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Tell me how Trump’s North Korea gambit ends

People watch a television showing pictures of President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul in November. (AFP/Getty Images)

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts does not live inside the Beltway. That can be a very good thing, as it prevents insider gossip color my read of trends within American foreign policy. Occasionally, however, it means I am slower on the draw to shifts that matter.

Take North Korea. My position for most of this year has been that for all the Trump administration’s bluster on the DPRK, the lack of any decent military option rendered much of the war talk to be overblown wishcasting. As I wrote in September: “The current status quo is not great. Changing the status quo is not likely to make the situation any better and very likely to make things worse.”

So I was not troubled too much by Evan Osnos’s November warning that “members of America’s political class — the ‘blob’ of government officials, donors, and media types — have started to talk about war with Pyongyang as an increasingly likely prospect.” Similarly, Kori Schake’s warning from earlier this month that “the Trump White House talking about North Korea sounds eerily and increasingly like the George W. Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War” did not faze me too much.

I have spent the past week talking to people who are closely connected to the East Asia folks within this administration, however, and now I am seriously fazed. The message I heard was clear. Trump officials working on North Korea have developed the odd consensus that Pyongyang will use its nuclear arsenal to attempt a forcible reunification with South Korea. And if that is the goal, then time is running out for military options that would stop that from happening. In other words, I heard the exact same things as Osnos and Schake. The Trump national security team seems convinced that North Korea cannot be deterred, and war is the inevitable outcome.

What is equally disturbing is the lack of public debate on this question. Say what you will about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the Bush administration took seven months between talking about it and doing it. In that time, administration officials secured congressional authorization and tried to do the same at the United Nations Security Council. There was also a vigorous public debate on the question. With North Korea right now, there is a lot of chatter but no visible debate. Indeed, if the Trump team is leaning toward a preventive attack, a debate is the last thing officials want, for tactical reasons. It is impossible to have a public debate about a surprise military strike.

The chatter alone is disturbing enough for 58 retired U.S. military leaders to make a public plea for President Trump to pursue diplomacy:

Dozens of retired military leaders from across the services are writing to Trump to urge him not to start a conflict with North Korea, and instead to choose diplomacy.
“The current approach taken by the United States is failing to stop North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile technology,” states the letter, which will be sent to the White House on Wednesday. “The United States must initiate and lead an aggressive, urgent diplomatic effort to freeze North Korean nuclear and missile development and reduce regional tensions.”

This seems to be the preference of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. On Tuesday, Tillerson told the Atlantic Council that the United States was ready to meet without preconditions:

We’ve said from the diplomatic side we’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let’s just meet and let’s – we can talk about the weather if you want. We can talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about. But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face? And then we can begin to lay out a map, a roadmap of what we might be willing to work towards. I don’t think – it’s not realistic to say we’re only going to talk if you come to the table ready to give up your program. They have too much invested in it. And the President is very realistic about that as well.

With nascent signs that North Korea might also be ready to talk, Tillerson’s statement seemed promising … for all of 24 hours. Then the White House stepped in:

No negotiations can be held with North Korea until it improves its behavior, a White House official said on Wednesday, raising questions about U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s offer to begin talks with Pyongyang any time and without pre-conditions.
“Given North Korea’s most recent missile test, clearly right now is not the time,” a White House official told Reuters.

It did not take long for the State Department to walk back Tillerson’s statement:

So, in addition to the White House, Congress, Foreign Service and wider foreign policy community, it would appear that Tillerson has now lost the support of his own spokeswoman.

With the administration’s leading spokesman for diplomacy doing nothing but occupying negative space, that leaves the hawks planning a military option. This is disturbing, for two reasons. First, there is still a lot of room for coercive diplomacy, as Michael McFaul noted a few weeks ago.

Second, for the life of me, I cannot conceive of a military option that would not lead to a catastrophic loss of life. This has been pointed out many times this year. Barry Posen articulated this argument rather convincingly in a New York Times op-ed last week:

Even if an American first strike knocked out North Korea’s nuclear capacity, millions of South Korean civilians, and American and South Korean soldiers, would be vulnerable to retaliation with conventional or chemical weapons. Pyongyang could devastate Seoul and kill tens of thousands of people….
To plan a surprise, the United States would have to make as few visible preparations as possible. Washington could not significantly increase its forces in the region without raising alarms in the North. The South Koreans would have to be kept in the dark, and they could make no preparations for war. Nor could American civilians be alerted and evacuated from South Korea. Any preparations would have to be masked behind other more normal activities such as training exercises….
The complexity, risks and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high. A combination of diplomacy and deterrence, based on the already impressive strength of South Korean and United States conventional and nuclear forces, is a wise alternative.

Maybe Trump’s national security team is trying to bluff its way into getting North Korea to back down. But having seen this White House shoot itself in the foot repeatedly, I now worry that Trump, Kelly and McMaster actually think there is a military solution.

Someone smarter and better-informed than me needs to tell me how this ends. Because every time I try to game it out, a Trump-Kim confrontation ends with hell on Earth.