While we were all hoping for a true breakthrough in North Korea by President Donald Trump, let’s face it: the history was never encouraging. Despite similarly hopeful moments in the past, the North Korean pattern is depressingly uniform: come to the peace table, encourage everyone to believe “peace is at hand,” make promises to denuclearize, gain major trade and economic concessions (a whole thumb drive full of them this time, thoughtfully provided by South Korean President Moon Jae-in), then slowly unwind the package of promises and revert to form as a dangerous international outlaw state. What’s different this cycle is the speed: a bipolar burst of seemingly instant high, followed by a crashing low with nuclear threats from both sides again suddenly on the table — all within 60 days. This is the Korea crisis in the key of Trump to be sure.
Given this sudden shift and President Trump’s withdrawal from the planned summit between the two nations, we should be thinking about the challenges before three distinguished military officers: General James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense; Admiral Harry Harris, just nominated as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea; and Admiral Phil Davidson, nominated to replace Admiral Harris as the Commander of the vast U.S. Pacific Command. Collectively, they “own” the problem of how to return to full-bore deterrence and, if necessary, give the President new options for military strikes in this failed negotiation scenario. I know each of them extremely well from decades of service and my own time both in the Pacific Fleet and as NATO Supreme Commander. They are the right trio of leaders in these crucial jobs in this difficult moment. But what will their counsel be the mercurial President? How will they shape the arc of the negotiation?
Let’s start with Secretary of Defense Mattis. Despite plenty of focus on the Middle East over the course of his career, he has spent a great deal of time in the Pacific. He knows the players and the issues cold. He is a cautious, thoughtful strategist with a deep sense of history — essentially the opposite of President Trump, who will continue to largely shoot from the hip, ignoring both briefings and intelligence presented to him, and remain inclined to swing for the fences, if not in a summit, then in a preemptive strike of some kind.
Mattis will counsel patience and caution regarding a strike. He will provide options tightening sanctions (once again), and perhaps present ideas for a naval blockade. More emphasis on cyber, intelligence and missile defense will be on the table, alongside options for both limited and massive strikes. Whichever the immediate U.S. actions are chosen will likely play out in a three-way conversation between the President, Secretary Mattis and new National Security Advisor John Bolton. Though the flow of information and advice into that discussion is complex. (For instance: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has articulated a tough stance toward North Korea but was clearly excited about the summit, will be a key actor in resolving the crisis; he will probably position himself between the caution of Mattis and the likely aggressive stance of Bolton.)
Ambassador Harris, himself a Japanese American, will be parachuting into high drama. President Moon, who had invested excessively in relationship building with Kim, will be wounded both politically and personally. His first question to the new Ambassador will be, “Why did the Administration start talking about Libya?” Clearly, doing so was like throwing a chunk of kryptonite into the room with Seoul’s Superman, effectively wilting the strength and powerful possibilities of the meeting. Harris, who knows the Korean War Plans better than anyone on earth at this point, understands exactly how devastating a war on the Peninsula will be — and both he and his wife Bruni (herself an expert on Asia and a Japanese speaker) are sitting in ground zero. Expect him to join Secretary Mattis in taking a cautious approach.
The newest member of the senior decision-making group will be Admiral Phil Davidson, who was confirmed by the Senate in late April for the position of Commander, U.S. Pacific Command — a joint assignment with responsibility for the entire military structure in the Pacific, and a headquarters in Pearl Harbor. He is currently coming from a strictly Navy job in command of the overall U.S. fleet, but has been focused largely on the Middle East throughout much of his career. However, he is an extremely creative thinker, with deep intellectual capability. For example, he was hand-selected as a one-star to build a new diplomatic-operational structure for Afghanistan-Pakistan, working with Richard Holbrooke — an unusual assignment for a Navy Admiral, and one that would have led many to call it quits. He is close to outgoing Pacific Commander Harris. Both of the Admirals will be extremely skeptical of jumping into a war with North Korea, or even a limited strike (the so-called “bloody nose” option). They will both support Secretary Mattis in his cautionary approach.
While each of these senior leaders will be part of the ultimate decision-making conversation in the Situation Room, the command relationships are complicated. Ambassador Harris technically reports directly to the President, but in reality communicates through the Secretary of State. Admiral Davidson technically reports directly to the Secretary of Defense, but in reality coordinates and communicates largely through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. John Bolton reports only to the President, and it is his difficult task to present these views honestly in the interagency to the President. Given the complexity of the challenges and the divergence of personalities engaged in solving them, this will likely be very contentious — that is, if the President even goes against his personality and doesn’t willfully disregard slow, thoughtful and measured advice.
The winner at this moment is Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was always highly uncomfortable with the direction the talks appeared to be heading as the conversation was turning into a U.S.–North Korea dialog, with South Korea a bit player and China completely off the stage. In all probability, the sudden course change by North Korea was the result not only on the ill-timed “Libyan example,” but also encouragement from China to North Korea to abandon the summit train. China will now be able to become a fence-mender that may be able to construct what we should have had from the beginning: four-party talks with all four nations at the table. In the Nobel Prize sweepstakes, I’d say Xi is rising, and Trump and Moon are slumping.
The ultimate wild card, of course, will be Kim Jung Un himself. Expect to see his side ratchet up the offensive rhetoric, which will be matched quickly by President Trump. “Little Rocket Man” and the “Dotard” will be making their not-so-triumphant return. The ultimate next step to shock the world would be an over-ocean nuclear test (thus far, they have been underground). That seems unlikely, but look for a reaction in the middle — a conventional attack on South Korean forces, more oversea ballistic missiles tests (perhaps headed toward Guam) or a cyber attack would all be plausible. Kim will want to demonstrate his strength in crisis and his lack of willingness to surrender his weapons.
Most observers saw this coming — just not so quickly. Hopefully there is a way to resurrect a diplomatic path. But we need to bear in mind that, given the example of Libya, the chances of Kim giving up his nuclear weapons are roughly the same as of Mexico paying for the wall. The officers in charge of outlining our next steps will need to help develop a more nuanced negotiating stance and garner Chinese cooperation in order to land this crisis without a fight.