The tabled nomination of a widely-respected diplomat is bringing renewed focus to divisions inside the Trump administration over how tough the US should be in positioning against North Korea with nuclear tests expected to resume after the upcoming Olympics.
The nomination of the long-rumored candidate to be US ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, was pulled last weekend after he warned the White House that a so-called “bloody nose” strike against Pyongyang would risk pulling the US into a disastrous war that would endanger hundreds of thousands of lives.
That’s largely in line with the caution that’s being urged by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
But others in the administration, including President Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster, have insisted that a military strike be considered as a serious option as a way to exact maximum pressure on Pyongyang.
And it’s that tension that was on display when Cha’s nomination was pulled.
“It seems that there are divisions within the administration,” Bruce Klingner, a former CIA officer and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin Wednesday.
“As the SecDef has stated there are a wide range of military options available to the President but it is important to note that this is still a diplomatically led effort,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Logan told CNN. “As far as specifics go we will not discuss operational details or potential military options.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “Our policy is maximum pressure with the goal of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, as POTUS said in the State of the Union. We have been clear that it is our intention to resolve this issue peacefully through dialogue. We have also been clear that denuclearization is the only acceptable outcome, that the entire international community is united on this point, and that it will be achieved, one way or another.”
The National Security Council did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Months after the administration began the proceedings leading up to a nomination, Cha was asked by NSC officials whether he felt prepared to manage diplomatic efforts that would surround such a strike, including the potential evacuation of American civilians from Seoul, a source familiar with the dynamic told CNN.
Cha expressed concerns about such a strike, which he laid out in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday.
Under that strategy, the aim is for the US to initiate a military strike significant enough to force North Korea to question its nuclear ambitions but limited in scale as to avoid retaliation.
After the exchange with Cha, the White House went mostly silent, even as the South Koreans were in the process of approving his nomination in the process known as agrément.
Ultimately, some White House officials feared that nominating someone opposed to such a strike could undermine that military option in the eyes of members of Congress and administration officials, according to the source familiar with the debate.
They feared Cha would become a pawn in the intra-administration debate over the “bloody nose” strike, both during his confirmation hearings and when installed at the embassy in Seoul, the source said.
A senior State Department official said, “Dr. Cha’s policy views have never been a factor in this process.”
McMaster has emerged as a leading administration voice in preparing for such action and has been backed up by the NSC’s top Asia official, Matt Pottinger, according to the source.
Another source acknowledged an internal discrepancy on the “bloody nose strategy” between the hawkish NSC and several top administration officials – including Mattis and Tillerson – who have advocated a more cautious approach.
But the continued push to legitimize a limited preemptive strike option is raising questions, even outside the administration.
“The idea of a ‘bloody nose’ strike against North Korea makes little sense because it has the potential for escalating response and strategic miscalculation, while gaining little concrete advantage,” said Jamil N. Jaffer, founder of GMU’s National Security Institute and former Chief Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“A more sensible approach to further North Korean aggression would be a significant change to our military posture in the region,” said Jaffer, who also served in the Bush White House and is currently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
North Korea analyst Gordon Chang says the decision to pull Cha is “ominous.”
“It means that people are seriously considering a strike on North Korea,” Chang said. “This is an indication that we are headed to war. And there are so many - there are so many other options that the United States can pursue and we are not having meaningful discussions, including sanctions on North Korea’s backers and more sanctions in general.”
In discussions about any military option, including a “limited strike,” Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford would present Trump with all options and risks, including the worst case scenario on casualties.
Their outline would include the risks involved with hitting the target, missing the target, Kim Jong Un’s reaction, the prospect of not getting South Korean support for a strike, and the risk of financial and economic fallout across Asia and beyond.
They would engage the President in a discussion of the strategy of a strike and the end game: What does the US actually hope to achieve with a military strike on North Korea and what is the risk if they try a strike and fail.
Trump used his first State of the Union address on Tuesday to slam the “depraved character of the North Korean regime” in an effort to rally the nation around a common threat, but new indications that his top national security advisers disagree over the best path forward have raised concerns that the President is actively considering a limited first strike option to send a message to Pyongyang.
While often eager to confront North Korean leader Kim Jong Un both verbally and via Twitter, his threats of “fire and fury” have largely been tempered by assurances from top advisers – like Mattis and Tillerson – who insist the US remains committed to prioritizing a peaceful resolution to tensions with Pyongyang.
Most of Trump’s top national security advisers have said that military options should be reserved pending an imminent threat to the US or allies, but McMaster has repeatedly suggested otherwise – even hinting that war is a real possibility and one that could come soon.
The US would likely win a military conflict with North Korea should tensions devolve into war, but would face a very difficult fight that would likely yield significant casualties on both sides, according to Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert Neller.
War with North Korea “will be a very, very kinetic, physical, violent fight over some really, really tough ground and everybody is going to have to be mentally prepared,” he recently said.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo has warned “North Korea is ever closer to being able to hold America at risk.”
Pompeo said it could be just a ” handful of months” before North Korea might be able to demonstrate the capability to put a warhead on a missile that could reach the US.
“Their testing capacity has improved and the frequency with which they have tests which are materially successful has also improved.”
CNN’s Elise Labott contributed to this report