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The Trump Administration Clings to Its Failed North Korea Policy

The administration remains locked into a North Korea policy divorced from reality.

H.R. McMaster made some more absurd claims about North Korea and its nuclear weapons yesterday:

So, this would be the most destabilizing development, I think, in the post-World War II period, and it is something that places us at direct risk, but places the world at risk.

North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is undesirable and regrettable, but it doesn’t even qualify as one of the ten most destabilizing things to have happened since the end of WWII. I know U.S. officials enjoy hyperbole and threat inflation, but McMaster is shredding whatever credibility he has left when he says things like this. The world as a whole is not at much greater risk with a North Korean arsenal than it is without one, and since North Korea has acquired its arsenal primarily to protect itself against attack it isn’t trying to threaten “the world.” McMaster speculates that North Korea would sell its hard-won technology to others, but he has no proof that this is going to happen, and he never makes an argument that it is worth going to war to stop that from happening.

McMaster evades the main questions he is asked. First Chris Wallace challenges him to explain why the U.S. should wage preventive war on North Korea:

You have talked about preventive war — that, at some point, if we can’t get a diplomatic solution — and that’s your phrase, preventive war. What’s the threshold for that?

Wallace then asks why the U.S. can’t live with deterring North Korea: “Why can’t we, basically, coexist under that unpleasant reality with North Korea?” McMaster never gives a straight answer to either of these questions, but just asserts that Kim isn’t rational as if that settled everything. He doesn’t deny that he supports preventive war as an option, and he never makes any serious effort to argue why it would be necessary. There is a lot of hand-waving about “blackmail,” but this is a distraction from the fact that preventive war can’t be justified and has no legal basis.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about McMaster’s performances this weekend is that they show how stubbornly the administration is sticking to an obviously failed policy of forced denuclearization. He keeps repeating his talking points from months ago as if nothing has changed over the last year. The administration remains locked into a North Korea policy divorced from reality, and they remain oblivious to the possibility that this may be the best opportunity for diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang that the U.S. has had in years. That would be bad news at any time, but with this president and his hawkish advisers it is a disaster in the making.