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Want to Open the Ultimate Pandora's Box? Bomb North Korea

The Skeptics

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made waves last week when he suggested that military action against North Korea was an option. He pointedly said that former President Barack Obama’s ‘strategic patience’ approach was over. Tillerson did not say what military options were under consideration, but bombing is the likely choice. The US has air superiority over North Korea by a wide margin, while it is unclear what kind of naval action would be available, and ground action of course has huge risks.

The idea of retaliating against North Korea has, of course, been around for a long time. North Korea provokes South Korea, Japan, and the United States regularly. Several of those provocations were severe enough that military action would likely have enjoyed some global acceptance. In 1968, the North Koreans captured the USS Pueblo, a naval intelligence vessel, and held the crew for almost a year. In 1969, North Korea shot down a US reconnaissance plane, killing the crew. In 1998, North Korea shot a missile over Japan. In 2010 North Korea sank a South Korean corvette and shelled a South Korean-held island, killing fifty. Yet in each case, the US, South Korea, and Japan choose to defer. The reasons for that restraint are broadly still in place and will likely inhibit President Donald Trump as they have previous US presidents:

1. Seoul is extremely vulnerable to North Korean counter-fire:

This is probably the greatest military constraint. South Korea is badly configured for a protracted bout of tit-for-tat retaliation and counter-retaliation with North Korea. This is not like Israel’s ability to strike Arab opponents with limited counter-strike vulnerability. Seoul and its surrounding Kyeonggi province lie right on the demilitarized zone border. Kyeonggi includes 55% of the entire South Korean population and is the economic and political heart of this highly centralized country. This megalopolis makes for a big, hard-to-defend, easy-to-hit target should Pyongyang hit back against an airstrike.

2. Trump would need the political approval of South Korea and Japan:

Those countries would bear the brunt of any retaliation. Legally, Trump could proceed of course, but he would destroy the US alliance with either or both if they did not approve. While Japan under hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might run the risk, South Korea is effectively unable to respond now, because its president has been impeached. Seoul is led by a caretaker government at the moment, and the left, which would almost certainly disapprove of airstrikes, is widely expected to win the upcoming May election.

3. Such a strike would not be brief or ‘surgical;’ it could last days or even weeks:

As such, it would soon look more like a war rather than a limited action. North Korea has spent decades tunneling to protect its military assets after it suffered under an extraordinarily punishing U.S. air campaign during the Korean War. It has also invested in road-mobile launchers and submarines. If the US were to try to hit all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile assets, the air campaign would likely be extensive and lengthy. If it did not, North Korea might well use its remaining assets to strike South Korea and Japan. The longer the campaign dragged on, the more likely North Korean counter-action would become. A slide toward all-out war would loom.

4. We do not know what North Korea’s red-lines are:  

The Korean People’s Army (KPA) presumably has war plans, just as we do. Those plans almost certainly have flash-points for how to respond to allied action. Given that its nuclear and missile programs are North Korea’s most valuable assets, after the leadership itself, it is easy to imagine that the KPA would hit back. Also, the longer the U.S. air campaign lasted, the more it would look like a war, not a limited action. There would be rising pressure throughout the North Korean elite to do something, and given that the KPA’s access to the highly-constrained national budget turns on its reputation as the state’s ferocious defender, the brass would almost certainly be howling to hit back hard. Again, the slide from a limited action toward war would loom.

5. North Korea would almost certainly use human shields:  

Assuming the U.S. air campaign did not end in short order, the North would almost certainly start wrapping potential targets with civilians. The North Korean elite let one to two million of its citizens starve to death in the late 1990s famine. They would have no compunction to once again sacrifice their people.

6. Such an airstrike would wreck America’s relationship with China, the most important bilateral relationship in world politics, for years, perhaps decades:  

Any U.S. campaign would take place over China’s objection, and the U.S. would almost certainly not provide any advance notification. China loathes North Korea but fears its collapse and U.S. military hegemony in Asia even more. The U.S. has always grappled with how much to let North Korea impinge on its relationship with China. While Washington desperately wants Chinese assistance on the North, it has never risked the entire relationship, in all its many important aspects – trade, investment, China’s dollar reserve holdings, the South and East China Seas, climate change, and so on – on the North Korea question.

These costs and constraints do not make airstrikes impossible, but they have impeded kinetic options in the past, and I see no reason why they do not this time as well. That the US is considering airstrikes anyway, despite these high hurdles, suggest just how dangerous North Korea has now become.

Robert Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. More of his writing can be found at his website. He tweets at @Robert_E_Kelly.

Help Wanted: National Security and State Department Reporter

The Skeptics

The National Interest, a print and online magazine focusing on international affairs, foreign policy, national security, domestic politics and more is searching for a national security reporter to join our online editorial team. This position is based in Washington, D.C.

This exciting position entails writing daily news articles concentrating on the State Department and National Security Council from a realist and restraint-oriented perspective in foreign affairs.

This position requires the following skills:

• Reporting and writing on defense and national security issues on a daily basis.

• Covering key players in the foreign policy establishment. A proven record and extensive contacts are a must.

• Ability to break news and cover emerging events.

• Experience in journalism (2 years or more) or online writing/blogging, a background in defense and national-security writing and familiarity with tools used in web production will particularly stand out on an application.

• Successful candidates will also have the ability to write clearly, intelligently, and thoughtfully keeping in mind short deadlines and fast turnaround times.

• A bachelor’s degree in one of the following disciplines: political science, history, and/or international affairs. A master’s degree in one of the above is highly desirable. 

All applications must submit the following: cover letter, résumé/CV, and a writing sample of 500 words or more to: [email protected].

Is McCain Beyond His Prime?

The Skeptics

Sen. John McCain has the reputation of a foreign-policy maven. He pays attention to little other than foreign affairs. When he ran for president in the midst of the 2008 financial crisis, he admitted that he didn’t know much about economics, which helped doom his candidacy. Unfortunately, he shows no greater sophistication when it comes to his favorite topic.

Nor does he brook disagreement, even if well founded. In his view, those who disagree with him are little better than traitors. Especially Americans who believe that Senator McCain’s most important duty is to protect this nation.

In fact, he has routinely advocated what amounts to sacrificing U.S. interests while pushing confrontation and sometimes war with a long list of countries around the globe: Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Iran, North Korea and, worst of all, Russia. There is scarcely a conflict he doesn’t want the United States to plunge into. And rarely a military deployment he does not want to make permanent. Whatever the international issue, he sees U.S. military action as the answer.

In his view, circumstances are irrelevant to foreign policy. Insurgency and secession in the Balkans. Terrorism in Central Asia. Dictatorship and conflict in the Middle East. Nonproliferation in Northeast Asia. The geopolitical detritus of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In every case he pushes military intervention and action as the answer.

Most notably, Senator McCain does not appear to view a threat to the United States as necessary for going to war. Only in the case of Afghanistan was the United States attacked, and by a terrorist group located within the country, not the government. Within weeks, Washington had scattered Al Qaeda and ousted the Taliban regime, punishing it for hosting the terrorist group. Yet more than fifteen years later, he insists that America must continue its Quixotic quest to create a liberal Western-oriented republic where one has never existed, governed by a strong central government in Kabul, which has never ruled the many villages and valleys across the land.

In no other case were the targets of U.S. action interested in fighting the United States. Not Serbia, Iraq, or Iran. Certainly not Libya or Syria. Not North Korea, which wants to deter American military action rather than trigger it. Not even Russia, which desires respect and security rather than conflict. But for McCain, the military is not a last resort or even just another option. It’s a first resort almost irrespective of the issue. Bomb, invade and occupy, and if that doesn’t work, bomb, invade and occupy some more.

Senator McCain’s lack of geopolitical sense has been on dramatic display with the issue of NATO expansion. Never mind that the transatlantic alliance was created to promote U.S. security. In recent years NATO has added numerous nations that are security black holes, offering far more costs than benefits. The alliance was established to temporarily shield war-ravaged, vulnerable Europe from Soviet aggression; it has turned into a welfare agency that permanently shifts responsibility for defending prosperous and populous Europe onto America.

The latest wannabe security dependent with Senator McCain’s backing is Montenegro, a postage stamp country with maximum political conflicts and minimum military capabilities. The Obama administration sought Senate ratification of Podgorica’s membership during the lame-duck session, but Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul refused to give unanimous consent.

Reasonably enough, they insisted that what is supposed to be the world’s greatest deliberative body should devote at least a few minutes to debating the issuance of yet another security guarantee enforced by American money and lives. And so far Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not taken the time necessary to push the measure through. So Senator McCain again demanded unanimous consent.

But Senator Paul took to the floor to object. Senator McCain, long known for his explosive temper—which worried colleagues when he ran for president—no longer could contain himself. He complained that Senator Paul “has no justification for his objection to having a small nation to be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians. So I repeat again: The senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

Actually, Senator McCain smeared anyone who disagreed with him. He also declared: “It there’s objection, you are achieving the objectives of Vladimir Putin. If they object, they are now carrying out the desires and ambitions of Vladimir Putin, and I do not say that lightly.”

Accusing Senator Paul—and everyone else with the temerity to oppose NATO’s inclusion of Montenegro—of being a traitor revealed Senator McCain as at best a nasty crank, and at worst a shameless demagogue. The next day Senator Paul observed that Senator McCain’s outburst made a “really, really strong case for term limits.” The venerable Arizona legislator was “past his prime” and even maybe had “gotten a little bit unhinged.” It’s hard to disagree with that assessment. The thought of such a person as president should give nightmares even in the era of President Donald Trump.

In fact, Senator McCain forgets who he represents. His spokesman Julie Tarallo said “the people of Montenegro” as well as senators “deserved an explanation from Senator Paul on the Senate floor as to why he sought to prevent this small, brave country from joining in the defense of the free world.” Of course, Tarallo misleads her listeners by suggesting that this modern variant of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the star of the novel The Mouse that Roared, could help protect someone else. Without a navy or air force, and with an army in name only, Podgorica isn’t defending anyone or anything.

Moreover, Senator McCain knows why Senator Paul objected since he, unlike Senator McCain, has long has made his belief that U.S. foreign policy is to serve the interests of the United States, not would-be client states. And an American senator from the state of Kentucky owes no explanation to the people of Montenegro. Whether heroic or not, they have no right to expect to be defended by the United States.

The purpose of NATO was to make America more secure, not turn defense guarantees into charity for states irrelevant to America’s defense. If Senator McCain believes Montenegro aids the United States, he is living in a parallel universe. Podgorica has 1,950 men under arms. However brave they may be, they won’t stop the senator’s imagined Russian hordes from conquering Europe, America and presumably the rest of the world.

His mental confusion is even greater if he actually believes Montenegro is under attack. Russia would gain nothing from war. The country does not even border Russia. Vladimir Putin has made no territorial claims against the quaint movie set for Casino Royale. The ruling regime blames a recent coup attempt on Moscow, but the evidence is thin: in fact, the country’s political divisions are real and, as Senator Paul pointed out, as many Montenegrins oppose as support NATO membership, hardly the kind of backing one would want from a military ally.

Ultimately, Senator McCain’s nastiness is less important than his willingness to sacrifice American interests, wealth, and lives in an endless attempt to transform the globe. Social engineering is difficult enough at home. The presumption that Washington politicians can transcend differences in history, religion, geography, ethnicity, culture, politics and more to remake other nations is a fantasy. Tragically, over the last sixteen years this hubris, shared by Senator McCain and so many other policymakers, has killed thousands and injured tens of thousands of Americans, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians, generated millions of refugees, wasted trillions of dollars, multiplied terrorist threats, and created geopolitical chaos.

The United States continues to pay the price for Washington’s bipartisan commitment to promiscuous intervention. Senator McCain symbolizes a discredited foreign policy disconnected from geopolitical reality. If anyone is serving the interests of Vladimir Putin, it is Senator McCain, who advocates squandering American lives and wealth in an endless succession of counterproductive crusades abroad.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: Sen. John McCain at the 2016 Arizona Manufacturing Summit. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

Trump's Embrace Puts Taiwan in a Tough Spot

The Skeptics

Tensions between Taipei and Beijing have been rising since the electoral landslide by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s January 2016 presidential and legislative elections. DPP president Tsai Ing-wen has endeavored to chart a delicate middle course. She seeks to enlarge her country’s diplomatic links with other nations and assert key Taiwanese strategic and economic interests in such places as the South China Sea. At the same time, Tsai has thus far sought to avoid truly provocative moves that would infuriate Beijing and lead to a crisis.

As part of her diplomatic outreach efforts, Tsai called President-elect Donald Trump in early December to congratulate him on his victory and discuss issues of mutual interest. Trump’s willingness to take that call was a coup on her part. Since the United States switched its official recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, no president or president-elect had engaged in direct contact with a leader of Taiwan. Trump’s action suggested that the incoming administration might be interested in closer and more formal ties to Taipei.

The president-elect increased that speculation shortly thereafter with comments he made during an interview on Fox News. He stated bluntly that the United States did not consider itself bound by the One China policy that had guided his predecessors. That comment, if meant seriously, would signal a major shift in U.S. policy. Although Washington had never embraced Beijing’s assertion that there was only one China and Taiwan was part of China, previous presidents had affirmed that the United States would not challenge that position. Trump’s actions and statements suggested that Washington might now abandon that stance—a change that would have profound implications.

The possible U.S. rejection of the One China policy encouraged staunchly pro-independence elements in Taiwan as well as their supporters in the United States. It seemed more than coincidental that Tsai’s government took steps to boost both its presence and its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Taipei also intensified its efforts to achieve official status in international organizations. An image of greater assertiveness and self-confidence was evident.

Once in office, though, President Trump began to deflate expectation for a dramatically closer bilateral relationship. In a letter to Chinese president Xi Jinping, he assured Xi that Washington would continue to respect the One China policy.

Trump’s sudden, dramatic reversal was rather mystifying. When he took Tsai’s phone call and made his subsequent dismissive comment about the One China policy, it is possible that he did not fully comprehend the ramifications of those actions. It is also possible that he shrewdly engaged in such conduct as a warning to Beijing that there could be adverse consequences regarding Taiwan if Chinese officials were not prepared to make concessions on trade, the South China Sea, North Korea, and other issues. In other words, the apparent brief flirtation with changes in U.S. policy toward Taiwan could have been nothing more than a cynical bargaining ploy.

Whatever the motive, Trump’s head fake made Taiwan’s already delicate position even more difficult. Shortly after the renewed commitment to the One China policy, Beijing began to increase its pressure on Taipei. During the eight years that previous Taiwanese president, Ma Ying-jeou, had pursued an extremely accommodating policy toward the mainland, the Chinese government had eased its campaign to poach the handful of (mostly small and poor) countries that maintained diplomatic ties with Taipei in exchange for generous financial inducements. Now, Beijing apparently intends to revive that campaign with unprecedented intensity, with the intent of completely isolating Taiwan diplomatically. Indeed, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated bluntly on March 8 that Taiwan has “no diplomatic future.”

Tsai’s government appears to be retreating from any attempt to forge a closer relationship, especially a closer security relationship, with the United States. The latest confirmation was a statement from Taiwan’s defense minister reiterating the decision made in 2016 that Taipei would not be a participant in Washington’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. THAAD is already earmarked to shield Japan and South Korea from ballistic missile attacks. Even though that system is officially aimed at neutralizing North Korea’s missile threat, Beijing has vehemently opposed THAAD, because the radars could be reconfigured to scan deeply into China and possibly degrade that country’s nuclear deterrent.

Taiwan likely concluded that participation in THAAD risked provoking Beijing beyond endurance. Those concerns were warranted. China had issued ominous warnings that it might use military force if Taipei joined that system. Whether Tsai’s government would have made the same cautious decision if it had been confident of strong, reliable U.S. support is uncertain. But with the Trump administration’s return to the One China policy, the risks of seeking inclusion in a system that China adamantly opposed were clearly deemed too great.

An important feature of an intelligent, effective foreign policy is consistency and reliability. Donald Trump did Taiwan no favors with his blatant inconsistency. If he was not serious about altering Washington’s policy toward Taiwan, he should have refrained from raising false hopes in that country and needlessly roiling the U.S. relationship with China. Such actions are the hallmark of an amateurish foreign policy.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.

Image: Change of the Guard of Honor at the mausoleum of Chiang Kai-shek. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Let's Make a Deal: How Trump Can Win Over Kim Jong-un

The Skeptics

On March 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump administration was undergoing a comprehensive policy review on North Korea, the terminally angry and paranoid, VX-loving state that has been a problem for U.S. presidents since the first days of the Korean War. K.T. McFarland, the former Reagan administration official and Fox News personality who is heading up the project, told her colleagues to dive deep on the issue and include “ideas that one official described as well outside the mainstream.”

As my friend and colleague, Harry Kazianis, wrote more than a week ago: one of the options that the Trump administration is reportedly reviewing—regime change through the use of military force—“could be an unmitigated disaster” resulting in regional devastation, enormous civilian casualties and incredible cost to the U.S. Treasury once Kim’s regime is out and a replacement is in. But what about the diplomatic options that will be presented as part of the policy package delivered to the National Security Council? Could some forum for negotiations succeed in at least de-escalating the current security climate in Northeast Asia? And if so, what kind of deals could the United States make with the Kim regime that would be enticing enough for Kim Jong-un to consider taking?

First things first: one option that the Wall Street Journal reported was under consideration—a unilateral declaration of North Korea as a member of the nuclear club should be off the table. Such recognition of the North’s nuclear status is the holy grail for the regime in Pyongyang, something that three generations of the Kim dynasty have been obsessing over for decades. It’s the type of concession to the North that would be such a game-changer that the United States, South Korea and Japan would need something huge from Kim in return. Pyongyang has over the last twenty-five years demonstrated such aversion towards striking a fair-minded grand bargain with the United States on its nuclear program. So we shouldn’t bank on the assumption that Kim would even be willing to provide those kinds of tasty carrots—even if it meant a formal induction into the elite nuclear club.

The United States, however, does have other diplomatic choices on the menu that might provide enough momentum to bring Washington, DC and Pyongyang closer to an understanding. Although President Donald Trump is inherently predisposed to striking a dramatic deal, this is unlikely to be possible with a North Korean government that is so attached to its nuclear identity that it would rather let about a million of its people starve to death than stop its nuclear rewatch and development. A series of one-for-one deals would be the more palpable option for both Washington and Pyongyang. That structure would not only provide U.S. officials doing the negotiating with more time to deal with the domestic political opposition to negotiations, but it would give them a mechanism that would allow the historical adversaries to take each other’s temperature and gauge one another’s intentions.

The opportunities for progress are there, if only U.S. and North Korean officials are able to knuckle down and get to work. Pyongyang, for instance, would like the United States and South Korea to stop the annual, large-scale Foal Eagle military drills that the Kim regime has long described as a yearly rehearsal for a full invasion of the North (those exercises are currently happening). The United States, in turn, wants North Korea to stop conducting the kinds of ballistic missile tests that it saw this month—military provocations that cause intense trepidation in South Korea and Japan and immense concern that Kim is getting closer to his goal of threatening America’s west coast with a nuclear-tipped ICMB. This arrangement was recently broached publicly by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi as a way “to flash the red light and apply the brakes” on two trains that are steaming full speed ahead towards each other. At the very least, the Trump administration should explore the possibility of halting the annual military drill because there aren’t many better ideas currently out there in the diplomatic ether.

A cap-for-a-cap agreement may be the logical opening bid out of this deadlock. In exchange for a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests from the North, the United States and South Korea would suspend the Foal Eagle exercise that Pyongyang has often cited as the main reason for why it needs to maintain its missile development. While a cancellation of the joint military drills will be categorized by many national-security hawks in the Beltway as a baseless capitulation to a dictator and an abandonment of a critical ally, stopping Foal Eagle wouldn’t stop Washington and Seoul from continuing their defense and intelligence relationships.

If such an arrangement could be struck, the next stage would be to institutionalize it into a formal moratorium along the lines of the Agreed Framework, which is the only agreement with Pyongyang that had worked well enough for a decent period of time. If, for instance, North Korea signed on the dotted line, kept its missile and nuke suspension in place over the long term, and agreed to readmit IAEA inspectors into its uranium and plutonium facilities (the IAEA hasn’t had eyes on the North’s program since the six-party talks collapsed in 2009), the United States could pledge to suspend certain unilateral and third-party sanctions on Pyongyang as long as nuclear monitors were granted freedom of movement across the country and access to all the information that the agency requests. A relaxation of some U.N. Security Council sanctions on North Korean exports of natural resources or a lifting of restrictions on North Korean diplomats could also be on the table if Pyongyang continued to abide by the moratorium and work constructively with the IAEA and if it agreed to cease the export of any military equipment, antiaircraft systems and ballistic missile technology without express approval from the Security Council on a case-by-case basis (any North Korean request could be blocked due to the U.S. veto power).

Unfortunately for the human-rights community, it’s unlikely that the United States and its allies would be able to press North Korea to stop treating its people horribly, to shut down its prison camps and to reform its political and social system. Demands such as these, while more than reasonable in the West, would be construed by Kim as a sneaky and less forceful way of promoting regime change in North Korea. What the Trump administration could do, however, is authorize sidebar talks on issues that would at least keep human rights on the agenda and would be easier for North Korean officials to swallow—the Japanese abduction issue and UN supervision of humanitarian supplies on North Korean soil could be two agenda items. This won’t be good enough for organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, but it would at least open North Korea up to some degree of outside monitoring.

Currently, all of this seems fanciful. Pyongyang continues to fire ballistic missiles into the East Sea about as often as it threatens Washington and Seoul with nuclear holocaust. The assassination of Kim Jong-nam in a crowded airport in Kuala Lumpur via one of the most toxic chemical weapons on the planet has limited any space for diplomacy that may have been available before his death. Following the attack, Malaysian police discovered that VX was used to kill Kim Jong-nam and the State Department scuttled a conference between former U.S. officials and current North Korean officials.

Fortunately, the Trump administration’s policy review on North Korea suggests that diplomacy will be one recommendation to consider. President Trump needs to take that recommendation with the seriousness it deserves. If he truly believes he’s a negotiator of unprecedented talent, striking an agreement with Kim would go a long way in convincing people that he has really mastered the art of diplomacy.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

Image: Pyongyang; sunset over the Taedong River. Flickr/Creative Commons/Uri Tours