Just hours before Donald Trump pledged in his State of the Union address to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea with “maximum pressure” and “American resolve,” the man who was once poised to be the U.S. envoy to South Korea issued a dire warning about what might be behind the president’s words.
For weeks now, speculation has swirled that the Trump administration is seriously thinking about conducting limited military strikes against North Korea to give Kim Jong Un a “bloody nose”—with the aim of deterring him from further developing a nuclear arsenal that could soon threaten the U.S. mainland. South Korea’s president claimed that Trump had denied such plans in a private phone call, but publicly Trump and his advisers haven’t commented on the reports. Writing in The Washington Post on Tuesday night, shortly after news broke that he was no longer under consideration to be ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha suggested that the “bloody nose” option is real—so real, in fact, that his opposition to it might be the reason he won’t be heading to Seoul.
Some officials in the Trump administration believe that a circumscribed use of force “would shock Pyongyang into appreciating U.S. strength, after years of inaction, and force the regime to the denuclearization negotiating table,” wrote Cha, a prominent Korea scholar and former official in the George W. Bush administration. They also believe that the United States could keep the conflict from spiraling out of control and exacting massive human and economic costs even if North Korea retaliates. He pointed to the difficulty of evacuating American non-combatants from South Korea and Japan—not ahead of a strike, but “under a rain of North Korean artillery and missiles (potentially laced with biochemical weapons).” The implication seemed to be that Trump is mulling a surprise attack.