While North Korea managed to once again drop off the list of immediate geopolitical concerns having kept relative quiet in recent weeks, without any notable provocations or ICBM launches, this may be changing soon, because according to the Telegraph, America is drawing up plans for a “bloody nose” military attack on North Korea to stop its nuclear weapons program. The UK newspaper's sources claim that the White House has “dramatically” stepped up preparation for a military solution in recent months amid fears diplomacy is not working. As a result, one option currently under consideration is destroying a launch site before it is used by the regime for a new missile test. Stockpiles of weapons could also be targeted.
The explanation for what would be an act of war, is amusing: "The hope is that military force would show Kim Jong-un that America is “serious” about stopping further nuclear development and trigger negotiations." Well, yes: launching an offensive war does tend to confirm that one is indeed serious. The question is what will China, Russia and the rest of the all too serious world do in response.
“The Pentagon is trying to find options that would allow them to punch the North Koreans in the nose, get their attention and show that we’re serious", said one former US security official briefed on policy.
Some further details:
Donald Trump’s decision to bomb a Syrian government airfield earlier this year to defend America’s “red line” on chemical weapons use is seen as a blueprint. Details have emerged after this newspaper talked to around a dozen current and former officials in America and Britain about policy towards North Korea.
The conversations show that the Trump administration is more willing to consider military options to end the conflict than widely assumed.
And while it will hardly come as a major surprise, the Telegraph notes that it can be revealed that senior British diplomats fear America has already begun a “step by step” military build-up in the region that could escalate.
Alastair Morgan, the UK ambassador to North Korea, visited Washington DC for behind-closed-doors talks about forcing the regime to the negotiating table last month. The UK is also urging Southeast Asian and African countries to expel some North Korean diplomats amid fears they are secretly financing the regime.
Meanwhile, in a continuation of a previous US demand, the Trump administration wants North Korean ships to be stopped and searched amid fears they are being used to get round UN sanctions.
The urgency behind the plan, and the pressure to act comes from the drop in estimated time it will take for North Korea to develop a missile that could hit America with nuclear weapons.
Just a few years ago it was believed the regime was a decade away from that point, but now the figure has dropped to as little as 18 months - though estimates vary. Senior figures in the Trump administration have made clear in public that it would be unacceptable for North Korea to reach that position. While Mr Trump has always said a “military option” is on the table, the administration's focus has been on building economic and diplomatic pressure.
But Mr Kim’s refusal to negotiate has left senior White House figures disillusioned with diplomacy and increasingly considering military avenues. One British source who recently attended a briefing with H.R. McMaster, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, and other officials left feeling alarmed.
“The Americans said deterrence doesn’t work against North Korea and negotiation doesn’t work,” the source said.
“Those who heard them left with the impression that military action is very much an option they were considering seriously.”
Kori Schake, a former director of defense strategy at the White House’s National Security Council who served under George W Bush, said military action is a real possibility. "The White House very strongly believes that either North Korea will agree to give up its nuclear weapons or we will launch a preventative attack to destroy them,” she said. "I would put the odds of them actually carrying that out at three in 10. Other policy experts say it is four in ten."
Still, war is not a guaranteed outcome. On one hand, British officials are continuing to urge their US counterparts to focus on diplomatic solutions and are looking to increase pressure on North Korea.
Separately, while the Trump administration is considering military options, the Telegraph concedes that "it is not a foregone conclusion that the US president will choose to go down that path. There are major uncertainties about how Mr Kim would react if provoked and the regime already has missiles that could strike nearby countries including Japan and South Korea. "
Ultimately, and as we have said since early in 2017, the decision to attack North Korea will ultimately come down to whether the generals in Trump's circle of confidence can and will overpower the diplomats:
Experts also say there is a split in the US administration with Mr Trump and Mr McMaster more willing to consider military action than Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Jim Mattis, the defence secretary.
The good news is that - for now at least - Trump no longer needs a major foreign diversion, especially after his biggest political victory of the year, with the passage of the GOP Tax Cut, which tangentially, may have also bought Kim Jong-Un a few additional quarters reprieve.