it down,” he said.

Mr. Mattis’s assertion left open the question of whether the United States would, through direct attack or cybersabotage, try to destroy North Korea’s missiles before they left the launchpad. That, in turn, could trigger a bigger operation — a plan called Kill-Chain that was named in a recent joint statement from the United States and South Korea — to systematically wipe out North Korea’s launch sites, nuclear facilities and command and control centers.

Its own authors have doubts about whether Kill-Chain could be executed swiftly enough to work, but the decision to publicly refer to it was deliberate, senior officials say. While the plan itself is classified, its goal is a systematic elimination of the North’s ability to threaten South Korea, Japan and the United States.

Among the skeptics of a pre-emptive strike was Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, who was fired on Friday. Just days before, he had declared in an interview with The American Prospect, a liberal magazine, that “there is no military solution here, they got us.”

That is the conventional view. But General McMaster took issue with his predecessor in the Obama administration, Susan E. Rice, who argued in a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times that preventive war would be “lunacy.” (Preventive war describes a conflict that a stronger power starts to defeat a weaker rival and is widely considered illegal under international legal conventions. A pre-emptive strike involves attacking first when an imminent attack is detected. In American history, the debate over the two goes back 180 years, to an 1837 dust-up with Canada.)

“History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea — the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War,” she wrote.

General McMaster, appearing on ABC’s “This Week” a few days later, shot back, “How does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?”

Mr. Kim is more unpredictable than the Soviet Union was, aides to Mr. Trump have argued. And they have raised the possibility that Mr. Kim’s real motive is blackmail, according to officials familiar with Situation Room discussions about the North. By threatening Los Angeles or Chicago, they argued, he may be hoping to intimidate the United States into providing aid, or cast doubt in South Korea and Japan that the United States would come to their aid if a regional war broke out.

White House and Pentagon strategists have internally talked about another scenario, in which an uprising in North Korea leads American, South Korean and Chinese forces into a scramble to find the weapons, or tempts a rogue North Korean military officer to let loose a single nuclear device to take out Americans or their allies in one last blast of retribution.

All these factors, American officials insist, lie behind the public talk about taking military action. And they expect diplomacy to fail, they say, doubting that Mr. Kim would ever give up the nuclear deterrent that he views as his only insurance policy. Pyongyang’s official newspaper declared anew on Friday that the country “will never put the nuclear deterrent for self-defense on the negotiating table and flinch even an inch from the road of bolstering up the state nuclear force.”

That leaves Mr. Trump facing the potential consequence of his own threats. If he lets Mr. Tillerson try to negotiate a freeze of nuclear and missile tests in North Korea, as many experts argue he should, he will have delayed the crisis, but not resolved it. If he orders more cyber and electronic attacks, he may delay progress on weapons, but little else. And yet the military options he has so openly threatened may prove hollow.

“There is no such thing as a surgical strike against North Korea,” Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the RAND Corporation, said in one of its recent publications. “We don’t really know for sure where all their weapons are.’’


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