The Pacific Rim is bracing for another possible North Korean missile launch this weekend—but don’t expect an armed response from the United States, unless Pyongyang takes direct aim at the U.S. or an allied territory. That’s according to a Team Trump briefing to lawmakers this week.
Despite President Donald Trump’s continued talk of military options in the North Korean standoff, his national security chiefs told lawmakers that they are trying to tighten the diplomatic and economic noose around the Hermit Kingdom, because there are no good offensive military options—and the defensive measures are far from foolproof.
“It was a sober discussion,” said one person briefed on the closed-door session of senators with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense chief Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. “Military options were just described as ‘terrible,’” he said.
They said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime continues to make technical advances, and though some of the claims he’s made as to what else they can do are unproven and sound crazy, they have to take him at his word and prepare defenses as best they can accordingly.
They did not outline detailed military options, choosing instead to stress that they’ve got “capabilities in place” to protect the homeland and the region—sort of. U.S. defenses are arrayed to protect South Korea from an incoming missile, but can’t protect Seoul from artillery, or a bomb flown in by a plane, or smuggled in by submarine. And the U.S. doesn’t want to waste any missile interceptors on Pyongyang’s “test” launches.
“We generally target four interceptors on every incoming missile. We’d shoot two and then shoot two more—that means we have 25 percent confidence in missile defense working,” said a former Obama administration official familiar with the White House’s debates over North Korea. “If North Korea fires 20, we’re not going to stop them all.”
In sum, the briefing was far more cautious than Trump’s “fire and fury” public comments, or tweets, and far less belligerent than a similar briefing for senators last April.
Yet Trump continues to speak as if a military strike is a viable option.
“I would prefer not going the route of the military, but it’s something certainly that could happen,” Trump told reporters this week. “North Korea is behaving badly, and it’s got to stop.”
“War is not the preferred option for anyone,” a senior administration official said Friday, speaking anonymously as a condition of discussing Trump’s North Korea policy. “But we’ll do it if we have to. We hope we don’t. It could be tomorrow.”
But he insisted the major effort right now is to enlist China in pushing for a new UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea for its continued defiance, the latest being its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last Sunday. That public-versus-private dissonance is unnerving to many longtime North Korea watchers.
“What is going on with North Korea does scare the hell out of me,” said one Democratic member of Congress who spoke anonymously to describe the briefing. “It does appear we have two totally different policies on North Korea: one at the State Department and Department of Defense and one on the president’s Twitter feed. And when push comes to shove, I don’t know which one wins out.”
The senior administration official insists it’s the diplomatic track for now, pushing for that resolution at the UN Security Council, and preparing a raft of new direct sanctions on Pyongyang, with possible secondary sanctions on China and other countries that do business with North Korea.
“We’re probably about as maxed out on unilateral American sanctions the federal government can do,” the official said. “The next step is secondary sanctions on businesses that do business with North Korea.”
It’s a point-of-no-return step the Trump White House doesn’t want to take, because it would turn the cooperative regional approach the White House is trying to forge against North Korea into an adversarial relationship.
The White House still thinks China could do more, and points it out in frequent meetings.
“We get the same answer: ‘You guys should sit down and talk.’ We’ve put all the pressure on them we possibly could,” the official said. “We’ll point out something else they could do. They’ll say, ‘We can’t do that. It would be so terrible.’ And then return to their refrain of, ‘You guys should sit down and talk.’”
The Trump national security chiefs insisted in their remarks to lawmakers that China was becoming somewhat more helpful.
The focus on diplomacy was an improvement on the April briefing for senators on North Korea policy at the White House, according to both sources who attended.
“They spent a lot of time selling the military option, and then they spent a lot of time admitting the military option was totally unworkable and catastrophic,” said the Democratic lawmaker, calling it a mess of a meeting. “They seemed to literally want to puff their chest militarily but they were just as enthusiastic about letting everybody know they were never going to use the military option.”
This time, they were all on the same page, with Secretary Tillerson in the lead.
“They very clearly understood that they needed to have a robust diplomatic and political solution here, which was not the way in which they were talking at the White House,” the lawmaker said.
That is exactly where the Obama administration was when it left office, senior Obama officials told The Daily Beast.
“We were looking at ways to tighten the screws on North Korea economically to get them back to the negotiating table,” a former Obama official said, speaking anonymously to describe the internal strategy debates.
But military strikes weren’t on the table, in part because Pyongyang wasn’t as far along in its program, and because the intelligence picture the U.S. has is too imperfect to take out North Korea’s nuclear complex.
“We know where they produce some but not all of their uranium,” the Obama official said. “We don’t know where they store their nuclear weapons or all their ballistic missiles. We’ve also been aware that even if they destroy all that, they have their conventional means. They could also use a shipping container, a submarine, or an airplane to deliver a weapon.”
The Obama administration had focused on keeping Pyongyang from achieving what it claims it can do now: put a miniaturized nuclear weapon on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“We were still trying to interfere with the development of what we see now—sanctions, interdictions, working with intelligence communities globally to get in the way of transfers of technology and financial support,” said a second Obama official, former White House senior director for weapons of mass destruction Laura Holgate.
She sees negotiations now as the only option, dealing with Pyongyang’s aspirations to become a recognized nuclear power. “It’s got to be how do we freeze the program where it is and verify that freeze and get the IAEA back in there. How do we prevent this from becoming a bigger problem?” she said in an interview.
“We weren’t even talking about military options just because—what would be the circumstances that would be worth losing Seoul?” Holgate said, referring to the South Korean capital of nearly 10 million people including at least 100,000 Americans. “Seoul is hostage. It’s an artillery shell away.”