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.