Experts Concerned About Idea Of A Preemptive Strike Against North Korea

Jan 31, 2018
Originally published on February 6, 2018 10:04 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


President Trump devoted a good part of his first State of the Union address to North Korea. He said North Korea's pursuit of nuclear missiles could, quote, "very soon threaten the U.S." He did not though signal a change in his approach to North Korea. But some aides have been raising the prospect of a preemptive strike. NPR's Michele Kelemen begins our coverage.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There were some theatrics when President Trump turned his attention to North Korea last night. He invited a North Korean defector into the chamber and the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who spent a year and a half in a North Korean jail only to return home in a coma and die.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We pledge to honor Otto's memory with total American resolve.

KELEMEN: But Trump didn't move the ball on U.S. policy, says Mike Green, a former Bush administration official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

MIKE GREEN: The White House was promising an eye-popping new statement on North Korea. But in fact, what he said about maximum pressure was quite consistent with what our allies Japan and Korea want to do. And I didn't hear any reference to preventive military strikes.

KELEMEN: Green is among many U.S. experts and lawmakers who have been raising concerns about an idea the administration has floated, a limited strike to give North Korea a bloody nose.

GREEN: That is deeply problematic. It's not consistent with international law. No one can say for sure how North Korea will respond.

KELEMEN: If they do strike back, hundreds of thousands of Americans and South Koreans could be at risk. Green's colleague, another former Bush administration adviser, Victor Cha, says he raised similar concerns in his meetings with the White House when he was considered for the post of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. The Trump administration says Cha is no longer under consideration.

And though there are some indications he had trouble with his security checks as a Korean American, Green believes the White House didn't like Cha's political views.

GREEN: The background and security of ethics checks that he had to go through before his name was sent to Seoul, which it was, for what's called (unintelligible), a sort of preannouncement approval, just suggests that the real issue was the growing - the opposition in and out of government to the idea of a military strike. And I think he was associated with that.

KELEMEN: And that worries Kelly Magsamen of the Center for American Progress, who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations. She says any president needs to hear all sides.

KELLY MAGSAMEN: I would want somebody coming in and saying, OK, have you considered these downsides or, you know, here would be the potential impacts. Maybe this isn't the best option. Maybe we should be pursuing a different option. You know, you would think you would want that level of debate, especially if you're considering something like the use of force, which should always be the last resort.

KELEMEN: The White House is giving no indication of when it might name someone to serve as ambassador to Seoul. Magsamen says the South Koreans were clearly hoping to have someone by now, with tensions high and the Olympics just a week away.

MAGSAMEN: I know that the South Koreans are looking forward to having an ambassador out there. And I think certainly it probably confuses them in terms of where the administration might be headed.

KELEMEN: Top State Department officials who briefed reporters on security plans for the upcoming Olympics today say the fact that there's no U.S. ambassador hasn't had an impact on that. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.