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Opinion Bannon is right about North Korea

Stephen K. Bannon in the White House in Washington on Jan. 31. (Ron Sachs/Pool via Bloomberg)

In Washington, a “Kinsley gaffe” is when someone tells an obvious truth that isn’t supposed to be said. Such was the case when White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon told a reporter, in an interview published Wednesday, that there is no viable military option for stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

Bannon’s view is that any preemptive attack on North Korea would result in horrendous casualties in South Korea and elsewhere and therefore cannot be seriously considered. That view is shared by many officials, former officials and North Korea experts. Whether President Trump believes it is unknown.

By publicly declaring that the U.S. threat of military force in North Korea is a bluff, Bannon may have undermined the credibility of that threat. He may also have nudged the United States toward a more diplomacy-focused approach and reduced the risk of war.

“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it,” Bannon told the American Prospect. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”

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He also said the Chinese government is not serious about helping the United States and its partners. “It’s just a sideshow,” Bannon said about Beijing’s efforts. Bannon is arguing for tougher measures against China on several fronts.

Why does North Korea hate the U.S.? Look to the Korean War. (Video: Anna Fifield, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: KOREA NEWS SERVICE/The Washington Post)

For many North Korea watchers, Bannon was simply acknowledging a reality that the parties involved already understood; there is no viable scenario in which the United States could initiate a first strike against Pyongyang.

“He’s absolutely right,” said former North Korea nuclear negotiator Joel S. Wit. “This is not a credible threat, and it really hasn’t been since the 1990s. We’ve been pretending it’s credible, but it really isn’t.”

Such a move would guarantee devastating retaliation by Kim Jong Un against South Korea, Japan and the tens of thousands of U.S. troops there. Moreover, there’s no real way to be confident a U.S.-led military strike could destroy all of the dispersed and hidden components of North Korea’s illicit programs.

Throw on top of that the danger that Kim could use a nuclear weapon, and it’s clear the United States can’t strike first. It’s likely a coincidence, but South Korean President Moon Jae-in also publicly declared that the military option is not on the table this week.

“I can confidently say there will not be a war again on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said. “The U.S. and President Trump also said, no matter what option they take about North Korea, all decisions will be made after consulting with and getting agreement with the Republic of Korea,” he added.

Not everyone is convinced that Trump’s military threat is a bluff. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said last week that Trump told him he would bomb North Korea if the Kim regime insisted on developing the means to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

Some point to Trump’s threats against North Korea as resulting in Kim’s decision to step back from his own threat to launch missiles in the direction of Guam. But the exact reasons for Kim’s change of tone are unclear. And in that case, Trump was threatening retaliation, not a first-strike option.

The question going forward is what effect Bannon’s comments will have on the ongoing crisis and the surrounding diplomacy. One the one hand, he may have undermined the Trump administration’s drive to exert “maximum pressure” on North Korea, which was meant to include sanctions as well as the credible threat of military force.

Wit said that since the North Koreans understand the military dynamics as well as anyone, that threat was never really credible in the first place.

“They figured out a long time ago the U.S. isn’t going to do anything,” he said. “Bannon may have undermined our pressure campaign, but the threat of military force has been a diminishing tool all along.”

The larger effect could be that the Trump administration could now coalesce around a more diplomacy-focused strategy and move closer to direct negotiations with Pyongyang. Although Bannon didn’t specify his preferred policy, the alternative to attacking is clear: continuing to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on North Korea while exploring the chance for dialogue.

The United States and North Korea have maintained a quiet diplomatic channel over the past months that could be used to set up more substantial negotiations. The Trump team has told foreign interlocutors that it remains open to negotiations with Pyongyang under the right conditions.

Whether or not Bannon intended his remarks to be public, his warnings about the foolishness of attacking North Korea are correct, and they might even be helpful. Now all he has to do is convince his boss.