Seven members of the US Congress met for an informal dinner last Wednesday. They took off their jackets and ties and ordered Chinese takeaway. While the ambience was relaxed, the topic was deadly serious. They’d invited two American experts on the North Korean nuclear confrontation to brief them.
The congressmen and senators were all from the Democratic Party, but the experts were drawn from both main parties. The Republican briefer was Randy Schriver, who is expected to be appointed by the Trump administration as the senior Asia policy official in the Pentagon shortly. Schriver is a Harvard-trained national security expert with nearly 30 years’ experience in the US Navy, State Department and Defence Department, specialising in Asia-Pacific Affairs and a protege of former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage.
The Democrat was Wendy Sherman, who negotiated with the North Koreans as an official in the Clinton administration. More recently she was the lead US negotiator in crafting the nuclear deal with Iran.
There was a good deal of back and forth. But the striking outcome was that, when it came to US options for preemptive military strikes against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the two experts were as one – there aren’t any. Or, at least, no good ones. More specifically, any US military strike would risk a massive retaliation and escalation.
As Sherman put her view afterwards: “There’s certainly a viable option but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be catastrophic,” she told me in an interview. “Are any of the military options not catastrophic? Probably not.”
Other sources told me that this was also the bottom line in Schriver’s briefing. This is a sobering reality check on the continuous American rhetoric of “all options are on the table”. Serious experts, Republican and Democrat, concur that the idea of a quick, clean, costless, surgical strike to obliterate North Korea’s nuclear weapons is simply unrealistic.
The Trump administration is divided and grappling with its options. One school of thought in the administration favours maximum pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime. Donald Trump is the spokesman for this view, threatening “fire and fury”. The other wants engagement. The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is the most prominent voice in favour of US dialogue, although he has been publicly contradicted by Trump.
In Tillerson’s most recent comments, he said that the President had “made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts” and that “those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops”. How can these competing impulses be reconciled? A senior administration official told me: “Engagement and pressure, it’s almost an oxymoron, but it’s the only way to keep unified.” By which he means it’s the only way to keep the factions in the US government unified.
This suggests that the Trump administration will continue to offer the duality of threats and dialogue, side by side, for some time. Asked about America’s options for a military strike, the senior administration official told me: “It’s not all or nothing – there are options in between. But there are enormous retaliation risks. Right now, our folks don’t think it’s worth that risk.”
The difficulties are, first, that the US doesn’t know where to find all the North Korean research and production facilities and weapons. So an attack might destroy part of their set-up but would probably leave some intact. The North Koreans recently made the breakthrough of using solid fuels for their international continental ballistic missiles. This means that it’s much harder for US spy satellites to spot the long-standing telltale sign of imminent launch, liquid fuelling hoses and apparatus.
Second, any kind of military attack risks provoking a North Korean attack on its immediate neighbour, South Korea, and the 120,000 Americans living there, including US military personnel and their families. Pyongyang has spent the last 60 years preparing a massive artillery barrage to annihilate Seoul, just 50 kilometres from the border. Seoul has a population of 10 million and the greater Seoul conurbation has more than 20 million. Whenever the US tries to engage Seoul in making contingency plans for evacuating the Americans, the South Koreans refuse to engage, according to knowledgeable US sources. South Korean officials have long feared that the US could attack North Korea without due heed to the lives of the citizens of Seoul. They evidently fret that the withdrawal of American citizens could liberate Washington to unleash hostilities.
It’s not only the military options that are laden with uncertainties. So is the prospect of dialogue. Rex Tillerson has said that although the two countries do not formally recognise each other, the US is in contact with North Korea through three indirect channels. However, a senior administration official told me that while “we do believe a diplomatic path is viable, and we want to pursue it till it’s exhausted, we have been disappointed with North Korea’s responses”.
Kim may not be ready to negotiate yet, says the official: “They may not be done in capacity building. It’s obvious that they’ve tested their ICBMs going up and down, and now they need to test them for distance.”
He said that Washington does not know the goal of Pyongyang’s policy. “That’s why we need engagement – to find out.”
The US and North Korea are like a pair of blind boxers, dancing around each other without knowing each other’s position, each braced for a blow but neither able to land a knockout.
Which is why the US places so much store by China, a country that has good visibility of both protagonists, to intermediate. Beijing is not a dispassionate referee, however. An ally of North Korea, it’s not prepared to cripple its neighbour to force a resolution on America’s terms.
The senior administration official says that the US will continue to impose secondary sanctions on China’s banks and firms that do business with North Korea, an effort to press Beijing to neutralise the North Korean threat. The Trump administration’s message to China, he says: “We are prepared to suffer pain ourselves” as a result of sanctioning Chinese businesses, “but your pain will be greater.” This is America’s Chinese takeaway, a fond hope that Beijing will deliver the pressure that the US itself cannot.