These days, the news out of Korea moves at a dizzying pace. From Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s olive branch to the recent inter-Korean summit and potential upcoming (and unprecedented) meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, there is an endless array of new developments. Thus far, the most tangible outcome has been a rapid reduction in tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the setting of historic goals of peace and denuclearization. The latter, of course, remain just that, goals; goals that have been set several times before. Still, observing the optimism from Seoul (and elsewhere) one is led to believe we are on the verge of truly transformative agreements.
Lost, or at least obscured by the flow of events, are clear signs that the Trump administration’s hardline stance has not changed. One such development was the April 24 appointment of Admiral Harry Harris to become the new U.S. Ambassador to Seoul, a position vacant for the last 15 months.
Harris, currently the head of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), had previously been appointed as ambassador to Australia, but was redirected one day before his confirmation hearing for the Canberra post. Harris’ nomination was one of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first acts upon entering office. It should be noted, though, that Harris’ appointment must still be confirmed in the Senate. As shown by the back-and-forth over Victor Cha, nothing should be considered final until Harris is sitting in Habib House in Seoul. Nevertheless, it does look likely.
Admiral Harris was an attractive pick for Pompeo. He has taken an outspoken hardline stance toward Pyongyang. Last May, in a strongly worded address in Tokyo, he called North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs a threat not only to U.S. allies and the region but “the entire world,” and advocated for far stronger sanctions, in line with the White House’s own policy. Moreover, he does not shy away from discussing so-called kinetic action against North Korea, the military’s anesthetized bureaucratic language for violent military strikes.
The Washington Post’s David Nakamura and John Hudson observe that while Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea may have softened, he has surrounded himself with hawks. Like Secretary Pompeo and Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, Harris is aggressive toward Pyongyang.
To be fair, though, he does possess a more nuanced understanding of regional and peninsular dynamics, and the limits of what is possible. Unlike Pompeo, he does not publicly ruminate about regime change in Pyongyang. Nor does he share Bolton’s readiness for preemptive strikes on the North. Still, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Harris claimed Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy is what brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table. In short, for Harris, as for Pompeo and Bolton, skepticism towards North Korea is a must and the stick is more attractive (and effective) than the carrot.
This raises some important questions. What does this say about the limits of what can be achieved at the upcoming Kim-Trump summit? And what happens if the summit fails to achieve anything and things once again turn sour?
Nakamura and Hudson write: “Foreign-policy analysts who know Harris predicted that he, Bolton and Pompeo would aim to set guardrails to protect the unpredictable Trump from being hoodwinked by empty promises from Kim.” With Trump, anything seems possible. The president might make some sudden grand gesture and impetuously agree to a wide-reaching settlement (potentially including the reduction or removal of U.S. forces). Nonetheless, as always, the devil is in the details of implementation, and these same advisors, even if they cannot stop Trump in the moment of the summit, could certainly serve as obstructionist bureaucratic operators after the fact.
However, Trump might not sign away longstanding U.S. policy and instead adhere to his administration’s official line. Pompeo spelled out as much during his official swearing in ceremony at the State Department on May 2. Standing next to the president, Pompeo said, “A bad deal is no deal.” He continued: “We’re committed to the permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program and to do so without delay.”
Time and again, Trump and administration officials have said they will not follow the example of past administrations. That, combined with moving “without delay,” implies Trump is not willing to countenance a phased process as previously attempted (twice) and will demand sweeping concessions upfront from Pyongyang; concessions Kim Jong-un may very well not be willing to accept. Moreover, even if Kim does the unexpected and accepts a frontloaded, one-sided bargain, the process itself will be fraught with the doubts and possible backsliding pressure of Trump’s own advisors. During the Senate testimony mentioned above, Harris said any process with Pyongyang on denuclearization must follow the dictum: “Distrust but verify.” Bolton himself views Pyongyang’s trustworthiness as essentially nonexistent.
Obviously, until the summit itself, we simply do not know what will transpire. Yet there are legitimate reasons to believe things could unravel and turn south, quickly. The prospect for another whipsaw back toward increased tensions and the threat of war is unwelcome, but worth considering.
Harris has openly shared his thoughts about such a prospect. “Many people have talked about military options being unimaginable regarding North Korea… Folks, I must imagine the unimaginable,” he told a Chamber of Commerce group in Hawaii earlier this year. Again, during Senate testimony, Harris denied media reports and said the military was not developing plans for a so-called “bloody nose” strike. Harris, like Victor Cha, understands the impracticality, counterproductive nature, and dangerous escalatory potential of such a limited action.
However, Harris went on to remark: “I believe if we do anything along the kinetic region of the spectrum of conflict, we have to be ready to do the whole thing… And we’re ready to do the whole thing if ordered by the president.” The “whole thing” means a full-on confrontation with North Korea’s million-plus man army, with the ultimate aim of (as U.S. war plans have it) invading North Korea, destroying the Kim regime, and settling the unification question under U.S. and South Korean auspices.
On the one hand, it is unremarkable for Harris to say such things. It is his job to prepare for the unimaginable and also be cognizant of the constitutionally bound chain of command within which he operates. On the other hand, it also shows the stark limits the Trump administration faces even if the summit utterly fails and it decides to return to an openly bellicose line.
For the simple truth is this: no matter how eager Bolton or other hawks are to distrust (and possibly even strike the Kim regime), no confrontation with North Korea could ever occur without the full consultation and cooperation of U.S. allies in Tokyo and Seoul. Harris makes this point regularly. What is more, no government in Tokyo or Seoul, no matter their political stripe, would ever sign off on the preventative initiation of military action against Pyongyang. One would think (or at least hope) that these overwhelming constraints might lead to the breakthrough.