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[Herald Interview] ‘US not afraid to strike North Korea in war’

By Korea Herald

"US President Donald Trump could gain “political advantages” in a war-time situation involving the North."

  • Published : Apr 3, 2017 - 17:25
  • Updated : Apr 3, 2017 - 17:27
With North Korea inching closer to acquiring intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach America’s shores, the United States would be more inclined to take unilateral actions against the threat, including military options, a renowned political scientist said.

Dr. James Nolt, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and adjunct associate professor at New York University, said US President Donald Trump could gain “political advantages” in a war-time situation involving the North, as it would allow him to consolidate power and silence opposition.

“War would serve him well,” Nolt said at a seminar organized by the East Asia Foundation in Seoul last week. “Unlike past US presidents who I believe were genuinely committed to peace and deterrence, Trump and his administration seem less concerned about war and could actually see it as a way to enhance their executive powers.” 

From left: Dr. Benn Steil, senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Geoeconomic Studies; Dr. James Nolt, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and adjunct associate professor at New York University; and Moon Chung-in, distinguished professor emeritus of Yonsei University Songdo Campus, at a seminar, titled “US Foreign and Economic Policy under the Trump Administration and Implications for East Asia,” organized by the East Asia Foundation on March 28. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Noting the American commander in chief has been increasing military budgets while trimming down expenses for other federal departments, including the Department of State, the academic claimed Trump is surrounded by economic nationalists and hard-line commanders who would “not back down” in a confrontation and “go all out” to demonstrate US economic and military might.

Trump told the Financial Times on Sunday “if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” signaling possible direct actions to neutralize North Korea’s growing nuclear menace. Arguing “China has great influence over North Korea,” the president urged more cooperation from Beijing on the matter ahead of his maiden summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, echoed the stance, issuing a stark warning that Washington will “no longer take excuses from China.” “They need to show us how concerned they are. They need to put pressure on North Korea,” she said Sunday, claiming China is “the only country that can stop North Korea.” 

Dr. James Nolt, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and adjunct associate professor at New York University; and Moon Chung-in, distinguished professor emeritus of Yonsei University Songdo Campus and editor-in-chief of quarterly journal Global Asia, at the East Asia Foundation on March 28. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

In an interview with The Korea Herald on March 28, Nolt said Trump marks an “unprecedented and significant” departure from past US presidents in his foreign and domestic policy stance, favoring bilateralism over multilateralism particularly on trade and currency issues.

A lifelong economic nationalist, Trump has appointed people with similar political views in key cabinet positions, chiefly Steve Bannon, White House chief strategist; Wilbur Ross, the US secretary of commerce; and Peter Navarro, director of National Trade Council. On the defense, he installed James Mattis, a former US Marine Corps general, as the secretary of defense, and Herbert Raymond McMaster, a former US Army lieutenant general, as the national security adviser.

“Trump’s argument is that a strong country like the US can get what it wants more easily by dealing with countries one on one rather than in a multilateral format, where smaller countries can form coalitions that run against the grain of America’s self-interest,” according to Nolt. “Everything is deal-based rather than rule-based under Trump. The question is to what extent bilateralism will be his guiding principle.” 

US President Donald Trump (AFP-Yonhap)

Trump seems to want to project American hard power in every nook and cranny of international deals, the scholar expounded, surmising the US does not necessarily want to disengage from Asia or Europe, but engage each country separately.

However, Trump’s unorthodox views and approaches are likely to run counter to the vested interests of powerful corporations and politicians, he added, explaining they support the broad, rules-based internationalist system that has buttressed postwar global peace and prosperity, and from which they have been the biggest beneficiaries.

To control the levers of power, Trump could resort to warmongering rhetoric and actions, while stigmatizing and demonizing opponents, according to the analyst. Against this backdrop, a potential military collision with North Korea, which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has recently warned against, is a relatively easier option compared to other war scenarios, he said. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (AFP-Yonhap)

“As the most isolated country in the world, and with a very belligerent leadership, Pyongyang would be easy to label as a troublemaker and provoke for a war,” Nolt said. “Another advantage for Washington is that in the event of Pyongyang’s regime collapse, Seoul would be the de facto ruler, which makes for a cleaner solution. The US hates occupation, nation building, and being the postwar civil authority.”

In early January, Trump tweeted the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile test launch “won’t happen,” after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the country is in the final stage of developing ICBM capabilities. During a visit to Seoul on March 17, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “all options are on the table” in dealing with the North, including military actions. 

“The US military is very comfortable with its ability to take out an enemy army, navy or air force,” Nolt said. “When it comes down to a war, I don’t think guys like Mattis or McMaster will say, ‘Let’s sit down and negotiate.’ They will confidently tell Trump, ‘We have these military capabilities. If you say this is what we should do, yes sir, we will do it and get the job done.’”

Chinese President Xi Jinping (Yonhap Photo)

Regarding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile, which the defense ministries of Korea and US agreed to deploy in the near future, Nolt said it would provide “an additional layer” of protection against North Korean missile launches.

“Even though the US already has many different antiballistic missile systems in place, THAAD would be seen as an extra prudent step of providing protection.”

Another reason Beijing has expressed rancor against the deployment -- with economic retaliation against Korean companies and the ramping up of nontariff barriers -- is that Taiwan has become interested in acquiring THAAD to shield against potential attacks from China, according to the researcher. 

Moon Chung-in, distinguished professor emeritus of Yonsei University Songdo Campus and editor-in-chief of quarterly journal Global Asia, at the East Asia Foundation on March 28. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

Moon Chung-in -- editor-in-chief of Global Asia, a quarterly academic journal published by the East Asia Foundation -- said the foreign policies of Washington and Seoul should be synchronized as much as possible, bearing in mind the incoming administration in Seoul.

“There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the US and China regarding North Korea,” Moon, a distinguished professor emeritus of Yonsei University Songdo Campus, told The Korea Herald. “Beijing strongly believes pressure and sanctions as well as military solutions cannot solve the North Korean problem, whereas Washington thinks only increased sanctions will alter the strategic calculus of Pyongyang and bring it to a denuclearization negotiating table.”

Acknowledging the “strategic patience” policy toward the North by the previous administration has failed, Moon said putting more pressure on China -- including imposing a secondary boycott on Chinese companies dealing with North Korea -- wouldn’t be effective either.

“No matter what kind of incentives we give to North Korea, it will not denuclearize immediately,” the scholar argued. “I believe Pyongyang’s denuclearization must be decided by the regime itself. What we can do is alleviate North Korea’s fear of being attacked by the US, and combine incentives and disincentives to induce a moratorium or freezing of its nuclear program.”

By Joel Lee (joel@heraldcorp.com)