Trump fails to make a case for tougher action on North Korea

Trump fails to make a case for tougher action on North Korea
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President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE restated strong, confrontational words about North Korea during his State of the Union speech but offered few specifics about how to solve the problem. He correctly highlighted the dark nature of the Kim dynasty, and offered words of condolence to the family of Otto Warmbier, an American college student essentially tortured to death by North Korea. He saluted the courage of Seong Ho Ji, a defector who lost his legs but still managed to escape to South Korea with most of his family. The president correctly spoke about the danger to our security of North Korea being able to deliver a nuclear-tipped, long-range rocket to the homeland.

But these are known knowns. What we needed to hear from the president was more about what he and his national security team want to achieve and how they will achieve it. Yes, his stated campaign of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, including the option of a “bloody nose” military strike, is somewhat different than the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” and bolstered deterrence, but the president failed to offer a path forward beyond animus. He will need to demonstrate an earnest effort at diplomacy before gaining national and international acceptance of a “bloody nose” strike against North Korea’s military capacity. He did not do that last night.

What the president did not mention is as telling as what he did say. The president made no mention of the North’s outreach to the South, and the decision by the two Koreas to field a joint Olympic team during next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He did not mention the importance of our alliance with South Korea (and Japan) in containing the North. He did not mention why we have reopened the George W. Bush-negotiated bilateral Free Trade Agreement with South Korea that went into effect less than five years ago. He did not mention the importance of China in solving the problem. He did not mention U.S. terms for sitting down with the North.

South and North Korea have tried to thaw bilateral relations several times in the past. Former President Kim Dae Jung made the largest concessions to the North in the early 2000s, even agreeing to a joint economic development effort near the demilitarized zone, family reunification visits, access to North Korean tourist sites of interest to South Koreans, and aid going north. Current President Moon Jae In’s effort is smaller in scope, but an important variable that should be acknowledged and cautiously (and conditionally) supported. The United States cannot take unilateral military action against the North without South Korean support if we want the alliance to be strong. Giving Seoul some space to pursue confidence building measures, even though they are not likely to last beyond the Olympics, is smart diplomacy.

The president also failed to gird the American people for the consequences of military action, and, perhaps more importantly, why containment and missile defenses are not an option for the United States. Any military action on the Korean Peninsula will be extraordinarily risky, with profound consequences for our relations with South Korea, Japan and China. Even a “bloody nose” small-scale strike against the North puts at risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans in Northeast Asia.

A case for action must be made. We’ve known for a long time that North Korea is a malignant, terrible regime that has no problem seeing its citizenry suffer and starve. That alone does not justify radical departure from 50 years of policy. We also know that North Korea being able to, for the first time, hold the United States homeland hostage to nuclear strikes is an unacceptable threat that cannot go unanswered. A case for stronger defenses, more aggressive military posturing, and heightened diplomatic pressure on China and North Korea certainly can be made. It’s just that the president did not make that case during the State of the Union.

Todd Rosenblum is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and a contributing author for the Cipher Brief. He was a senior defense and homeland security official during the Obama administration and a delegate to the Korean Peninsula Four Party Peace Talks.