President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech dropped broad hints about North Korea and the prospects for military action. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric has become conspicuously muted since his earlier speech to the United Nations. However, that is not necessarily an indication of Trump’s intentions.
Another perspective is to look at the other moves quietly being made with China, such as pressing for the activation of the military-to-military hotline between the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army that was a top priority for the visit to China by US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford last August.
Securing North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the event of a collapse of the Pyongyang regime is an issue that China has traditionally refused to discuss until recently. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson revealed that talks on this issue in December included a commitment that US forces would leave North Korea and then retreat after any incursion.
Discussions have also been held between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on these issues on multiple occasions. At the same time, discreet meetings between General H R McMaster and his counterparts at the National Security Council and South Korea and Japan were held in January.
‘Bloody nose’ not an option
The White House is reportedly unsatisfied with the Pentagon’s current military options, and the US Department of Defense needs more time to prepare for a major Korea campaign. The “bloody nose” option is not viable. The alternative is a war that would likely require occupying North Korea, which would require extensive preparation.
The US military’s readiness and fitness after years of sequestration (budget cuts) and fighting low-intensity wars cannot be rebuilt overnight for what is likely to be an intense, difficult, risky and lengthy campaign. These preparations are happening despite budget constraints.
Activation of mobilization centers, training of US troops for situations specific to the Korean theater including the safe retrieval, deactivation and handling of nuclear weapons, and fighting in tunnels, are just some of the exercises known to be taking pace.
Orders for military equipment such as bridges, precision munitions, missiles and other consumables, and contingency plans for casualties, evacuation and relief, are quietly being made. But it will take time for the orders to be filled.
Many observers have argued that evacuation of non-combat personnel, particularly Americans, will be a clear sign of impending conflict. US Senator Tammy Duckworth has suggested that the US should prepare for and rehearse evacuations of “tens of millions” of non-combatants. This issue, however, has divided the Trump administration.
The reality is that there is not the logistical capability to conduct any meaningful evacuation of more than a tiny number of non-combatants.
Suppose the US evacuation efforts were limited to non-combatant American nationals from South Korea, Japan, Guam, and elsewhere in the immediate region. Such an evacuation would still involve hundreds of thousands from South Korea alone. When American nationals in Japan, Guam and elsewhere are included, the numbers are staggering.
Logistical feasibility aside, the bigger question is what sort of message such an evacuation would send to America’s closest allies who cannot leave.
There are many people who still remember the chaotic last days of Saigon when the US failed to evacuate all but a tiny fraction of American nationals – particularly dual Vietnamese-American nationals – in the last days of the Republic of Vietnam.
If a mass evacuation is ordered prior to conflict on the Korean Peninsula, that would be the warning that North Korea, China and Russia could not miss, and could trigger a pre-emptive strike on US bases and facilities just as a military buildup and evacuation are in full swing. There is high probability that North Korea would use its nuclear weapons for such a strike to maximize its chance of stopping a US attack.
While the US cannot bar non-combatant nationals and allies from privately traveling out of the region ahead of a conflict, a formal evacuation – one that logistically would have to be limited to US nationals and dependents – would send a devastating message to America’s Japanese and South Korean allies. In effect, it would say, “America will fight to the last Korean (or Japanese).”
A decision not to evacuate American non-combatants would be a momentous decision for the Trump administration, as some, if not many, would become casualties, as US bases and facilities are prime targets for North Korean strikes.
The administration has to consider that American civilians, by remaining “in theater,” would strengthen the resolve of US and allied troops because they would both know it was their dependents and homes that were at stake. It would send the strongest possible message to America’s friends in the region that the US was dead serious about minimizing allied casualties.
The unmistakable sign that war is coming is in the operational preparations being done that are essential for any major military operation. Preparations known to be in progress are far in excess of a “limited air strike” campaign and hint at a major mobilization of US and allied resources equivalent to or greater than those during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Keeping Russia, China at bay
Diplomatic efforts aimed at keeping Russia and China, plus North Korean allies like Pakistan and Iran, out of the war suggest that deterring a repeat of “Chinese People’s Volunteers” or Soviet aid backed by the full spectrum of allied capabilities from diplomatic, economic and military power is feasible.
Russia, rather than the credible power it was in the 1950s, is a shadow of its former self and would likely be amenable to a deal under which its behavior in Ukraine and Crimea is overlooked and at least some sanctions lifted.
China, rather than the diplomatically isolated regime of the 1950s that had vast reserves of undesirables in the form of former Nationalist troops that the Communist regime wanted “used up” for the Korean and other wars, is now a major international trading nation that has a lot to lose.
Another little-noticed problem with China’s military forces is that the majority of its troops are from “one child” families, predominantly males, whose loss in combat would be devastating to their families, potentially extinguishing their line. The political ramifications of mass casualties resulting from major military operations risk destabilizing the PLA, and with it the Communist Party’s grip on the military.
All these factors suggest that China would be a much more cautious player than the last time around if the US exercises a military option to denuclearize North Korea.
Preparations being made militarily, diplomatically, and economically suggest the stage is set for US military intervention. The decision will be up to Donald Trump, who will become the most consequential US president of the century regardless of what choice he makes.