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Trading  | January 8, 2018

With North and South Korea set to meet tomorrow amid a hopeful climate of de-escalation and renewed diplomatic relations, the US government has decided to remind Kim Jong-Un that he may well be a dead man walking.

Confirming what the Telegraph reported  on December 20, the WSJ writes that  U.S. officials are debating whether it’s possible to mount a limited military strike against North Korean sites without igniting an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula.

The idea, which as we previously reported is also known as the “bloody nose” strategy, is simple in execution: as the WSJ describes the sequence of events, the US would react to some nuclear or missile test with a targeted strike against a North Korean facility to bloody Pyongyang’s nose and illustrate the high price the regime could pay for its behavior.

The hope would be to make that point without inciting a full-bore reprisal by North Korea. Of course, such a venture “is an enormously risky idea, and there is a debate among Trump administration officials about whether it’s feasible”, especially when it comes to North Korea’s neighbor to the south.

North Koreans have a vast array of artillery tubes pointed across the Demilitarized Zone at Seoul, the capital of South Korea, with which they could inflict thousands of casualties within minutes if they choose to unleash all-out barrage. Now, that danger is coupled with the risk that the North Koreans could attempt to use a nuclear weapon if they choose to escalate in retaliation to even a single strike.

What is perhaps most surprising, is that this debate was “leaked” to the WSJ just as the diplomatic situation with North Korea appeared to be making a turn into something productive, following last week’s agreement for a meeting  between North and South Korea. As some have suggested, at this point it is almost in Trump’s favor to accelerate a military showdown so as not to lose face if and when South Korea manages to reach some diplomatic arrangement with Pyongyang.

Such a debate also reflects how tense the situation remains, even though North Korea has scaled back the pace of its provocative actions in recent weeks and opened the door to diplomacy. As reported last week, officials from North Korea will meet their counterparts from South Korea on Tuesday in a village inside the DMZ separating the two Koreas, in talks that are to focus on the North’s possible participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Those talks will mark the first high-level dialogue between the Koreas in two years. After almost a year of regular provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, they are the first real sign that a diplomatic track is possible to begin de-escalating tensions over his nuclear and missile programs.

Here, if one assumes that the US perceives the summit between the two nations as the latest diplomatic threat to its regional influence, it would do everything to discredit it, and sure enough that’s precisely the angle behind the WSJ piece:

North Korea wants the U.S. to forswear joint military activities with its South Korean ally in advance of talks, while the U.S. insists the goal of talks should be to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, not merely to contain it. Each side finds the other’s conditions unacceptable.

Indeed, diplomats suspect North Korea’s engagement with South Korea is an attempt to drive a wedge between Seoul and its American allies, thereby reducing the possibility the U.S. could take any kind of military action against Pyongyang.

Whether the “bloody nose” rhetoric is just a bluff remains to be seen, but the US is desperate to become relevant again in the Korean diplomatic process.   Within the Trump administration, officials say, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remain focused on trying to get a broader diplomatic effort under way to rein in the North Korean nuclear program. Meanwhile, as we predicted almost a year ago, National security adviser H.R. McMaster is arguing more vocally, publicly and privately, that military options need to be considered.

What will be the tie-breaker? According to the WSJ, “the wild card, as in all things in the Trump administration, is President Donald Trump himself.” The president has signaled his own interest in a diplomatic track in the past. But he has also seemed to disavow Tillerson’s overtures on negotiations. And his recent tweet asserting that he has a “bigger” nuclear button than does Mr. Kim is, in the words of one experienced diplomat, the equivalent of “waving a red flag before a bull.”

The good news, at least for now, is that nothing is imminent: the U.S. hasn’t undertaken the kind of logistical preparations needed for a full-blown conflict on the Korean peninsula.

Still, as the continued talk of a “bloody nose” option suggests, that doesn’t mean one can’t happen. Thanks to the Olympics and the intra-Korean diplomatic opening, the next few months figure to be relatively calm according to the WSJ.

Some more good news: with the passage of the GOP tax cut, Trump’s biggest legislative victory do date, the president no longer needs a major foreign diversion which tangentially, may have also bought Kim Jong-Un a few additional quarters reprieve.

But depending on what happens in Washington in the next few months, and “whether the diplomatic opening widens or not,” mid-2018 could be a time of reckoning.

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