Converging signals from the United States, Japan, South Korea and even the United Kingdom indicate that a US military strike on North Korea is more likely than ever – adding urgency to the peace initiatives launched by South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the imminent Winter Olympics.
US President Donald Trump, speaking in his state of the union speech late Tuesday, US-time, called North Korea “a menace that threatens our world” and introduced victims of the regime which he said had a “depraved character,” and poses a “nuclear threat to America and to our allies.”
The speech followed closely on surprise news that Washington’s ambassador-designate to Seoul, Korean-American academic Victor Cha, had been dropped by the administration over his disagreement with the administration’s provisional plans for a limited military strike on North Korea.
Cha himself published an attack on the strike option approximately half an hour before Trump began his speech.
Noting that “North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said the US was “waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening.” While he did not reference an attack on North Korea, he added that he would not repeat the mistakes of past administrations, who, he implied, had allowed the North Korean threat to increase.
“We only have to 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 said.
Raising emotions, he introduced the tearful parents of US student Otto Warmbier, who was last year released from captivity in North Korean captivity with brain damage, only to die at home days later. Trump also introduced North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, who lost an arm and a leg as a child in North Korea, and who brandished his crutches to applause.
“You are powerful witnesses to a threat that menaces our world,” Trump said.
The president did not make any reference to a strike on North Korea, but the issue is front and center now that its perils have been raised by Cha with such dramatic timing.
Ex-ambassador designate assails attack option half hour before State of Union speech
The Washington Post reported earlier on Tuesday that two persons close to Cha suggested that the academic had been dropped due to his disagreement with a limited or “bloody nose” military strike on North Korea. That option has been hinted at by US National Security Advisor HR McMaster and others in the Trump administration.
Cha himself followed up on the news by penning a scathing op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post’s online edition just prior to Trump’s speech.
In the op-ed, the Georgetown academic and Korea expert noted that any limited US strike would be unable to impact North Korea’s key strategic assets, which are “buried in deep, unknown places impenetrable to bunker-busting bombs,” and could prompt North Korea to proliferate weapons of mass destruction in a “vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us.” Cha warned that “hundreds of thousands” of US civilians in Asia might be at risk as they would be unlikely to be evacuated before an attack, along with “millions” of Asian lives.
And he warned of an apocalyptic scenario: The US might not be able to “control the escalation ladder” following an American attack, Cha wrote.
Instead of a strike, Cha suggested a broader, four-pronged strategy. The US should continue to strengthen the multinational alliance that is pressuring North Korea via sanctions; up-gun Japan and South Korea; and build a maritime coalition to both embargo North Korea and provide a layered missile defense system. Finally, he warned that the US military must be prepared for battle, as “Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first” adding, “…but not through a preventive strike that could start a nuclear war.”
Cha’s withdrawal is likely to dismay Seoul, which has been without an ambassador since Obama-appointee Mark Lippert left the post in January 2017. Cha, while conservative in outlook, is widely acknowledged as an expert on the Koreas, and has also sided with South Korea against the Trump administration’s demand for the renegotiations of a bilateral free trade agreement.
US military sources grim; allies prepare for worst
Sources in the US military appear to be taking the North Korean threat with the utmost seriousness.
Last week, the commander of the US Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, said troops must be “psyched” for war with North Korea. He said a war on the peninsula would not involve “just a bunch of things flying around,” but clarified, “I wasn’t saying it’s going to happen, I hope it doesn’t happen, I don’t want it to happen.”
US Marines based in Okinawa provide a critical maneuver element in any conflict on any war on the peninsula.
Some believe that the various signals the US is sending are merely bluffs aimed at North Korea. But in Seoul last week, two US officials who work on intelligence matters with two different branches of the US armed forces said in off-the-record conversations that they believe a US strike on North Korea is now more likely than not. Like Cha, they warned that US civilians might not be evacuated before such a strike eventuates.
Their opinions on the strong likelihood of a US attack are also shared by a separate Korea watcher who works with the US military in Washington DC.
All three sources were communicating off the record, as they do not have permission to speak to media.
Meanwhile, allies are acting.
Japanese cities have been holding widely publicized missile attack drills, and Japan has also agreed to purchase land-based Aegis anti-missile missiles. On Jan 21, The Times of London reported that British officers had quietly visited Seoul to investigate how to evacuate some 8,000 British expatriates in South Korea in the event of conflict. Senior retired officers have also been speaking to British media about the possible role of Britain in a Korean conflict.
The UK and Japan are the United States’ closest military allies in Europe and East Asia. Both, unlike South Korea, have resident US ambassadors.
A narrow window of opportunity
These various developments are taking place just prior to the opening of the Feb. 9-25 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. At the urging of Moon, Trump has agreed to halt winter military drills during the Games, which will be attended by North Korean athletes and officials.
This gives Moon’s reconciliation and peace offerings toward North Korea a narrow window of opportunity. While the world saw Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech as the breakthrough that enabled North Korean participation in the Games, there are credible rumors circulating in Seoul that, in fact, North and South Korean officials were meeting last year in China to make it happen. Moon has made clear that he sees the Winter Games as an opportunity to open a communications channel with the North, which he hopes to extend beyond the Olympiad.
Senior North Korean officials, US Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and possibly Trump family members are expected to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on the evening of Feb. 9.
It remains to be seen how – or whether – Moon can broker a meeting between these parties.
US and South Korean officials have made clear that joint military drills will take place after the Games. North Korea is always intensely sensitive about these spring drills, which bring off-peninsula assets to the region.
Customarily, Seoul and Washington portrayed these drills as defensive in nature, but observers from neutral nations who report directly to the UN Security Council have not always concurred. With North Korea’s nuclear threat escalating, the most recent exercises have included more offensive options, including so-called “decapitation strikes” aimed at the North Korean leader himself.
Moon has made clear that he is not in favor of military action, indicating that any US move would be undertaken, not by the 28,500 US forces based in South Korea, but by offshore assets such as carrier groups, submarines and stealth bombers.
Given this, military pundits in regional capitals including Pyongyang will be carefully watching which US units and assets deploy to the region after the Winter Paralympics conclude on March 18.