The deferred nomination of a broadly-respected diplomat is bringing renewed focus to divisions inside the Trump administration over how tough the US should be in positioning against North Korea with nuclear tests expected to continue after the upcoming Olympics.
The nomination of the long-rumored candidate to be US ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, was pulled last weekend after he warned the White House that a so-called “bloody nose” strike against Pyongyang would risk pulling the US into an adverse war that would expose hundreds of thousands of lives.
That’s largely in line with the caution that’s being urged by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
But others in the administration, including President Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster, have insisted that a military strike be considered as a serious option as a way to correct maximum pressure on Pyongyang.
And it’s that tension that was on show when Cha’s nomination was pulled.
“It seems that there are divisions within the administration,” Bruce Klinger, a former CIA officer and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin Wednesday.
“As the SecDef has certain there are a wide range of military options available to the President but it is important to note that this is still a diplomatically led effort,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Logan told CNN. “As far as minutiae go we will not discuss operational details or potential military options.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “Our policy is maximum pressure with the goal of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, as POTUS said in the State of the Union. We have been clear that it is our motive to resolve this problem peacefully through dialogue. We have also been clear that denuclearization is the only acceptable outcome, that the whole international community is united on this point, and that it will be achieved, one way or another.”
The National Security Council did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Months after the administration started the proceedings leading up to a nomination, Cha was asked by NSC officials whether he felt prepared to manage diplomatic efforts that would surround such a strike, including the potential evacuation of American civilians from Seoul, a source familiar with the dynamic told CNN.
Cha expressed concerns about such a strike, which he laid out in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday.
Under that strategy, the aim is for the US to initiate a military strike important enough to force North Korea to quarry its nuclear ambitions but limited in scale as to avoid retaliation.
After the exchange with Cha, the White House went mostly silent, even as the South Koreans were in the procedure of approving his nomination in the procedure known as agreement.
Ultimately, some White House officials feared that nominating someone disputed to such a strike could undermine that military option in the eyes of members of Congress and administration officials, according to the source similar with the debate.
They feared Cha would become a pawn in the intra-administration debate over the “bloody nose” strike, both during his confirmation hearings and when installed at the embassy in Seoul, the source said.
McMaster has emerged as a leading administration voice in preparing for such action and has been backed up by the NSC’s top Asia official, Matt Pottinger, according to the source.
Another source acknowledged an internal difference on the “bloody nose strategy” between the hawkish NSC and several top administration officials — including Mattis and Tillerson — who have advocated a more cautious access.
But the continued push to legitimize a limited preemptive strike option is raising questions, even outside the administration.
“The idea of a ‘bloody nose’ strike against North Korea makes small sense because it has the potential for escalating response and strategic miscalculation, while gaining little concrete benefit,” said Jamil N. Jaffer, founder of GMU’s National Security Institute and former Chief Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“A more astute approach to further North Korean aggression would be a significant change to our military posture in the region,” said Jaffer, who also served in the Bush White House and is presently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
North Korea analyst Gordon Chang says the decision to pull Cha is “ominous.”
“It means that people are actively considering a strike on North Korea,” Chang said. “This is an indication that we are headed to war. And there are so many – there are so many other options that the United States can pursue and we are not having meaningful discussions, including sanctions on North Korea’s backers and more sanctions in general.”
Trump utilized his first State of the Union address on Tuesday to slam the “depraved character of the North Korean regime” in an effort to rally the nation around a common threat, but new indications that his top national security advisers disagree over the best path forward have raised concerns that the President is actively considering a limited first strike option to send a message to Pyongyang.
While often greedy to confront North Korean leader Kim Jong Un both verbally and via Twitter, his threats of “fire and fury” have largely been tempered by assurances from top advisers — like Mattis and Tillerson — who insist the US remains committed to prioritizing a peaceful resolution to tensions with Pyongyang.
Most of Trump’s top national security advisers have said that military options should be reserved pending an imminent threat to the US or allies, but McMaster has repeatedly suggested otherwise — even hinting that war is a real probability and one that could come soon.
The US would likely win a military conflict with North Korea should tensions devolve into war, but would face a very difficult fight that would likely yield significant casualties on both sides, according to Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller.
War with North Korea “will be a very, very kinetic, physical, violent fight over some really, really tough ground and everybody is going to have to be mentally prepared,” he recently said.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo has warned “North Korea is ever closer to being able to hold America at risk.”
Pompeo said it could be just a “handful of months” before North Korea might be able to demonstrate the ability to put a warhead on a missile that could reach the US.
“Their testing capacity has improved and the frequency with which they have tests which are palpably successful has also improved.”