Trump’s entire North Korea strategy could be a giant bluff

Trump’s entire North Korea strategy could be a giant bluff
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With reports breaking that Pyongyang could very well return to its old tricks — test firing a so-called “satellite,” essentially code for a missile test under a less terrifying name — it seems one thing is clear: The North Korea crisis is not over.

Indeed, with Trump administration officials — and their various surrogates — almost daily making statements that seem to cheerlead a so-called “military option,” some vague sounding preventive, preemptive or shock and awe strike on the Kim regimes nuclear and missile programs, it seems for certain trouble is slowly brewing. Many analysts here in Washington fear that unless North Korea either gives up its nuclear weapons and missiles or makes a quick dash towards suspending its weapons testing and returns to the bargaining table war seems almost inevitable.

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Or is it? One of the possible policy options is that the Trump administration, with its talk of “fire and fury,” that the regime would be “will be utterly destroyed” in a war or that “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if forced to defend our allies” might not be ready poised to strike at all.

In fact, I have a different take these days: all the hot rhetoric might just be a giant bluff, using the threat of military action to get North Korea to back off.  

Just a simple survey of the military landscape in East Asia provides ample evidence to support such a bluff strategy. For one, if the Trump administration was considering military action against Pyongyang, where is the large build-up of forces around Northeast Asia? If Team Trump was considering a strike that would considerably degrade or even destroy Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile programs, we would most likely see a massive shift in forces to that part of the world.

We would see aircraft carrier battle groups and various naval assets steaming toward the region. B-1 and B-2 Bombers would be moving closer as well as large amounts of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. We might even see a troop build-up, just in case North Korea decided to invade the South in response. And yet, we see nothing more than standard exercises and movements that are very much the norm.

In addition to offensive firepower, there would be moves to defend U.S. allies and citizens in the region from a North Korean counter-attack. For example, U.S. citizens would likely be evacuated out of Japan and South Korea. Also, Washington would press Seoul and Tokyo to accept a large increase in Patriot and THAAD missile defense batteries to stem the onslaught of what could be North Korea nuclear, chemical and biological missile counterstrikes. Once again, there is no indications at all that Washington is doing any such preparations at all.

Now, to be fair, the timing for war, especially since the Olympics are this year in South Korea, only 60 miles away from the DMZ — and North Korean artillery and missiles — certainly calls into question any possibility of war until the spring. And indeed, this could be very well what the Trump administration is waiting for.

But for anyone who has seriously studied what would happen if America decided to launch any sort of military attack on North Korea to wipeout its weapons of mass destruction programs, the odds are it would fail while spawning a crisis of global proportions. North Korea would almost certainly see any strike on its nuclear weapons and missiles as an existential threat, and has likely stored some of its atomic arsenal deep underground. It would most likely counterattack with whatever weapons it had left, and that certainly means a potential nuclear strike on big cities like Seoul, with a metro population of 25 million, or Tokyo, with an even larger metro population of 35 million.

After the war is over — in which there is no doubt North Korea would lose — and millions of people are laid to rest, trillions of dollars would need to be spent to rebuild large sections of Northeast Asia. North Korea would also be in dire shape and need massive financial assistance, in what two scholars have declared in these very pages would be one of the largest nation building project ever.

Clearly a war of choice against North Korea would be a giant mistake that could cost millions of people their lives. Therefore, when it comes to Kim’s nuclear and missile programs, a policy of containment and deterrence make the most sense. It’s time for the Trump administration to stop bluffing and get serious.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, as well as executive editor on its publishing arm, The National Interest. Kazianis previously served on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP candidate scores upset win in Texas state Senate runoff McConnell tamps down any talk of Kavanaugh withdrawal Cornyn takes on O'Rourke over AR-15s MORE presidential campaign. He has also held positions as Foreign Policy Communications Manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat as well as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.