Trump Is Bluffing About Attacking North Korea in 2018

But that still might get us all killed.

A television news screen with President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at a railway station in Seoul on November 29, 2017. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)
A television news screen with President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at a railway station in Seoul on November 29, 2017. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

I don’t know if Donald Trump is going to be making any New Year’s resolutions for 2018, but here’s a thought: How about not threatening to start a nuclear war with North Korea?

This past year, after all, is ending with a flurry of war talk. On Dec. 20, the Daily Telegraph published an article quoting a current and two former U.S. officials claiming that the Trump administration was considering a military strike on North Korea. Now, the Telegraph is not, as Jim Hacker would tell you, the most reliable British tabloid. But two days later, Olivier Knox of Yahoo News published a strangely similar story with slightly different sourcing — two current and one former official. In both cases, a former official used the same description to describe a strike similar to the cruise missile attack on Syria — giving Pyongyang a “bloody nose.”

By all accounts, Trump officials are saying the same thing in private. A number of former officials in the Barack Obama administration have all suggested that, yes, there is a serious war party advocating a limited military strike. Colin Kahl noted that the private remarks of Trump officials are similar to the public ones:

Jon Wolfsthal agreed, and when asked his basis for saying such a thing, he pointed to private conversations:

There’s no reason to think that Kahl and Wolfsthal are making this up. It seems likely that Trump officials are, in fact, talking about a military strike in which the United States would target a symbolic location in North Korea to retaliate for a missile test, much as the administration targeted an airfield in Syria following a chemical weapons use.

Still, I think the Trumpkins are bluffing. They are, to borrow a Soviet phrase, just trying to “rattle the pots and pans,” hoping to frighten North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping. Of course, they may still get us all killed.

Nobody around Trump — not John Kelly, not H.R. McMaster, nobody — has the slightest idea how to fix the problem of North Korea. But they do know what the boss likes to hear. And he doesn’t want to see them on Fox & Friends admitting that there isn’t anything to be done about North Korea. Steve Bannon already did that, telling the American Prospect, “There’s no military solution here. They got us.” Trump fired him shortly thereafter.

No matter how far North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities progress, my guess is that staffers like McMaster will never acknowledge the reality that North Korea is a nuclear power. After all, it is difficult to get a man to understand something, as Upton Sinclair noted, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

There is a second factor at play — the China fantasy. Team Trump probably thinks threatening war will motivate the Chinese to do … something. Trump isn’t the kind of guy who gives thoughtful answers to foreign-policy questions, but there is a single idée fixe to which he always returns on the subject of North Korea: that China could solve the North Korea problem if it warned to. To be fair, it isn’t just Trump who says this. The thought that China can solve the problem with North Korea is one of the more tiresome bits of Washington wisdom.

But China isn’t about to solve the problem for us. For one thing, the North Koreans have systematically executed pro-Chinese elements inside North Korea and out. When Kim ordered his uncle arrested and executed, his business dealings with China were cited as a major reason. And it was likely because he feared China might try to install his half-brother in power that Kim ordered the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, who was living in Macau under Chinese protection. If the Chinese could order Kim Jong Un around, his uncle and half-brother wouldn’t be sleeping with the fishes.

Moreover, I think this is a gross misreading of Chinese policymakers. Gregory Kulacki, who is probably one of the most insightful (and therefore most consistently ignored) voices on China, has written a lovely essay about Chinese policymakers responding to Trump. And unlike a lot of Western yarns in which inscrutable Chinese sages make 100-year plans for global domination, Kulacki’s Chinese contacts sound a lot like the rest of us: horrified, hoping Trump is bluffing, and trying to wait out the storm. Beijing isn’t going to save us from ourselves.

We’re like hack screenwriters who have written ourselves into a corner. We don’t know how to write the happy ending, so we’re looking for a deus ex machina to appear and solve it for us. At the moment, that’s China. But that’s not a very plausible ending, not even for a fairy tale.

And so the war talk goes on.

If Trump does end up ordering a military strike against North Korea, it won’t be “limited” — Kim Jong Un will hit back. The North Koreans, over the past decades, have done so many terrible things: seizing a U.S. intelligence ship, shooting down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, staging multiple assassination attempts on South Korean leaders, bludgeoning two U.S. Army officers to death with axes in the Demilitarized Zone, shooting down a U.S. helicopter, torpedoing a South Korean navy ship, shelling a South Korean island. And North Korea was willing to take all these risks without the security blanket Kim now has — the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. Hell, North Korea did most of them with no nuclear weapons at all.

None of which is to say Trump won’t end up talking himself into the punch-him-in-the-nose nonsense. After all, the Joint Chiefs of Staff spent the Cuban missile crisis pressing John F. Kennedy to attack the island, even though we now realize that the Soviet Union had a lot of nuclear weapons on the ground there. Human beings make mistakes. Sometimes people ask me whether we survived the Cold War because we were lucky or because we were good. I say that’s survivor bias talking.

Frankly, I worry even about containment strategies. You can’t beat something with nothing, so my guess is that the U.S. Defense Department isn’t satisfied with bluffing a punch in the nose and really is developing containment strategies as an alternative. But even those can go wrong. When Ronald Reagan came into office, he ordered a series of psychological operations against the Soviets. These operations consisted of naval and air probes of Soviet defenses. “It really got to them,” one Reagan official later recalled. “They didn’t know what it all meant. A squadron would fly straight at Soviet airspace, and other radars would light up and units would go on alert. Then at the last minute the squadron would peel off and return home.”

The result was that the jumpy Soviets shot down a civilian airliner en route to Seoul, triggering the most dangerous Cold War crisis since Cuba. My own nightmares start with the North Koreans mistaking a civilian airliner for a bomber and then shooting it down.

If there really is a war party advocating a strike within the White House, it’s important to remember that plenty of the “sensible” alternatives are only sensible inside the tank. Out in the real world, they can get you killed, too. Things are plenty dangerous, even without the Trump administration trying to help.

The most likely scenario is still that we’ll muddle through without a nuclear war in 2018, and I’ll crow that McMaster and others were bluffing all along. And it will only be years later that James Mattis or someone writes a memoir letting us know that every day was a battle to stop McMaster from starting a nuclear war or that Trump kept asking for the launch codes.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk