US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has alluded to the existence of military options against North Korea that could spare Seoul from serious risk. Following the comments, US President Donald Trump said, “If [the US] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” at a keynote speech for the United Nations General Assembly.
A Blue House (South Korean presidential residence) official surmised that Trump’s remarks appear to be emphasizing the theoretical principle that the US will consider military options as a last resort. The South Korean military has confirmed that there have been no negotiations with the US regarding military options on North Korea. However, a series of threatening comments from the US authorities have cast doubt on whether they are solely meant as a “warning” for North Korea regarding its provocative actions or are hinting at something more serious.
US prepared for 2nd Korean War in 1994
The situation in 1994 can be reflected on to assess possible actions the US might take during a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. During the first half of the North Korean nuclear crisis in May and June 1994, President Clinton stated his determination to terminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program even at risk of war, as detailed in his memoirs “My Life.”
In 1994, the United States began to prepare military options as policymakers made it clear that any diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue would be difficult. W. J. Perry, the US Secretary of Defense at the time, summoned a meeting of four-star generals in the Pentagon’s Situation Room to discuss the possibility of a second Korean War on May 18. A month later, he convened another Pentagon secret meeting after which details for war on the Korean peninsula were reported to Gary Luck, then-commander of US forces in South Korea. In addition, in a US ministerial meeting held on June 14, 1994, the bombing of North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor was discussed.
On June 16, 1994, when the crisis reached its highest peak, a meeting of high-level US diplomats and defense officials was held at the White House with President Clinton in attendance. The meeting aimed to clarify the broad augmentation of the US military presence on the Korean peninsula. At the time, the US Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported the deployment of more than 50,000 ground troops and 400 aircraft on the Korean peninsula. If it were not for ex-US President Carter, who visited North Korea and reached a certain level of agreement with Kim Il Sung, the crisis of war may have heightened to a large-scale deployment of US forces on the Korean peninsula.
US strategy remains unclear
How much were the South Korean policymakers aware of the US military strategy? According to interviews with policymakers at the time, although South Korean officials were aware of preparations for war, they were not officially informed of the specific details of US military preparations.
South Korean diplomatic and security officials were also not informed about the meeting on June 16, 1994, which was to determine the feasibility of a large-scale deployment of forces to the Korean peninsula. A senior South Korean diplomatic and security official at the time noted that they were aware of the “June 16 White House meeting,” but were not informed of the details being discussed.
However, the fact that the South Korean authorities at the time were not fully informed about the specific military options under consideration by the US is not suggestive of a conflict between the two allies. The US would likely have discussed the military options with South Korea after an internal decision had been made, and it would have been difficult for the South Korean government to acknowledge such internal discussions within the US authorities.
However, as claimed in various memoirs, the preparations for war on the Korean Peninsula were far more developed than had been thought at the time. For the US generals who are expected to prepare for the worst scenarios, such preparations may have been routine. But it is surprising that a scenario for a second Korean War was being discussed in a fairly specific manner across the Pacific, while the South Korean authorities were left in the dark.
Examination of military options by the US
There are likely several scenarios for war on the Korean peninsula that have been examined by the US military authorities, considering that US Defense Secretary Mattis noted a “military option that would not put Seoul in danger.” This does not mean that such options will be realized prior to discussion with the South Korean government.
However, there is one major difference between 1994 and the present situation. In 1994, the North Korean nuclear issue was not viewed as a direct threat to the United States, and former President Kim Young Sam’s words, “We will not mobilize a single soldier out of our 600,000-strong army,” held significant sway in the US. But North Korea’s nuclear program has now reached a point where it is directly threatening the US mainland, and South Korea’s influence has therefore become less important to an issue of self-defense for the US.
The Moon government emphasizes that relations between the two allies are very close, meaning that the two countries are in close consultation when implementing North Korea policy. However, as we have seen in 1994, the South Korean government does not have much authority over the US. There may be a possibility for conflict between the US and South Korea if crisis on the Korean peninsula erupts. With the regional situation becoming more unstable, strong diplomatic relations with the US will be of utmost importance in preventing catastrophe on the Korean peninsula.
*Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.