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Russia House


No Time for Complacency over Korea War Threat

By Jonathan Marshall

Like the proverbial calm before the storm, war scares on the Korean peninsula have temporarily gone quiet while its two governments make nice over the 2018 Winter Olympics. But when the games end, count on the Trump administration reviving its ultimatum to North Korea: Stop all nuclear and missile testing and begin to denuclearize, or face a devastating, preemptive attack.
Given the sheer number of leaks from the Trump White House, we would almost certainly know by now if the President were simply bluffing about his intent to pursue a military optionotherwise known as warto stop North Koreas nuclear program. Instead, weve heard nothing but confirmation from his senior advisers, within and without the administration, about Trumps commitment to use deadly force if Pyongyang does not yield.

Millions may die if the White House launches such a war. Given the huge stakes, Americans should be protesting in the streets, and members of Congress should be threatening to shut down the government, until the administration commits to peaceful resolution of the Korea issue. Instead, like anesthetized animals awaiting slaughter, most of us seem to be passively accepting our fate.

The U.S. military is certainly preparing to carry out a presidential order for war. Besides undertaking a host of war games with South Korea over the past year, it has moved long-range B-52, B-1, and stealth B-2 bombers to Guam, from which they can strike North Korea with nuclear or conventional bombs. The Defense Department has also been testing the worlds most powerful non-nuclear bomb, the 30,000-pound GBU-57, which has the capacity to plow through hundreds of feet of earth to destroy hardened weapons silos.

As George W. Bush did in the run-up to his invasion of Iraq, Trump has also been building a public case for bringing fire and fury to North Korea, most recently in his State of the Union Address.

Echoing Bushs rhetoric about not waiting for a mushroom cloud, Trump warned that North Koreas reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. Without mentioning the power of Americas vast nuclear deterrent to keep us safe, he again echoed Bushs rhetoric about Saddams regime: We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.

Staying on message to prevent the Olympics from diminishing Americans fear and loathing of Pyongyang, Trump is sending Vice President Pence to the games with the father of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died after being imprisoned in North Korea.

The Cost of Preventive War

Another recent signal of the White Houses intent was its decision to rescind its planned nomination of Victor Cha, a Georgetown University scholar who served in the George W. Bush administration, to be ambassador to South Korea. That position remains embarrassingly vacant more than a year into the Trump presidency.

Despite Chas hardline stance against North Koreas nuclear program, he raised questions within the administration about the wisdom of a preventive military strike. Even a small attack, meant to give North Korea a bloody nose without escalating to all-out war, would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans, he wrote in an op-ed column published after his nomination was dropped.

Cha added that even a large-scale attack would only delay North Koreas missile-building and nuclear programs, which are buried in deep, unknown places impenetrable to bunker-busting bombs. A strike also would not stem the threat of proliferation but rather exacerbate it, [creating] a vengeful effort intended to equip other bad actors against us.

Meanwhile, a third of a million Americans resident in South Korea and Japannot to mention millions of Koreans and Japanesewould be vulnerable to North Korean counterattack by artillery, missiles, and biochemical weapons, not to mention any remaining nukes.

To be clear, Cha wrote, the president would be putting at risk an American population the size of a medium-size U.S. cityPittsburgh, say, or Cincinnati.

Chas casualty estimates arent seriously in question. Even Defense Secretary James Mattis said last summer that a war with North Korea would be catastrophic.

Whats more significant is the fact that, having spoken in confidence with all the relevant administration insiders, Cha evidently believes they remain committed to the option of preventive war. Trump has long vowed that he will never permit North Korea to develop nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United Statesa feat that U.S. intelligence analysts say may be only months away.

The greatest immediate threat to U.S. national security, however, is not North Korean missiles per se, but the fact that the Trump White House faces so little push-back from outside the administration to its fast-approaching military option.

Indeed, the presidents golfing partner and foreign policy adviser Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, has been whispering in his ear for nearly a year about the pressing need to wipe out North Koreas nuclear forces before they can reach the United States.

And just last week, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the temptation to launch a preemptive attack on North Korea is strong and the argument rational.

No wonder, then, the respected International Crisis Group warned recently that The threat of nightmarish war on the Korean peninsula is higher than at any time in recent history. A national poll released in mid-January found 71 percent Americans surveyed were concerned about war breaking out with North Korea.

Where is the Peace Movementand Congress?

Yet the public has been strangely quiescent. Besides a handful of demonstrations around the country, the peace movement, such as it is, has been largely AWOL on the issue. Current campaigns of antiwar groups focus on divestment from the war machine and protests against the U.S. base in Guantanamo, but few have Korea as their focus.

The grassroots organization Peace Action is, however, helping to organize individual and group support for an Olympic Truce to promote a nonviolent settlement of issues on the Korean peninsula.

The peace movement somewhat mirrors the public in concern regarding tensions with North Korea, but not being clear on what to do about it, Peace Actions President Kevin Martin told me. That is beginning to change with our campaign around the Olympic Truce, which 128 organizations, including many Korean-American groups, have now endorsed.

A few members of Congress have spoken out strongly about the need to avoid a costly and catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula, as Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine put it recently. Two bills introduced in Congress, H.R. 4837 and S. 2016, call for no unconstitutional strike against North Korea without explicit authorization from Congress. But they have little Republican support and no immediate chance of passage.

In a letter sent to President Trump on Monday, 18 Democratic senators said they are deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a preemptive military strike on North Korea and the risks of miscalculation and retaliation.

But even they seem to accept the administrations framing of the issue. Warning that it would be extremely irresponsible to instigate military conflict prior to exhausting every diplomatic option (my emphasis), they ignore the success the United States has had deterring every other hostile nuclear power, including Stalins USSR and Maos China. CIA intelligence analysts have concluded that Kim Jong-uns regime is both rational and deterrable, meaning that there is no cause for preemptive war, whatever the outcome of diplomacy.

Time is fast running out for Americans and their representatives in Congress to wake up and put handcuffs on the Trump administration before it triggers mass murder in North Asia, and possibly much closer to home. It will take an Olympic-sized campaign, but the stakes could not be higher.