AS THE 2018 WINTER OLYMPICS opened in South Korea, 22 North Korean athletes joined the team from Seoul and paraded into the stadium together under a blue and white “unification” flag. South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And sitting awkwardly nearby was U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who studiously avoided the guests from Pyongyang.
And no wonder. The brief, polite spectacle masks an intensifying debate in Washington: What should America do about North Korea’s nukes? The Trump administration’s stated policy remains the same: Pyongyang must get rid of the weapons it already has, which some analysts say could soon be able to hit the U.S.
How to achieve that result—or whether it’s even possible—remains unclear. One option is what’s called the “bloody nose” strategy. It involves a “limited” strike against a missile or nuclear site in the North, and it’s intended to send an unmistakable message to Kim—that this administration won’t acquiesce.
The goal of the strike wouldn’t be to wipe out all of the North’s nuclear site, but to persuade Pyongyang to rethink its strategy. The option is predicated on Kim’s rationality; that once hit, he would not retaliate in a serious way because doing so would lead to full-scale war with the U.S. and ensure the destruction of his regime.
Trump’s National Security Council (NSC) first raised this option as a possibility last year, and it has not gone away. The argument in favor of this strategy is that living with a nuclear North is simply untenable. It creates nightmarish proliferation concerns—everything from Japan and South Korea deciding to go nuclear themselves to the sale of North Korean weapons of mass destruction to rogue regimes.
No one in the administration downplays the risks of a nuclear North—and they’re all withering in their critique of the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic neglect,” which contributed to “this mess,” says a White House official, who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. But many Trump administration officials don’t believe a limited, unprovoked strike makes any sense. Defense Secretary James Mattis and General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—all oppose it. At a meeting of allied foreign ministers dealing with North Korea in mid-January, Mattis emphasized “that this effort right now is firmly in the diplomatic realm. That is where we are working it.”
The other foreign ministers needed to hear that, says a Japanese diplomat present at the meeting, “because there seems to be a pretty consistent, serious undercurrent in this administration that war is an actual possibility, and that’s spooking some people.”
The jitters among allies increased recently when the administration withdrew the nomination of Victor Cha for U.S. ambassador to Seoul. A former NSC staffer under George W. Bush, he had worked the North Korea issue for years. Cha advocated a tougher policy toward Pyongyang than the one carried out during the Barack Obama years, but he does not support the “bloody nose” strike.
Some saw the withdrawal of his nomination as a result of policy differences. But it turned out to be more complicated than that. One of Cha’s family members apparently has business interests in South Korea that may have presented at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. “That was the ‘red flag’ that derailed him,” says an administration source. Cha could not be reached for comment.
Yet to the consternation of many insiders, the White House is still considering the “bloody nose” strike. Critics are most alarmed by the assumption that “we know how Kim Jong Un would respond to a limited strike,” says Sue Mi Terry, a former North Korea analyst at the CIA, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “We don’t necessarily know, and why would we test that?”
Within the administration, advocates for a tougher “contain and deter” strategy, as Terry calls it, are now putting together a series of options for the White House. They include a more comprehensive package of sanctions; more aggressive interdiction of container ships carrying items the North sells abroad for hard currency; and an aggressively ramped-up system of missile defense in the United States, Japan and South Korea.
Yet this strategy may be ill-timed. Washington worries that in the aftermath of the “unification” Olympics, Seoul will be reluctant to take a tougher stance on Pyongyang. At a lunch that Moon hosted in early February for the North Korean delegation, Kim Jong Un’s sister invited the South Korean leader to Pyongyang after the Olympics for talks. The Trump administration was worried that Moon, who comes from the more dovish of South Korea’s two main political parties, would immediately agree, given the feel-good aftermath of the opening ceremony.
Washington was relieved when Moon handled the invitation deftly, saying he’d be happy to go when the “conditions are right.” But that won’t be the end of the matter, given that Moon will likely come under domestic political pressure to attend a summit in Pyongyang soon.
To reassure nervous allies, the U.S. may come to support such a plan—and perhaps hold direct talks of its own. Which means Kim’s Olympic gambit could very well succeed.
KCNA/XINHUA/ALAMY; YONHAP/REUTERS ■