The American media and South Korean media are seized today with new speculation that the Trump administration is intent on moving forward with a “bloody nose” limited military strike on North Korea — a horrendously risky move that could spark a nuclear confrontation. But everybody should take a deep breath; President Trump isn’t about to push the “bloody nose” button.
There are two reasons that old reports that the administration is considering a “bloody nose” strike are resurfacing now. First, the Trump administration abandoned plans to nominate Victor D. Cha as U.S. ambassador to South Korea, and reports Tuesday said it was because he had expressed objections to the “bloody nose” strike to National Security Council officials. Cha’s Post op-ed Tuesday night warning about the risk to Americans of such a strike seemed to confirm the connection.
The second reason folks in Washington and Seoul are newly concerned about what Trump might do on North Korea is the strong language the president used in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night.
“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,” Trump said. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies.”
Trump also said the United States was waging a campaign of “maximum pressure” to prevent North Korea from achieving the capability to strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear-tipped missiles. But he didn’t mention negotiations or engagement with Pyongyang, as he did in Seoul in November, and he focused on the effort to undermine the credibility of Kim Jong Un’s regime.
The coincidental timing of these two stories was enough for the intelligentsia in Washington and Seoul to go into full freakout mode. Tons of hot takes were written with headlines such as “Trump Just Gave The Clearest Signal Yet That He Wants War With North Korea.”
Several administration officials and experts tell me the truth is more complicated. Most important, they say, the Trump administration’s North Korea policy of applying maximum pressure with the aim of creating the conditions for negotiations, as was decided in a thorough interagency review and approved by the president last spring, has not changed.
“The policy is supposed to be that we are open potentially down the road to talks with North Korea but only in a multilateral forum and only after a sustained and undefined period of no provocations,” a senior administration official said.
That policy still has the support of the president, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Matthew Pottinger (who led the interagency policy review), the official said. The White House is determined not to get drawn into a negotiations where Pyongyang demands bribes for temporary concessions, and there must be some indication that the Kim regime is willing to seriously negotiate, which hasn’t happened yet.
Still, “if we assess that they are coming to the table not to play that game, we’re open to talk to them. That’s not now,” the official said. “We’re not going to define it, we’ll know it when we see it.”
The pressure campaign can continue for at least a few more months before Pyongyang actually reaches its goal of acquiring an intercontinental missile capable of striking the United States with a nuclear warhead, according to what CIA Director Mike Pompeo said publicly this week. Officials insist that any suggestion the NSC is pushing the “bloody nose” option is wrong. Yes, the Defense Department was tasked to include a limited military strike as one of several options for consideration because the president requested a full range of options. But the term “bloody nose” did not come from the White House, and NSC officials share many of the concerns Cha expressed in his op-ed.
James Carafano, vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation, told me that while he agreed the “bloody nose” option was a “bloody stupid idea,” it’s premature to hyperventilate about it because the administration is simply not at the stage where military options are being debated in earnest. People should follow the new National Security Strategy’s more detailed policy on North Korea, he said: “People need to start reading the translations and stop listening to Trump.”
The confusion about America’s North Korea policy is a problem the Trump administration must address. But despite that confusion, exaggerating the notion that a “bloody nose” strike is imminent only exacerbates the risk of miscalculation that could lead to the very conflict we are all trying to avoid.