President Donald Trump just basically admitted that the US was very close to going to war with North Korea last year, and that he doesn’t believe clear intelligence showing Pyongyang is improving its missile program.
He made those comments publicly during his Sunday interview with Fox News’s Chris Wallace — but you likely didn’t hear about it.
Much of the coverage of the interview has centered on Trump’s disparaging comments about a former top Navy SEAL; his defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite mounting evidence that the royal knew about journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder; and his decision to not attend a Veterans Day ceremony at Arlington Cemetery because he was “extremely busy.”
All of this overshadowed Trump’s North Korea remarks toward the end of the discussion, but they shouldn’t be missed. His statements show how seriously the president considered Pyongyang a threat last year, but also how incredulous he is of pictures — actual pictures — showing the country’s weapons program is getting better.
Trump also left the door open, however slightly, to considering a fight with Pyongyang again despite his repeated expressions of deep skepticism toward war.
Let’s take each comment in turn.
It seems like war with North Korea was seriously on the table
When Wallace asked Trump about the biggest decision he’s had to make as president, he referred to his discussion on North Korea because “we were very close.”
After mentioning his North Korea chat with former President Barack Obama during the transition, the president said, “I think we had a real decision as to which way to go on North Korea. And certainly, at least so far, I’m very happy with the way we went. I have a very good relationship with Kim.”
Trump didn’t say the word “war” in that part, but he didn’t have to. When he says “we were very close,” it’s fairly clear he’s referencing attacking the country to punish it over improving its nuclear arsenal, and he’s made references to how close the US and North Korea came to blows before.
That was seriously considered: Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster advocated for military options within the White House, including a limited attack to deter Pyongyang from building more nuclear bombs. But instead, the Trump administration chose another way — the current diplomatic push between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — in part because Kim wants to reduce US-imposed economic pressure on his country.
It’s good news that both Washington and Pyongyang are currently talking instead of making imminent war plans, as a US-North Korea war could turn into a nuclear conflict that leaves millions of people dead.
But while it’s comforting to know war is off the table for now, it’s not comforting to know that Trump had to think hard about that option. And should diplomacy with North Korea not go as planned, it’s possible Trump will be faced with the same choice.
And here’s the bad news: Diplomacy with North Korea isn’t going well.
Trump doesn’t believe North Korea is improving its weapons programs. It is.
Since Trump’s historic June summit with Kim in Singapore, the two have worked to lower tensions. Kim, essentially, wants the US to stop militarily supporting South Korea and threatening the North, while Trump wants Kim to dismantle his nuclear arsenal.
The problem is, North Korea is only improving its weapons capabilities, not tearing them down. For example, a report last week from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, included satellite images showing North Korea had enhanced its ability to launch missiles from a base near South Korea’s border and capital. That comes after credible reports detailing how Pyongyang is continuing to make nuclear weapons, too.
Wallace brought up the issue during the interview on Sunday, noting “there’s talk that [North Koreans are] putting up new sites.” Trump quickly deflected.
“Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. I don’t believe that. I don’t. And, you know, could. And which is — if it — if that’s the way it goes, that’s the way it goes. You know, I go with the way we have to go,” the president said.
So Trump doesn’t currently agree with the available intelligence that North Korea is gaining strength while it engages in talks with the US. And while it’s unclear how he feels about secret intelligence he’s privy to, it’s possible he’d come to the same conclusion.
It’s “the policy of denuclearization by denial and delusion,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me. “Hear no evil, see no evil.”
There is, however, some logic behind Trump’s decision to make that statement.
If he admits North Korea deceived him, it would make him look weak in the midst of negotiations and he would have to start curtailing the diplomatic initiative. If that were the case, it’s chilling to think about what Trump — who has expressed deep reservations about war before — means when he says, “I go with the way we have to go.”