Great leadership is more than one person’s charisma; it is rather a combination of individual qualities and team chemistry. In that sense, whether you like President Donald Trump or not, we have to admit that he has exhibited a potential for great leadership through his firm faith in US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Trump knows he is a novice at foreign policy and military affairs – instead of unearthing his hidden military genius, he has found the right people whom he can count on. General James Mattis is Trump’s Zhuge Liang.
The Trump administration focuses on Northeast Asia more than it does on the Middle East because Kim Jong-un is playing chicken with nukes. It is unclear whether his true intention is to destroy his enemies or simply to secure his power from foreign interventions. The North Korean dictator is more hostile than ever anyway. On the other hand, the seasoned strategist James Mattis leads the US strategies countering the North Korean threat; Trump’s flamboyant speeches belie the new US foreign policy designed by one of the most decorated military commanders of our era.
To plan a strategy, it is crucial to grasp the given situations: China has traditionally been the patron of North Korea, but Beijing is recently alarmed at Kim Jong-un’s chicken game; Japan is the most cooperative ally; and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his cabinet, especially the de facto head of foreign policy Professor Moon Chung-in, are North Korean sympathizers. Moon Jae-in’s recent defiance against Washington has convinced Mattis that he is not a trustworthy ally, and it will not be a wise move to send ground troops to a region where South Korean leftists can stab them in the back. Moon will increasingly appear as a nuisance to the Trump administration.
If a ground force is not a desirable option, given North Korea’s small territory, the massive air strike that defeated the Saddam Hussein regime will be more plausible. In order to play chicken with nuclear weapons, assuming a portable nuke is not available to North Korea yet, territory vast enough to scatter missile sites is a must, because the greatest deterrence comes from the fear that the preemptive strike would fail to destroy every enemy missile. North Korea’s territory is not large enough to counterattack extensive air strikes – even if some missile sites may survive, Kim Jong-un cannot. Furthermore, the terrain of North Korea is not as suitable for guerrilla warfare as that of Vietnam or Afghanistan. In sum, North Korea is literally doomed and will not last long if the US forces launch the attack.
A military victory is very achievable in North Korea, but how about the regime change? What will the US do with the Kim-free region? China and Russia will not agree on the US governance of this region. South Korea will never turn a blind eye to Japan’s intervention in the Korean Peninsula. A political negotiation between China and South Korea will cause the least attrition. The question is to what extent South Korea will be able to and willing to represent the US interests in Northeast Asia. It is not difficult to predict that the Moon administration will not be Washington’s best choice. In other words, Mattis needs to deal with the defiant Moon Jae-in administration before he tackles the North Korean threat.
Will the United States launch an attack on North Korea without Moon’s consent? Quiet unlikely. Will Mattis let Moon take advantage of the precarious situation? Very unlikely. The United States will pressure South Korea until Moon kicks out the former National Liberation activists and North Korean sympathizers from his cabinet or Moon becomes an early lame duck.