2 May 2017

The Drumbeats Don’t Add Up to Imminent War With North Korea


WASHINGTON — President Trump summoned all 100 members of the Senate for a briefing by his war cabinet on the mounting tensions with North Korea. An American submarine loaded with Tomahawk missiles surfaced in a port in South Korea. Gas stations in the North shut down amid rumors that the government was stockpiling fuel.

Americans could be forgiven for thinking that war is about to break out. But it is not.

The drumbeat of bellicose threats and military muscle-flexing on both sides overstates the danger of a clash between the United States and North Korea, senior Trump administration officials and experts who have followed the Korean crisis for decades said. While Mr. Trump regards the rogue government in the North as his most pressing international problem, he told the senators he was pursuing a strategy that relied heavily on using China’s economic leverage to curb its neighbor’s provocative behavior.

Recent American military moves — like deploying the submarine Michigan and the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson to the waters off the Korean Peninsula — were aimed less at preparing for a pre-emptive strike, officials said, than at discouraging the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, from conducting further nuclear or ballistic missile tests.

“In confronting the reckless North Korean regime, it’s critical that we’re guided by a strong sense of resolve, both privately and publicly, both diplomatically and militarily,” Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the Pentagon’s top commander in the Pacific, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

“We want to bring Kim Jong-un to his senses,” he said, “not to his knees.”

There are other signs that the tensions fall short of war. Mr. Kim continues to appear in public, most recently at a pig farm last weekend. South Koreans are not flooding supermarkets to stock up on food. There is no talk of evacuating cities and no sign the United States is deploying additional forces to South Korea. Nor is the American Embassy in Seoul advising diplomats’ families to leave the country.

All those things happened in the spring of 1994, when President Bill Clinton was considering a pre-emptive strike on a North Korean reactor to prevent the North from extracting plutonium that it could use to make a bomb. That is the closest the United States has come to a military clash with North Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

“The reality is not as tense as the rhetoric on both sides would lead you to believe,” said Joel S. Wit, an expert on North Korea at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

None of this is to say there is no risk of miscalculation that could escalate into hostilities. Mr. Trump’s penchant for provocative statements introduced an element of unpredictability to a relationship in which the uncertainty has historically been on the North Korean side. How Mr. Kim reacts is the major variable in a complicated equation.

North Korea is also steadily adding to its nuclear arsenal and edging closer to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, tipped with a warhead, that could hit the United States. Intelligence estimates vary on how quickly that could happen, but some say within three years: a timetable that would put a successful test within Mr. Trump’s term in office.

“No previous president has ever been in that situation,” said Victor D. Cha, director of the Asian studies program at Georgetown University, who advised the administration of George W. Bush on North Korea. “I don’t think we’re going to war, but we’re in a different phase.”

Mr. Cha said he viewed the briefing for senators as part of an effort by the White House to signal the seriousness of North Korea to an American public that regards it as a distant, complicated issue. But others criticized the president for being theatrical, with some saying he was using the senators as a prop to burnish his 100-day record.

“There was very little, if anything, new,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “It is still unclear what our strategy and policy is.”

Even some Republican senators complained afterward that they had learned little and wondered why they needed to pile into buses for the trip from Capitol Hill to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds, where they were seated in an auditorium.

“I’m not sure I would have done it,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He said he was not sure why the briefing had been timed for this week and begged off further comment, adding, “All I can say is, it was fine.”

White House officials said they had been responding to a request from Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and that Mr. Trump had proposed moving the site of the briefing. He spoke to the senators for less than three minutes, mainly promoting his efforts to persuade President Xi Jinping of China to put more economic pressure on North Korea.

Mr. Trump then turned the briefing over to Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats; and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

Analysts said it was too early to assess Mr. Trump’s claim that the Chinese were finally cooperating with the United States. Previous presidents believed they had made headway with Beijing, only to have China’s actions fall short of expectations.

The reports of closed gas stations in North Korea were intriguing, analysts said, because they suggested that the North was bracing for a suspension of fuel shipments from China. The Chinese have yet to take such a step, though they have curtailed purchases of North Korean coal.

In a separate briefing for reporters, the White House said Mr. Trump had decided on a strategy that would include diplomacy to persuade China to keep up pressure on its neighbor, as well as military preparations.

A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, declined to discuss the nature of the military preparations or the timetable for seeing a change in North Korea’s behavior. He also said the administration was considering returning North Korea to the government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

On Thursday morning, the National Security Council will hold a principals committee meeting to weigh economic and military options.

Admiral Harris told lawmakers that North Korea’s recent setbacks in its missile launches would not slow the country’s efforts to achieve its nuclear goals.

“With every test, Kim Jong-un moves closer to his stated goal of a pre-emptive nuclear strike capability against American cities, and he’s not afraid to fail in public,” he told the House Armed Services Committee in a hearing on security challenges in the region.

Admiral Harris welcomed China’s role in influencing the North, but also singled it out for criticism. “While recent actions by Beijing are encouraging and welcome, the fact remains that China is as responsible for where North Korea is today as North Korea itself,” he said.

No comments: