BEIJING >> The Trump administration plunged the United States’ Asian allies into new confusion today over its strategy for countering North Korea’s nuclear threat, as the chief White House strategist and top general offered radically different approaches to the crisis.
The conflicting messages came as President Donald Trump, who threatened a “fire and fury” response to North Korea a week ago, appeared to have all but forgotten about the possibility of renewed war and nuclear conflagration on the Korean Peninsula.
For the past five days he has been preoccupied with a different crisis of his own making over his defense of white nationalist protesters in Virginia, adding to a sense of overall disarray in his young administration.
Stephen Bannon, the nationalist ideologue who is Trump’s chief strategist, said in an interview that there was “no military solution” in the Korean Peninsula, and that he might consider a deal in which U.S. troops withdrew from South Korea in exchange for a verifiable freeze in the North’s nuclear program.
But Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was concluding a three-day visit to Beijing, dismissed the possibility of a U.S. troop withdrawal. Speaking to reporters, he repeated the president’s earlier position that the United States was prepared to take military action against the North if needed.
Dunford also said there were no plans to cancel U.S. military exercises with South Korea scheduled to start Monday — drills that North Korea could interpret as a new provocation. He called the exercises “very important to maintaining the ability of the alliance to defend itself.”
The deal Bannon suggested would be a stunning departure from decades of U.S. policy, and is unlikely to happen. But its mere mention stupefied analysts in a region still grappling with the implications of Trump’s impromptu “fire and fury” tirade against North Korea last week.
The statements compounded confusion at a time when the United States’ allies in East Asia are already nervous about its commitment to defend them, should Pyongyang acquire the ability to strike U.S. cities with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Japan’s defense and foreign ministers were expected to seek assurances in meetings on Thursday in Washington.
In his meetings in Beijing, Dunford has been trying to persuade the Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping, to get tough on North Korea.
“We have a long-term alliance commitment with South Korea,” Dunford said.
Referring to Bannon’s quoted remarks, he said: “I’ve not been involved in any discussions associated with reducing or removing our presence in South Korea. If that was said, I don’t know about it.”
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, continuing to try to assure his public over Washington’s strategy, said Thursday that Trump had agreed to seek his consent before taking any military action against North Korea.
Moon also sought to dispel fears about the possibility that the United States might carry out a unilateral military strike against the North that could lead to full-out war on the Korean Peninsula.
“No matter what options the United States and President Trump want to use, they have promised to have full consultation with South Korea and get our consent in advance,” Moon said in a nationally televised news conference. “This is a firm agreement between South Korea and the United States. The people can be assured that there will be no war.”
He said he thought Trump’s combative recent statements were meant to “demonstrate his resolve and put pressure on North Korea.”
“I don’t think he necessarily made them with an intent to realize a military action,” said Moon, whose office said that it remained in contact with the White House, including a phone call between the leaders last week. “On this, there is sufficient communication and agreement being made between South Korea and the United States.”
In his interview with the magazine The American Prospect, Bannon said the fact that Seoul, South Korea’s capital, lies in range of the North’s conventional weapons ruled out a military solution.
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us,” Bannon was quoted as saying.
Bannon said the North Korea issue was a “sideshow” to what he called the United States’ “economic war with China,” the North’s sole major ally. He said the United States should stop hoping that Beijing would use its influence to rein in Pyongyang, and should instead proceed with tough trade sanctions against China.
A withdrawal of all 28,500 of the U.S. troops based in South Korea would be far more than North Korea itself has demanded in return for suspending its nuclear and missile tests. Pyongyang wants the United States to halt joint military exercises with South Korea, and Washington has rejected that idea out of hand.
In South Korea, a full U.S. withdrawal is widely seen as possible only after North Korea is completely denuclearized and a peace treaty formally ending the 1950-53 Korean War is signed. Even then, many in South Korea argue that the U.S. military should stay.
Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo, dismissed Bannon as an “amateur” and said his idea “doesn’t make sense for anybody who is seriously watching the military balance in the world.” If the United States withdrew its troops, he said, “Japan would face a direct potential threat from the peninsula, and it may consider its own military options, including nuclear arms.”
Chinese commentators noted that a full U.S. withdrawal would be in line with China’s long-term goals, but said the idea would go nowhere politically. “I think it is bold, innovative but unrealistic,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
“In reality, this may be the type of bargain that could break the quagmire over the North Korean nuclear issue,” Zhang said. “Only someone like Bannon could entertain such bold initiatives. However, they will be pushed back by the establishment types within the administration and by congressional hawks.”
Dunford said he had told Chinese officials that while the United States favored a peaceful outcome to the standoff with Pyongyang, “we are also being prudent in preparing military options.” He added, “So we think it’s better to talk about those military options in advance.”
The general, who met with Xi today, said he was eager to improve communications between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, to reduce the risk of miscalculation. The two sides signed an agreement calling for periodic talks between their top generals, with the first round to start in November.