North Korea: Trump’s great miscalculation

Idea that a limited strike will stem nuclear proliferation is wishful thinking

Until now, the best argument against the assumption that the Trump administration was planning a pre-emptive strike against North Korea went as follows: it is an idea so foolish, and so strongly opposed within the US national security system, that if it were ever to become a serious prospect – as opposed to a mere public threat – then internal sceptics would begin to sound the alarm. Now, with the news that Victor Cha, a former White House official who has expressed misgivings about a"bloody nose" strike, is no longer being considered for the post of US ambassador to South Korea, those alarm bells are beginning to ring out.

Just hours after the news broke that he was no longer under consideration, Cha – a hawkish North Korea specialist – wrote an article in which he set out forcefully the arguments against a (theoretically) limited first strike. “Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first, but not through a preventative strike that could start a nuclear war,” he wrote.

All of this could be a clever, coordinated negotiating gambit designed by the White House to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang, but that would suggest a level of coordinated thinking and strategic acuity that all the evidence suggests is far beyond this chaotic, inept presidency. Indeed, we know that Trump is drawn to the view that a limited strike could serve as a deterrent.

In his State of the Union speech last week, he opted not to give full-throated endorsement of Seoul's current talks with the North but instead to raise the temperature further by dismissing the "strategic patience" of the Obama administration and declaring that "unmatched power is the surest means to our true and great defence". On any level that's doubtful – America's war of unmatched power in Afghanistan is now in its 17th year, to take one example – but when it comes to North Korea this kind of bluster is extremely dangerous.


The world has no good options in dealing with Kim Jong-un, but the idea that a limited strike will stem nuclear proliferation on the peninsula is wishful thinking. Given that risk of things spiralling out of control, there has long been wide recognition that a strategy blending containment, sanctions and the threat of major retaliatory military action offers the only viable approach. Indeed, the US has had some success in the past year in persuading the UN security council to impose tough new sanctions.

With his belligerence, Trump risks antagonising perhaps the only adversary more unpredictable, erratic and impulsive than himself. More worryingly, the US president can only turn up the volume of his threats for so long with either losing face, and thereby emboldening Pyongyang, or acting on them and risking a catastrophic war that could put millions of lives at risk.