With a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group steaming toward waters off the Korean Peninsula and important anniversaries looming for nuclear-armed North Korea, the stage has been set for a showdown between U.S. President Donald Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Saturday’s order to divert the USS Carl Vinson-led strike group to the Western Pacific from a planned port call in Australia is sure to ratchet up tensions in the region and comes just days after U.S. cruise missiles struck Syria. Those strikes were widely interpreted as containing an implicit message to Pyongyang that the Trump administration will not rule out unilateral military attacks on the Kim regime.
The strike group was to arrive the same week Pyongyang marks the April 15 anniversary of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung’s birth, an event where it is likely to flaunt its military might, potentially with its sixth nuclear test or a military parade showcasing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In an interview Sunday with Fox News, U.S. National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster called the move to send the strike group “prudent” amid Pyongyang’s “pattern of provocative behavior.”
“This is a rogue regime that is now a nuclear capable regime. . . . So, the president has asked to be prepared to give him a full range of options to remove that threat,” McMaster said.
Speaking on ABC’s “This Week” the same day, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the North to rein in its nuclear program or risk a response, though he denied rumored plans for assassinating Kim.
“I think the message that any nation can take is if you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken,” Tillerson said.
“And I think in terms of North Korea, we have been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. We have no objective to change the regime in North Korea, that is not our objective.”
Asked about the North’s drive to master the technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States, the top U.S. diplomat called Pyongyang’s progress on this front Washington’s top concern. But, in a break with previous statements, he also said the U.S. could consider returning to talks if the North halted its nuclear and missile tests.
“What we would hope is that with no further testing, obviously their program doesn’t progress,” Tillerson said. “And that’s what we have asked for, is for them to cease all this testing before we can begin to think about having further talks with them.”
Those comments contrasted sharply with Tillerson’s previous remarks, which had been largely dismissive of two decades of diplomatic efforts rid the North of nuclear weapons. The change in tone came on the heels of Trump’s first summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. China has long advocated for talks with the North.
Tillerson said that Xi had agreed with Trump that the situation had “reached a new level of seriousness and threat,” and said Washington is waiting to see if Beijing will take additional steps that the U.S. has requested. Observers say these steps likely include bolstered sanctions against North Korean firms.
Regional security experts, however, played down the prospects of U.S. military action against the North, noting the risks associated with any strikes — including retaliatory attacks against South Korea and Japan.
“The Carl Vinson is an escalatory step, but not a serious one,” said Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea.
But Kelly said a U.S. strike on the North is unlikely, adding that the carrier dispatch “commits Trump to nothing. He can easily withdraw.”
“I imagine that it is more a show of strength to encourage North Korea to slow its missile program,” he said. “But I doubt it will work. The North Koreans have spent enormous resources to get this far, and they have a long history of not responding to outside pressure.”
Van Jackson, a North Korea expert and former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense, agreed, saying that the Trump approach has so far echoed former President Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” toward the North, which Trump has lambasted.
“It appears the Trump administration has opted for an overt pressure track on North Korea — ratcheted sanctions pressure, tough talk, and lots of military signaling,” Jackson said. “That’s not so different from the Obama administration.
“But none of that’s going to influence North Korea’s nuclear program or its foreign policy,” he added. “Preventive bombing could change North Korean behavior, but there’s a high chance it precipitates a larger war in the process.”
Preventive bombing, as opposed to pre-emptive bombing, Jackson said, refers to launching a first-strike to destroy a threat before it’s imminent.
Jackson, who also hosts the Pacific Pundit podcast series, said Trump’s strikes in Syria make sense in that they were quick and quiet with virtually no chest-thumping or signaling.
“You don’t want your attacks to be misinterpreted as launching a war, and you don’t want to get into a violent battle of wills where you’re basically daring the other guy to respond,” he said.
In an essay posted to The National Interest website late last month, Pusan National University’s Kelly outlined some of the key reasons why the U.S. and its allies had ruled out attacking the North in the past — answers that he said remain relevant today. These included the threat of a response by Pyongyang against South Korea and Japan.
“Those countries would bear the brunt of any retaliation,” Kelly wrote. “Legally, Trump could proceed of course, but he would destroy the U.S. alliance with either or both if they did not approve.”
According to Kelly, while Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, might gamble to hit the North, South Korea remains effectively unable to respond in the wake of Park Geun-hye’s impeachment.
“Seoul is led by a caretaker government at the moment, and the left, which would almost certainly disapprove of airstrikes, is widely expected to win the upcoming May election,” he said.
Beyond military strikes, Washington is also reportedly weighing a number of other options, including redeploying nuclear weapons to the peninsula.
Citing multiple high-ranking intelligence and military officials, NBC News reported Friday that one course of action presented to Trump by the National Security Council (NSC) is placing U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea. The U.S. withdrew all nuclear weapons from the country more than 20 years ago.
Amid the current nuclear standoff, discussion of this unquestionably provocative move has grown.
“If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have responded negatively, but the fact this NSC options paper has been made public could reflect serious consideration of redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula,” said Andrew O’Neil, a professor of political science at Griffith University in Australia.
O’Neil noted that while the Trump administration has options to play with, in terms of deployable weapons, the major variable is “clearly political.”
“South Korea is obviously a sovereign state so any decision to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons depends on the incoming post-Park government in Seoul,” O’Neil said. “I think we can probably rule it out if the progressive Moon Jae-in wins, but it would be more of an open question if a conservative candidate triumphs.”
Moon, a top contender for the presidency, said Saturday that any decision on confronting the North should run through Seoul.
“South Korea should be the owner of North Korean issues and take the lead in dealing with them rather than letting neighboring countries such as the U.S. and China manage them,” local media quoted him as saying.
“The U.S. is talking about various possibilities regarding its confrontational actions on the North,” he said. “The U.S. must consult with South Korea before whatever measure it takes.”
O’Neill said that for the Trump administration, redeploying nuclear weapons to the South would tick a couple of important boxes.
“First, it would confirm that Trump has a ‘crazy brave’ approach to dealing with North Korea that would cut out China and reassure Japan that Washington means business in dealing with Pyongyang,” he said. “Second, it would probably throw cold water on nuclear proliferation pressures in Japan, South Korea, and potentially Taiwan as well. Third . . . it would effectively sharpen deterrence against North Korea by signaling that U.S. nuclear forces are in essence engaged automatically should a full-scale conflict occur.”