Editorial: Playing With Fire and Fury on North Korea

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It's hard not to come away from the State of the Union address without greater foreboding about President Donald Trump's intentions toward North Korea. Signs increasingly point to unilateral U.S. military action. To which we say: Don't.



The references to North Korea were worrying enough. Trump called its leadership "depraved." He trumpeted his "campaign of maximum pressure" to ensure that the North does not succeed in perfecting a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the continental United States. He asserted that "past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation." He pledged, "I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position."



Trump seemed to be building a case for war on emotional grounds, invoking the case of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who died last year after being detained by North Korea. "Tonight we pledge to honor Otto's memory with total American resolve," he said. The Warmbier family was among the president's guests in the gallery.



To an extent, such words were in line with his history of bellicosity toward North Korea, whose nuclear program and brutal regime are indeed grave threats and demand an effective response. Last year he threatened to answer North Korean provocations with fire and fury "the likes of which this world has never seen before."



What made Trump's latest comments most alarming was the context. They were delivered as South Korean efforts to dial down the tension with the North, through dialogue and joint participation in the Winter Olympics, appeared to be bearing fruit. And they came just after it was reported that the administration had abandoned a long-delayed plan to nominate a prominent Korea scholar, Victor Cha, as its ambassador to Seoul.



Cha, a senior Asia adviser in the George W. Bush administration and now a Georgetown University professor, has the credentials and experience often lacking in administration nominees. He completed the vetting process required of potential senior government officials, and South Korea had agreed to his appointment.



In the end, Cha was dumped because he voiced opposition to the administration's threat of a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea before it can build a nuclear-armed missile able to hit the United States. One can only read this as evidence that Trump and his inner circle don't want people with contrary views to challenge them on the most consequential decision a president can make — sending Americans to war. Has Trump already made it?



Cha took an extraordinary step by writing an opinion article for The Washington Post in which he described his objections to what's being called the "bloody nose" strategy, a limited military strike on North Korean nuclear facilities that will supposedly persuade the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, to abandon his nuclear ambitions.



Cha noted the large number of Americans living in Japan and South Korea. He said a military strike on the North 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." Such action would only delay, not end, North Korea's program and would provoke Kim into a vengeful effort to sell nuclear technology to any "bad actors" who will buy it, Cha argued.



Cha is no dove on North Korea. He supports tough sanctions; beefing up of missile defense systems, intelligence-sharing and strike capabilities with South Korea and Japan; and even a maritime coalition to intercept nuclear technology leaving North Korea.



It's also important to emphasize that neither he nor Trump mentioned diplomacy, despite assertions by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that the administration is open to talks with North Korea, although under unrealistic preconditions.



There are no easy or good options with North Korea. Enforcing sanctions and blocking deadly technology from entering or leaving North Korea are necessary parts of any strategy. But so is diplomacy, including negotiations.



Trump's preoccupation with military action and refusal to seriously pursue a diplomatic overture to North Korea are foolhardy, especially when South Korea is using North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics to defuse tensions and open up space for dialogue.



The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of Sept. 11 and has more than 240,000 troops in at least 172 countries and territories. Enough.



~ New York Times


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