Since last summer, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has been building a case for the use of preventive force against North Korea. In interviews and public statements, he has called Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, irrational and undeterrable. The implications of such a characterization are important: If a leader is irrational, he is, by definition, incapable of making the cost-benefit calculations necessary to ensure his own survival. No one can affect his cost calculations.
McMaster has also said that he believes Kim is acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to help him conquer South Korea. (Bringing a reunified Korean Peninsula under Pyongyang’s control has long been a goal for North Korea.) Under this logic, if Kim can threaten the U.S. homeland with his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), he’ll be able to hold U.S. forces at bay while he tries to take the South. Nuclear deterrence and U.S. military superiority, in other words, would not be enough to halt Kim’s mission of peninsular conquest. New reporting now indicates that Victor Cha, the Trump administration’s nominee for the position of ambassador to South Korea, is no longer under consideration for the post, in part because of his misgivings about using force against North Korea. The administration’s interest in striking the North appears to be all too real.
In a recent piece for The Atlantic, James Jeffrey defended McMaster’s logic for preventive war. Jeffrey argued that the national security adviser may possess a superior understanding of Kim’s aims. These aims, Jeffrey wrote, include the acquisition of a nuclear-tipped ICBM; the undermining of America’s security guarantees to its allies in the region; and, ultimately, the invasion and reclamation of the South. While using force against North Korea would be destructive, it may also be the “least bad” alternative to Kim’s eventual attempt at conquest, according to Jeffrey.
Read the full op-ed in The Atlantic.
More from CNAS
CommentaryA Nightmare for For China: What Would Beijing Do if Kim Jong-un Dies?
A leadership transition in North Korea would present both tremendous risk and opportunity for all stakeholders in Northeast Asia, perhaps most acutely for China. Beijing has l...
By Kristine Lee
CommentaryBreakthrough or Crisis? How Will Coronavirus Impact Tensions with North Korea?
The novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated geopolitical tensions first in Northeast Asia, with the original outbreak in China, and now around the world as the United State...
By Duyeon Kim
CommentaryChallenging China’s Bid for App Dominance
Social media platforms are emerging as central to China’s efforts to shape the global information architecture....
By Kristine Lee & Karina Barbesino
CommentaryDefense Strategy for a Post-Trump World
In a recent piece warning about an emerging arms race in hypersonic missiles, The New York Times quoted Will Roper, the Air Force’s senior acquisition and technology official,...
By Van Jackson