Most people intuitively get it. An American preventive strike to wipe out North Korea’s nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, or a commando raid launched with the same goal in mind, is likely to initiate a chain of events culminating in catastrophe. That would be true above all for the roughly 76 million Koreans living on either side of the Demilitarized Zone. Donald Trump, though, seems unperturbed. His recent contribution to defusing the crisis there: boasting that his nuclear button is “bigger and more powerful” than that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The president’s high-school locker-room braggadocio provided rich material for comedians and maybe for shrinks. Meanwhile, there remains the continuing danger of a war in the Koreas, whether premeditated or triggered accidentally by a ship seized, an aircraft downed, a signal misread… you get the picture. No serious person could dismiss this scenario, but even the experts who track the evidence closely for a living differ on just how probable it is. In part, that’s because, like everyone else, they must reckon with a colossal wild card—and I’m not talking about Kim Jong-un.
On one side are those who warn that President Trump isn’t blowing smoke when he talks, or tweets, about destroying North Korea’s nuclear warheads and missiles, the infrastructure supporting them, and possibly even the whole country. By now, it’s common knowledge that his national security officials—civilian and military (the distinction having blurred in the Trump era)—have been crafting plans to strike before that country’s nuclear arsenal becomes fully operational.
No one who listened to PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff interviewingNational Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster just after the Trump administration released its National Security Strategy in December could simply dismiss the warnings as those of so many Cassandras. McMaster dutifully summarized that document, which included a pledge to “respond with overwhelming force to North Korean aggression and improve options to compel denuclearization.” When Woodruff then asked whether he believed war was becoming more likely by the day, he agreed, adding that “the president has asked us to continue to refine a military option, should we need to use it.”
Others who should be in the know have offered even scarier prognoses. During an interview with ABC News on the last day of 2017, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen claimed that, while McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis had stayed Trump’s hand so far, their ability to continue to restrain such a “disruptive” and “unpredictable” president was diminishing. “We’re actually closer to nuclear war with North Korea and in that region,” he concluded, “than we’ve ever been.”