Fears Grow That N.Korea Hawks Have Trump's Ear

  • By Yu Yong-weon, Jun Hyun-suk

    February 02, 2018 13:07

    The White House's last-minute decision not to nominate prominent Korea-policy wonk Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea has raised fears that North Korea hawks are winning the tug-of-war in the White House.

    Cha was reportedly dumped because he is against a "bloody nose" preventative strike on North Korea and has told the White House so.

    The idea is that the U.S. would strike one or two symbolic targets in the North, giving the regime a "bloody nose" rather than decapitating it, with the aim of scaring it into abandoning its nuclear program. But a prerequisite is that North Korea will not launch a retaliatory strike.

    The U.S. government is not yet fully behind the idea and has yet to work out any details. But pundits' tongues are already wagging furiously.

    Speculative targets include the North's Yongbyon nuclear power facility, the nuclear test site in Punggye-ri, a missile research and development facility at Sanum-dong in northern Pyongyang, and submarine bases in Hamnam and Sinpo.

    But any strike could provoke a prompt military response from North Korea, which has prompted some pundits to speculate that the U.S. will avoid the obvious targets and aim at non-military targets instead.

    One diplomatic source said, "A possible target is the USS Pueblo," which was captured by North Korea in 1968 and has been moored for display along the Pothong River in Pyongyang.

    A military source said, "The damage caused by the 'bloody nose' strategy is not important. The aim is to instill fear in Kim Jong-un that the U.S. can strike without warning at any time."

    But it would be an enormous gamble. If the U.S. goes ahead, Kim Jong-un must become too scared to launch a retaliatory attack. Shin Won-shik, a former deputy head of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "If the U.S. gains the understanding of China, a 'bloody nose' attack could take place. If Kim Jong-un is not cornered and given a way out, he may sit down for denuclearization talks without launching a retaliatory strike." 

    But the idea faces a huge amount of opposition. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in an interview with Defense News, "If you want to bet that... Kim Jong-un and the North Koreans are not going to retaliate -- it's a pretty big gamble. Let's be smarter."

    Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in the Washington Post, "The rationale is that a strike that demonstrates U.S. resolve to pursue 'all options' is necessary to give the mercurial Kim a 'bloody nose.' If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?”

    North Korea has an estimated 340 long-range artillery pieces that can lob up to 15,000 rounds onto Seoul in an hour. The North could also launch retaliatory attacks against Baeknyeong and Yeonpyeong islands on the West Sea using submarines and along the heavily fortified border. A massive cyber attack is also a possibility.

    "An attack against citizens of South Korea, a U.S. ally, as well as American citizens in the South would be catastrophic for the U.S. government," one diplomatic source said.

    But U.S. President Donald Trump is capricious and ill-informed, and it looks increasingly likely that doves led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are losing out in the scramble for the president's ear while the hawks appeal to his winner-take-all mentality.

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