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Mutual threats won't resolve the Korean problem

Even as North Korean Olympians join their South Korean counterparts in an unprecedented collaboration between nations nominally still at war, here in the U.S., discussion of a preventive attack on North Korea continues to rear its ugly head.

Readers may recall that I last wrote about this issue back in November. At the time, Defense Secretary James Mattis declared that no such attack was in prospect, assuring in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "we [in the Pentagon] have not been discussing this sort of thing in any kind of an actionable way."

That self-restraint apparently hasn't sat well with some on the White House staff. According to the New York Times, "The White House has grown frustrated in recent weeks by what it considers the Pentagon's reluctance to provide President Trump with options for a military strike against North Korea."

Evidence of a disconnect between the White House and the Pentagon was evident in this week's cancellation of the previously announced nomination of Georgetown University professor and Korea expert Victor D. Cha to be ambassador to South Korea.

Cha's sin was to publish an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post warning that a preemptive strike on North Korea's nuclear facilities would at best delay its nuclear development while inviting catastrophic retaliation against Seoul's exposed population.

"To be clear," Cha warned, "the president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. city - Pittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati - on the assumption that a crazy and undeterrable dictator will be rationally cowed by a demonstration of U.S. kinetic power." 

Instead, Cha urged continuing efforts to increase global economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, while expanding U.S. and allied defensive and retaliatory capabilities to deter future North Korean aggression, nuclear or otherwise.

Echoing that view, in an interview Wednesday with Defense News, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel disparaged reported proposals to mount a limited "bloody nose" attack on North Korea as a gamble with millions of lives.

Were North Korea to retaliate against South Korea, he warned, "There would be literally millions of people dead [including] tens of thousands of Americans."

"We have 30,000 troops along the DMZ," he reminded the interviewer, "plus other Americans there as well."

That combination of doubt that anything short of a massive attack could significantly degrade North Korea's nuclear capabilities together with the expectation that even a limited strike would invite an escalating and ultimately devastating renewal of open war on the peninsula rightly concerns both Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Both privately have complained about the war of words between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, fearing that such mutual threats ultimately could lead both men onto rhetorical ground from which they would find it politically impossible to withdraw.

Hawks on the White House staff led by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster apparently don't share that concern, or at least not in the same degree. To lend credibility to Mr. Trump's threat of "fire and fury," McMaster insists that the president needs to see a menu of fully-fleshed-out military options. 

In contrast, according to the Times, officials in the Pentagon worry that offering Mr. Trump too many hypothetical attack options merely increases the risk that, if and when the next war of words erupts, he'll choose to order one of those options to be executed without regard for the consequences.

For the moment, both the White House and Pyongyang seem to have suspended their mutual taunts. Presumably that informal verbal armistice will persist at least through the forthcoming Olympics.

What will follow, however, is entirely unclear. There is no indication whatever that Kim is prepared to suspend North Korea's efforts to achieve a credible nuclear deterrent, despite continued sanctions.

Indeed, evidence continues to accumulate that the sanctions themselves remain porous. Despite a U.N. Security Council ban on North Korean coal exports, for example, such exports have continued to reach both South Korea and Japan via Russia. 

Ditto for banned trade with China, which clearly is injuring the Chinese at least as much as North Korea - especially along their shared border, where the threat of uncontrolled poverty-driven refugee flows persists. 

The reality, as many experts have argued, is that the only event plausibly likely to modify North Korea's nuclear ambitions without unacceptable risk to all concerned would be some peaceful resolution of the relationship between the two Koreas. 

So far, the U.S. has done little to encourage such a resolution, and threats of "fire and fury" don't help. Maybe it's time to let the South Koreans take the lead. It's their country, after all.

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