Is America Headed toward War with North Korea?

Curt Mills

Security, Asia

Former White House officials, State and Defense Department officials, and foreign policy experts give the odds.

Is America Headed toward War with North Korea?

After the 2016 election, President Barack Obama told President-elect Donald Trump that North Korea would be his biggest foreign policy challenge.

The warning has proved prescient. Though Trump, as a candidate and president, has been more open than many top U.S. politicians to direct talks with the North Korean leadership, he has also ratcheted up the personal invective against leader Kim Jong-un to unprecedented levels, most notably calling him “Rocket Man” on the floor of the UN General Assembly.

Conversely, the North Koreans have kept up tests of their various missile and nuclear technologies at a savage pace in 2017, to the near-universal opprobrium of the global community.

Quiet discussions in Washington—at think tanks, in the halls of Congress, at the State and Defense Departments—speculate that 2018 could bring actual war, or the consideration of some sort of U.S.-led tactical strike. All indications are that the president will not accept North Korea as a nuclear power. In recent days, the North has complained that Seoul and Washington have brought the parties to the “brink of nuclear war” and said that Trump seems to be “begging for war.” But will conflict actually come in the new year?

Former White House Officials Say “Not So Fast”

Some are skeptical, including those in the orbit of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Asked, “Do you think think there is a real chance we go to war or do some kind of strike on North Korean 2018?,” a source close to Bannon told me Tuesday morning, forthrightly—“No”—and noted the true focus lies elsewhere. We already “ARE at war with Iran throughout the Middle East,” the source wrote to me. Bannon’s former deputy at the White House was more equivocal, insisting the ball is in Pyongyang’s court. “Ask the NoKos. Up to them,” Sebastian Gorka e-mailed me.

Bannon is known as a skeptic of the North Korean issue as a whole, or at least as it pertains to U.S. interests, seeing the issue of a nuclear North Korea as a largely intractable and irrelevant sideshow. Iran, Qatar and ratcheting up pressure on China are far more in the “vital national…

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