Two items caught our eyes this morning, spaced one immediately above the other on the front page of the on-line version of today’s New York Times: “South Korea and US Begin Drills” and above it a news analysis piece titled “Talk of ‘Preventive War’ Rises in White House Over North Korea.”
While tensions appear to have eased somewhat since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that he would watch and wait before firing missiles near Guam, North Korea could still use these drills as a pretext for a new cycle of escalation. For what is viewed as a routine annual joint military exercise by the United States and South Korea is viewed as anything but routine (or defensive) by North Korea. The exercises that began today will last 11 days, and involve a total of nearly 70,000 allied soldiers.
At such a delicate moment, Trump Administration talk of preventive war seems rash, provocative, and potentially self-defeating. (Preventive war describes a conflict that a stronger power starts to defeat a weaker rival and is widely considered illegal under international legal conventions. In comparison, a pre-emptive strike involves attacking first when an imminent attack is detected.) As the Times’ Talk of ‘Preventive War article notes: “Mr. Trump’s top national security officials seem to be trying to walk a fine line, stopping short of the kind of bald threats that the president has issued in tweets but making clear he is ready to wield a big stick ... And yet the military options he has so openly threatened may prove hollow.”
“There is no such thing as a surgical strike against North Korea,” Bruce Bennett, a North Korea expert at the RAND Corporation, said in one of its recent publications. “We don’t really know for sure where all their weapons are.’’