20 May 2019
US President Donald Trump says military action against North Korea would certainly be an option but adds it's not inevitable. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump says military action against North Korea would certainly be an option but adds it's not inevitable. Photo: Reuters

Trump may have to settle for deterrence on N Korea

President Donald Trump, like his predecessors, may find that neither negotiations nor economic and military pressure can force North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, and that the United States has no choice but to try to contain it and deter North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from ever using a nuclear weapon, Reuters reports.

North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 2, describing it as an advanced hydrogen bomb for a long-range missile, a dramatic escalation of its stand-off with the United States and its allies.

US officials declined to discuss operational planning, but acknowledge that no existing plan for a preemptive strike could promise to prevent a brutal counterattack by North Korea, which has thousands of artillery pieces and rockets trained on Seoul.

In an implicit recognition that the military options against the North are unpalatable at best and pyrrhic at worst, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last week told reporters: “We are never out of diplomatic solutions.”

US and Asian officials believe it is necessary to try negotiations and more economic pressure but concede these are unlikely to curb, let alone eliminate, the nuclear and missile programs that North Korea considers essential to its survival.

That leaves Washington and its allies in South Korea, Japan and elsewhere with an unwelcome question: Is there any way to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, one that is contained and deterred from using its nuclear weaponry?

Trump declined to answer that question at a news conference on Thursday, saying he would not disclose his negotiating strategy publicly and adding it would be a “very sad day” for North Korea if the US military settles the matter.

“Military action would certainly be an option. Is it inevitable? Nothing is inevitable,” Trump said.

Still, a senior Trump administration official said it is unclear whether the Cold War-era deterrence model that Washington used with the Soviet Union could be applied to a rogue state like North Korea, adding: “I don’t think the president wants to take that chance.”

“We are very concerned that North Korea might not be able to be deterred,” the official said, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity shortly after Trump’s remarks.

Among the US options to strengthen its deterrent is the long-planned modernization of America’s aging nuclear forces that would assure that North Korea would be destroyed if it fired a nuclear-tipped missile at the United States, a US military base, Japan, or South Korea.

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