Is the Trump Administration Planning a First Strike on North Korea?

by Gareth Porter, Truthout | News Analysis –

Ever since the Trump administration began a few months ago to threaten a first strike against North Korea over its continued missile tests, the question of whether it is seriously ready to wage war has loomed over other crises in US foreign policy.

The news media have avoided any serious effort to answer that question, for an obvious reason: The administration has an overriding interest in convincing the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un that Trump would indeed order a first strike if the regime continues to test nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Therefore, most media have shied away from digging too deeply into the distinction between an actual policy of a first strike and a political ruse intended to put pressure on Pyongyang.

The use of military threat for “diplomatic coercion” is such a basic tool of US policy in dealing with weaker adversaries that it is almost taken for granted in Washington. Even diplomats who have been deeply involved in negotiating with North Korea are supportive of using that threat as part of a broader diplomatic strategy. Robert Gallucci, the State Department official who negotiated the “Agreed Framework” with North Korean officials in 1994, noted in an email to Truthout, “We do want the North to understand that their actions could lead the US to a preventive strike — wise or not.”

The linkage between the Trump administration’s threat of a “military option” and US diplomatic pressure on North Korea was clear from its first suggestion that it might carry out a first strike. That suggestion came on April 13, immediately upon the completion of the administration’s policy review on North Korea, when NBC News reported that  “multiple senior intelligence officials” had said that the administration was “prepared to launch a preemptive strike” if officials “became convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapon test.” A story in the Washington Post published the following day offered a slightly different version: The administration was “prepared to respond to another North Korean nuclear test” and had “a range of options at its disposal” but would not “telegraph its response in advance.”

However, an unnamed military official told the Associated Press that same day that the policy that had been approved by the National Security Council did not envision the use of force in response to a nuclear or missile test, thus revealing that the leaks involving the threat of a preemptive or retaliatory attack over North Korean testing were part of a clumsy effort at “coercive diplomacy.”

Further buttressing that interpretation are revelations that top Pentagon officials are dubious that a first strike against North Korean missile and nuclear sites could be completely successful. In response to a letter from Congressman Ted Lieu (D-California), Rear Admiral Michael J. Dumont, the vice director of Joint Staff, which works under the authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a remarkable revelation: The only way to “locate and destroy — with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear programs” is “through ground invasion.”

An unidentified senior Pentagon official went even further, telling Harry J. Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, “We don’t know where all the nuclear weapons and missiles are. Period.” Other Pentagon officials confirmed the same point to Kazianis. Those admissions, which undercut the effort to convince North Korea that a US first strike is not only feasible but is possible if it continues on its present course, make it clear that the top civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon do not support a first strike policy.

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout