Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s immediate acceptance of Kim Jong-un’s invitation to meet this May, the Korean Peninsula is still one of the more volatile areas of the world. The inter-Korean summit set to take place this April at Panmunjom and the Trump-Kim sit-down a month later will no doubt cools the temperature briefly. It’s easy to look at all of the smiles, handshakes, and positivity surrounding the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea and imagine for a moment that Pyongyang and Seoul are on the cusp of a new sunshine policy.
But reality has a tendency to snap us out of our self-induced happiness coma. The prospect of an armed confrontation between the United States with its Northeast Asian allies against a nuclear North Korea remains. We are talking about North Korea after all; nothing is simple and there is plenty that can still go wrong.
Here are five ways a war on the Korean Peninsula could get that much closer.
1. John Bolton Gets Appointed National Security Adviser
According to a March 16 article in the Washington Post , President Trump has made the decision to fire Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as national security adviser. Former State Department nonproliferation official, U.S. ambassador, and uber-hawk John Bolton is apparently in the running to be McMaster’s replacement. McMaster is definitely no dove on North Korea, having insisted—without evidence—that Kim Jong-un is too nuts to be deterred. But he is no Bolton either, whose version of compassionate diplomacy is dropping two 500-pound guided bombs on a target rather than four.
Recommended: 5 Places World War III Could Start in 2018
Recommended: How North Korea Could Start a War
Recommended: This Is What Happens if America Nuked North Korea
Were Bolton to have access to Trump in the Oval Office and chair weekly meetings of the National Security Council, the preventive use of U.S. military force to disarm North Korea’s nuclear weapons program—the same disastrous policy he advocated against Saddam Hussein earlier in the century—would not just be one option among many in the drawer. It would be one of the only options he offers to the president.
Bolton has been relishing conflict with the North Koreans since Bill Clinton’s tenure, and he has not changed his stripes in the two decades since. In one of his more bizarre columns in the Wall Street Journal last month, he used an nineteenth-century steamboat analogy to make the case of a preemptive American attack on Pyongyang. The only problem, of course, is that steamboats don’t have the power to kill millions of people in retaliation.
“It is perfectly legitimate,” Bolton writes, “for the United States to respond to the current “necessity” posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons by striking first.” Right now, this recommendation is just the harmless ranting of a former official who likes to hear himself talk on TV—and doesn’t recognize how frightening he sounds to most Americans. But if he were in the Oval Office giving that same advice, the rantings wouldn't be so harmless anymore.
2. Trump Leaves the Kim Summit Angry
President Trump desperately wants to be the guy who makes history and succeeds where every other president has failed: resolve the North Korea nuclear issue permanently. He was ecstatic when the South Korean delegation came to the White House and delivered a message of peace from Kim Jong-un, and he has been quite confident since then of his ability to go into the summit and leave with a full denuclearization of Kim’s regime. Pressed by a reporter on whether he believed Kim was actually interested in trading away his nuclear arsenal, Trump said that he thought the North Koreans were “ sincere” in their offer.
Trump has set a high bar for himself going into his discussions with the North Korean leader. When those expectations aren’t met—when the infamous peace summit Trump is harping on turns out to be a meet-and-greet photo opportunity with an hour of small talk rather than the diplomatic triumph he was hoping for—the president could fly back to Washington livid that Kim refused to grant concessions. He will blame Kim Jong-un’s defiance and stubbornness instead of his own misplaced expectations. “See,” he may ask, “I was right. Talking with the North Koreans is a waste of time that will get is nowhere. They are stringing us along. It’s time to stop treating them so nicely. General Mattis, give me some war plans.”
3. Pyongyang Breaks Its Missile Testing Moratorium
The Kim regime has committed to a nuclear and missile testing freeze before the May summit as long as diplomatic talks show progress. This is a concession the Trump administration deserves credit for, even if this freeze still permits Pyongyang’s scientists to continue producing nuclear warheads, researching missile re-entry technology, operating their plutonium reactors and enriching uranium.