Donald Trump has provided no shortage of ominous signals about his intentions for the Korean peninsula. The president has vowed to meet any gesture of aggression from Pyongyang with a devastating nuclear attack “like the world has never seen”; boasted that his nuclear button is “bigger and more powerful” than Kim Jong-un’s; and said, while posing for a group photograph with his highest-ranking military advisers, “You guys know what this represents? Maybe it’s the calm before the storm.”
Still, as unnerving as these remarks were, it wasn’t hard to dismiss them as the weightless provocations of a reality star-in-chief. The president shouldn’t issue belligerent threats that have no relation to his administration’s actual foreign policy. But he does so all the time. Thus, so long as the signs of imminent war were coming from Trump’s Twitter feed — and not from his administration’s concrete actions — it was possible to believe that the White House understood that dropping a few missiles on Pyongyang would accomplish nothing beyond the deaths of thousands of innocents.
But the administration’s rejection of Victor Cha is a different story. For months, Cha had been preparing to become America’s next ambassador to South Korea. A former director of Asia policy in the George W. Bush administration, Cha is widely respected in Seoul, and widely regarded as a “hawk” on foreign-policy questions in Washington. In December, the White House formally notified the South Korean government that Trump would ask the Senate to confirm Cha to the ambassadorship.
Less than two months later, Cha is no longer under consideration for the post. The White House has leaked word that the reversal was caused by a “red flag” in Cha’s background. But this explanation is difficult to reconcile with the timing of the move: When the administration informed Seoul that Cha was its man, the White House had already been vetting the ambassador for months.
Cha’s close associates tell a simpler — and scarier — story: The Korea expert told the administration that its plan to launch a limited, “bloody nose” strike against the Kim Jong-un regime was strategically incoherent, and likely to get tens of thousands of people killed — and the White House promptly lost interest in having him around. As the Washington Post reports:
Two people who know Cha suggested Trump aides had second thoughts on his nomination over policy disagreements with him concerning how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile testing. Cha had forwarded articles to the NSC about the risks of a preemptive U.S. strike, and his colleagues at CSIS, including another former Bush administration official, Michael Green, had published their own analyses warning against such a strategy.
Cha appeared to tacitly confirm this account Tuesday night, when he took the unusual step of publishing a Washington Post op-ed imploring the administration to reconsider its approach to North Korea. In that column, Cha made quick work of the logical contortions the White House must perform to reach the conclusion that the way to stop nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula is to drop a couple missiles on Pyongyang:
I empathize with the hope, espoused by some Trump officials, that a military strike would shock Pyongyang into appreciating U.S. strength, after years of inaction, and force the regime to the denuclearization negotiating table…the rationale is that a strike that demonstrates U.S. resolve to pursue “all options” is necessary to give the mercurial Kim a “bloody nose.” Otherwise he will remain undeterred in his nuclear ambitions.
Yet, there is a point at which hope must give in to logic. If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind? And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?
Cha then turns his fire on the morally odious argument that “the risks are still worth taking because it’s better that people die ‘over there’ than ‘over here’” — and notes that this reasoning makes no sense, even if one stipulates that only American lives have value.
On any given day, there are 230,000 Americans in South Korea and 90,000 or so in Japan. Given that an evacuation of so many citizens would be virtually impossible under a rain of North Korean artillery and missiles (potentially laced with biochemical weapons), these Americans would most likely have to hunker down until the war was over…To be clear: The president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city — Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati — on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power.
Cha’s column makes it abundantly clear that the only problem a “limited” strike against North Korea could conceivably solve is a domestic political one: Trump needs to perform his “toughness” on North Korea without starting a nuclear war (and it’s far from clear that a “bloody nose” attack would satisfy the latter criterion).
It’s possible that the administration isn’t cynical. National security adviser — and alleged “adult in the room” — H.R. McMaster has repeatedly sounded belligerent notes about North Korea. But it’s hardly more comforting to imagine that our leaders are earnestly delusional in their war planning, rather than ruthlessly nihilistic.
In his State of the Union address last night, Trump said of North Korea, “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.”
If Trump believes that his predecessors’ primary foreign-policy error was a reluctance to wage preemptive war, then he will surely repeat the mistakes of past administrations.
Update: The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports that the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea remains to exert “maximum pressure with the aim of creating the conditions for negotiations”; that multiple NSC officials “share many of the concerns Cha expressed in his op-ed”; and that “a bloody nose attack on North Korea is not happening any time soon.”
Rogin’s piece does not provide an alternative explanation for Cha’s dismissal. But it does establish that, at the very least, the White House has no interest in making a public case for a “limited” strike on the North Korean regime.