“A gaffe,” journalist Michael Kinsley famously quipped, “is when a politician tells the truth — some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
When Steve Bannon — in the emerging Trump administration tradition of calling up a liberal journalist and pretending not to realize one is on the record in order to vent about one’s colleagues — shared his feelings with Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect on Wednesday, he dropped quite the Kinsley gaffe. He told Kuttner that the president’s stance on the world’s most dangerous foreign-policy crisis was mostly made of baloney: There is no military solution to North Korea’s nuclear program, because Kim Jong-un has enough artillery pointed at Seoul to lay waste to the South Korean capital the moment any conflict begins, nuclear or otherwise. “They got us,” Bannon concluded.
This was by no means an earth-shattering revelation: North Korea knows its artillery targeting Seoul is its insurance policy against a U.S.–South Korean invasion; that’s why they’ve aimed it there. The South Koreans know it, too, which is why even their more hardline politicians don’t actually want to go to war with the north. Japan knows it, China knows it, and everyone in the U.S. military and intelligence Establishment knows it. Hell, Donald Trump might even know it. This obvious truth is the reason why American threats of military action against North Korea are both flimsy and dangerous: Flimsy because Kim knows that we know that he would lay waste to our ally in a heartbeat the moment we declared war, but dangerous because one day he might figure we’re crazy enough to go through with it anyway and decide to shoot first.
But in politics and diplomacy, just because something is true doesn’t mean it can be acknowledged. For this administration, which has staked its North Korea policy on the hope that military threats combined with economic sanctions will shake Pyongyang into negotiating its own nuclear disarmament, having those threats revealed as mere bluster is a big problem — especially when our allies in East Asia are fearful of anything that might embolden the North Korean regime to lash out or engage in nuclear blackmail.
Accordingly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis moved quickly on Thursday to assure those allies that the U.S. was prepared to respond militarily to any hostilities or provocations by North Korea, such as its threat to launch a volley of ballistic missiles (sans nuclear payloads) into the waters near Guam, from which it had recently backed down. The U.S. is “prepared militarily” to respond to aggression from Pyongyang, Tillerson said, while Mattis elaborated that there would be “strong military consequences if DPRK initiates hostilities.”
Specifically, if Kim launches a missile toward Japan, South Korea, Guam, or any other U.S. territory, Mattis said, “we would take immediate, specific actions to take it down.” Speaking after talks in Washington with the Japanese foreign and defense ministers, Tillerson also said the U.S. would honor its defense treaty obligations with Japan “without reservation” —including in the event of military aggression by China regarding the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Bannon was not mentioned by name, though the subtweet was crystal clear.
Now, it’s important to note that Mattis did not say the U.S. would invade North Korea in response to a missile launch, but instead seemed to indicate that we would attempt to shoot down any missiles launched toward us or our allies. That’s a much less aggressive measure than whatever was implied by Trump’s recent threats to retaliate with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” — though some nuclear security experts warn that shooting them down might still escalate the situation if Kim interprets that as an act of war. Thus, it would be much better to convince him not to launch any missiles at all.
In threatening more severe consequences if North Korea acts as the aggressor, Mattis also left some room for ambiguity as to what would constitute “hostilities.” While there would be a strong temptation, especially on Trump’s part, to respond furiously to a provocative but not destructive missile launch, the Defense secretary’s language was no doubt meant to remind Kim that if he actually launched anything at (as opposed to over or near) the U.S. or our allies, his country would assuredly face the full force of the U.S. military and be utterly destroyed. Of course, our being prepared to respond ferociously to a clear-cut act of war was never in doubt — but would we fire the first shot? Kim knows, as Bannon admitted, we really can’t.
We can, however, remind the North Koreans of how much firepower we have at our disposal and how ready we are to dump it on them at a moment’s notice. The next chapter of this geopolitical drama will open on Monday, when the U.S. and South Korea are due to begin their regularly scheduled joint military exercises off the peninsula, which North Korea regularly denounces, interpreting them as preparations for an invasion. China had floated the idea of offering to postpone the exercises as a bargaining chip to entice Kim to talks, but neither Washington nor Seoul warmed to that idea. Speaking from Beijing on Thursday, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford underlined that the exercises were not up for negotiation.
For his part, South Korean president Moon Jae-in is walking a fine line between upholding a resolute posture toward the north and extending a hand of peace. Moon said on Thursday that his government would “block war by all means,” and told his countrymen that Trump had pledged to consult with them before making any military decisions with regard to North Korea. If Kim lashes out in response to next week’s exercises — say, with a missile test — we may soon find out whether Trump keeps that promise.