As the Winter Olympics prepare to open in Pyeongchang, Vice President Mike Pence faces the daunting task of staving off the threat of impending peace. The governments of North and South Korea are using the games as a summit of sorts, to discuss diplomatic solutions to longstanding disputes over their contested border and the North’s nuclear program. In response to an invitation from the South in January, North Korea is sending a delegation to the Olympics that includes Kim Yo Jong, the only sister of dictator Kim Jong Un; she is scheduled to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday.
“We certainly hope to utilize this opportunity to the maximum so that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games can become a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as well as to establishing peace on the Korean peninsula,” Moon stated before his meeting Thursday with Pence. But the vice president, who spoke after Moon, reiterated America’s “maximum pressure” for North Korean to end its nuclear program and made clear that the Trump administration opposes diplomatic talks with the North. As The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports, “The White House message is consistent: Now is not the time for engagement with Pyongyang, and the North Korean charm offensive cannot be allowed to succeed.”
The Trump administration might oppose the “North Korean charm offensive,” but, paradoxically, they’re the ones who made it possible. For nearly seven decades, South Korea has been one of America’s closest allies, as it depends on the United States for its very survival. But that equation has changed thanks to President Donald Trump’s nuclear threats, combined with serious evidence that his administration might follow a “bloody nose” strategy and launch a small-scale preemptive strike against North Korea.
Trump’s “fire and fury” rhetoric was designed to scare North Korea, and as such could be dismissed as bluster in the tradition of Richard Nixon’s failed “madman” gambit of the late 1960s, when he failed to intimidate North Vietnam with nuclear threats. But Trump has been more effectual than Nixon, albeit in an unexpected way: He has convinced the South Koreans that they need to pursue a foreign policy separate from the United States or risk an apocalyptic war.
One reason for South Korea’s anxiety is that Trump’s words can’t be dismissed as mere swagger, since they’ve been echoed by his administration. In early January, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told Fox News that “this administration is prepared to do what it takes to ensure that people in Los Angeles and Denver and New York aren’t held at risk from Kim Jong-un having a nuclear weapon.” His words are consistent not just with the madman theory, but Trump’s broader America First agenda. Pompeo’s statement implies a belief that American lives are so valuable that any threat to them from a foreign power, however remote, is worth a war that would unquestionably cause mass death in Seoul.
Further proof of the Trump administration’s seriousness about preemptive war came in late January with reports that the respected academic Victor D. Cha was no longer slated to be the White House’s nominee for ambassador to South Korea because he rejected the “bloody nose” strategy. This news was especially striking given the importance of the ambassadorship at this tense moment.
In an op-ed in the Post last week, Cha pointed out that even Pompeo’s ghastly logic doesn’t make sense: “Some have argued the risks are still worth taking because it’s better that people die ‘over there’ than ‘over here.’ On any given day, there are 230,000 Americans in South Korea and 90,000 or so in Japan. Given that an evacuation of so many citizens would be virtually impossible under a rain of North Korean artillery and missiles (potentially laced with biochemical weapons), these Americans would most likely have to hunker down until the war was over.”
But the concern, of course, should be for all 51 million people in South Korea and the 127 million in Japan. In a frightening report for Vox, Yochi Dreazen wrote that all of the people he interviewed—“more than a dozen former Pentagon officials, CIA analysts, US military officers, and think tank experts, as well as to a retired South Korean general who spent his entire professional life preparing to fight the North”—said something similar: “There is a genuine risk of a war on the Korean Peninsula that would involve the use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Several estimated that millions—plural—would die. Even more frightening, most of the people I spoke to said they believed Kim would use nuclear weapons against South Korea in the initial stages of the fighting—not just as a desperate last resort.”
Many analysts worry that Trump’s erratic foreign policy will alienate America’s allies. The Korean drama shows that this is a genuine problem, but it has a silver lining. The sheer strength of America, which has been the world’s hegemon since 1945, has led allies to reflexively rely on the United States, creating a status quo bias where relations between nations remain frozen. This is certainly true with South Korea, which has remained an American dependency since the Korean War, seeking security under the umbrella of American military strength and a heavily armed border.
Trump’s irrationality is forcing the South Korean government to abandon its old posture and seek a separate peace. As Rogin wrote, Pence “may fail to realize ... that Moon’s twin desires to have a successful Olympics and explore an opening with the Kim regime may trump his commitment to reaffirm the strength and unity of the alliance. Pence may also underestimate the damage that Trump’s treatment of South Korea since the campaign has done to Moon’s willingness to follow Washington’s lead.” In effect, we’re seeing the emergence of a policy of South Korea First and a rejection of American brinksmanship. This might lead to a weaker America, but just might create a safer world.