Editor’s Note: This is the 35th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?
A lot of news the past 24 hours. Trump’s State of the Union speech repeated a grievous error in how it frames North Korea. Uber-hawk John Bolton is rumored to be the top candidate for replacing H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser. And Victor Cha, the administration’s choice for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was withdrawn from consideration.
Does any of this matter for North Korea? Yes, no, and hell yes.
In his State of the Union speech, Trump declared, “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and its allies.” McMaster’s fingerprints are all over that line. It’s an attempt to make North Korea seem undeterrable, which is supposed to be why we can’t allow it to retain nukes.
Yet China’s Mao Zedong was no less deranged than Kim Jong Un, and China’s Cultural Revolution was no less depraved than the horrors of Kim’s regime, and yet China never posed the threat to the United States that Trump believes North Korea poses now. You know why? Because we never made a habit of threatening nuclear war against China after it developed a survivable nuclear arsenal. There’s no theory of the case that connects human rights abuses at home to irrationality in foreign policy.
The day before the State of the Union speech, rumors swirled that H.R. McMaster might end his run as National Security Adviser soon, and the top candidate to replace him was John Bolton, a senior appointee in the George W. Bush administration with famously hawkish views on foreign policy. Among other notable positions, he’s been a vocal advocate of bombing Iran. He would not be good for North Korea policy, but it’s hard to get more aggressive than McMaster’s “bloody nose” theory against Kim. Substituting Bolton as National Security Adviser could stress-test America’s ability to conduct two regional wars simultaneously though.
Finally, a friend and quasi-mentor, Victor Cha, had been chosen to be U.S. ambassador to Seoul, but got removed from consideration today because he was opposed to the administration’s “bloody nose” strategy for North Korea. That’s how serious Trump officials are about preventive attack on North Korea—they’re willing to purge a guy they just nominated for ambassador before he even has his confirmation hearing. So much for hiring smart people willing to disagree with you.
South Korea preparing the Olympic Games was a natural denouement to last year’s nuclear crisis, but the Trump administration seems to be doubling down on the case for eliminating North Korea’s nukes at all costs. As I said some weeks ago in this daily journal, “the seeds for another crisis were planted in the very artificial, incomplete way in which this one ended.”
All this news was of course highly distracting. I spent half the day on Twitter, and must’ve checked for updates ten times even as I wrote this. Still managed just over 500 words though, which isn’t bad considering.
Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.