SEONGNAM, South Korea ― The Trump administration’s repeated assertions that “all options are on the table” to deal with North Korea, including a possible military strike, are not helping. Indeed, they are making things much worse for the United States. The administration needs to cut it out ― now. Here’s why.
If the administration thinks that the threats will motivate China to put more pressure on North Korea or faze Pyongyang, it’s badly mistaken. The leaders of both China and North Korea know that American officials fear that a U.S. attack on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities could provoke a devastating North Korean counterattack on Seoul.
The North Koreans wouldn’t even need to break out their missiles and nuclear weapons. They have thousands of artillery tubes just across the Demilitarized Zone; those would be more than enough to cause hundreds of thousands of casualties in Seoul and paralyze South Korea ― not to mention result in the deaths of many of the American citizens living in the greater Seoul area.
Beijing and Pyongyang know that American officials fear a U.S. attack on North Korea could provoke a devastating North Korean counterattack on Seoul.
Where the American threat is having a big impact is on its South Korean ally. The South Korean media now is full of concern that the Trump administration might actually launch a surprise attack on North Korea, as it just did against Syria. Trump administration officials have heightened this concern by suggesting that the Syria attack also served as a warning to North Korea.
South Koreans are even more fearful because they believe that the United States was within a hair’s breadth of attacking North Korean’s nuclear facilities in 1994. The South Korean president at the time, Kim Young-sam, wrote in his memoirs that, in a long, haranguing telephone call, he convinced then-President Bill Clinton to back down. Kim claimed that, based on numerous factors, he had “assessed” that Clinton would attack, and that he apparently planned to do so without even consulting the South Korean leader.
In fact, as then-Secretary of Defense William Perry has repeatedly stated, he had ordered his staff to prepare for him a contingency plan to bomb North Korea’s nuclear facilities. But Perry has also stressed that he never presented the plan to President Clinton and that he was well aware of the risk of a North Korean counterattack on Seoul. Perry has also said that, had the president ever decided such an attack was needed, he would of course have consulted with his South Korean ally.
Trump administration officials have heightened South Korean concern by suggesting that the Syria attack also served as a warning to North Korea.
Over the course of several years, I have confirmed with two Americans and two South Koreans who were directly involved that President Kim’s version is incorrect. Exactly why Kim wrote what he did, remains to be explained.
Apparently, however, no American has ever directly and authoritatively rebutted Kim’s version, which has resulted in it being nearly universally believed in South Korea. (Kim’s memoirs have not been published in English.)
Just one example of the impact: the late South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is believed to have famously said that he couldn’t sleep at night due to his fear that the George W. Bush administration might attack North Korea and cause another Korean War. Roh’s concern about Bush was undoubtedly greater than it might otherwise have been because, as I know from a source close to Roh, he believed Kim Young-sam’s story about Clinton.
The Trump administration’s talk of all options being on the table will only reinforce South Korean progressives’ doubts about the U.S.
Making matters worse, South Korea is in the middle of a presidential campaign to elect a successor to conservative former President Park Geun-hye. Park was ousted after impeachment and will likely stand trial. Not surprisingly, the conservative camp is in disarray. Accordingly, public opinion polls indicate that one of two progressive candidates is increasingly likely to win election as South Korea’s next president on May 9.
Korean progressives are much more skeptical than conservatives about the United States as an ally, especially about Washington’s North Korea policy. They strongly favor unconditional negotiations and engagement with North Korea rather than, as the Trump administration wants, increasing pressure on Pyongyang until it signals a genuine willingness to negotiate away its nuclear weapons as part of a comprehensive diplomatic settlement.
The Trump administration’s talk of all options being on the table will only reinforce South Korean progressives’ doubts about the United States and make it much harder for the two governments to come up with a common North Korea policy, without which neither government will have much chance of achieving its goals.
The tough talk plays into North Korea’s hands by allowing it to propagandize American threats as justification for its nuclear weapons development.
The North Koreans are, of course, well aware of all of this and encouraged by it. Moreover, the gratuitous tough talk plays into North Korea’s hands by allowing it, as it has already done, to propagandize that the threats only prove that it had to develop nuclear weapons to “deter” the United States.
After North Korea fired yet another missile earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised eyebrows with his unusual sounding statement that, “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.” It would be especially good if the Trump administration would just not comment further about “all options” being on the table.
A version of this first appeared on HuffPost Korea.