WASHINGTON — The White House has grown frustrated in recent weeks by what it considers the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide President Trump with options for a military strike against North Korea, according to officials, the latest sign of a deepening split in the administration over how to confront the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong-un.
The national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, believes that for Mr. Trump’s warnings to North Korea to be credible, the United States must have well-developed military plans, according to those officials.
But the Pentagon, they say, is worried that the White House is moving too hastily toward military action on the Korean Peninsula that could escalate catastrophically. Giving the president too many options, the officials said, could increase the odds that he will act.
The tensions bubbled to the surface this week with the disclosure that the White House had abandoned plans to nominate a prominent Korea expert, Victor D. Cha, as ambassador to South Korea. Mr. Cha suggested that he was sidelined because he warned administration officials against a “preventive” military strike, which, he later wrote, could spiral “into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”
But the divisions go back months, officials said. When North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in July that experts concluded was capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States, the National Security Council convened a conference call that included Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.
After General McMaster left the room, Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson continued to speak, not realizing that other participants were still on the line. The officials familiar with the matter overheard them complaining about a series of meetings that the National Security Council had set up to consider options for North Korea — signs, Mr. Tillerson said, that it was becoming overly aggressive.
For now, the frustration at the White House appears to be limited to senior officials rather than Mr. Trump himself. But the president has shown impatience with his military leaders on other issues, notably the debate over whether to deploy additional American troops to Afghanistan.
As they examine the most effective way of giving credibility to Mr. Trump’s threat of “fire and fury,” officials are considering the feasibility of a preventive strike that could include disabling a missile on the launchpad or destroying North Korea’s entire nuclear infrastructure. American officials are also said to be considering covert means of disabling the nuclear and missile programs.
While General McMaster also favors a diplomatic solution to the impasse, officials said, he emphasizes to colleagues that past efforts to negotiate with North Korea have forced the United States to make unacceptable concessions.
The Pentagon has a different view. Mr. Mattis and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., argue forcefully for using diplomacy. They have repeatedly warned, in meetings and on video conference calls, that there are few, if any, military options that would not provoke retaliation from North Korea, according to officials at the Defense Department.
Representatives of Mr. Mattis and General Dunford denied that they have slow-walked options to the White House.
The Pentagon press secretary, Dana W. White, said that Mr. Mattis “regularly provides the president with a deep arsenal of military options” and that reports of a delay were “false.”
General Dunford’s press secretary, Col. Patrick S. Ryder, said: “While the details of his conversations with the secretary of defense and the president are privileged communication, I can assure you that General Dunford regularly provides his best military advice in a timely and responsive manner to both senior leaders, to include military options for a wide range of national security challenges. Suggestions to the contrary are inaccurate.”
During a visit in October to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, Mr. Mattis confronted the central contradiction in the Trump administration’s bellicose language: Virtually any military option would put the sprawling city of Seoul, with its population of 10 million, in the cross hairs of North Korea’s artillery guns.
At times, South Korea’s defense minister, Song Young-moo, appeared to be giving Mr. Mattis a guided tour of how a strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities would quickly trigger extensive retaliation.
Even the most limited strike, the so-called bloody nose option, risks what one Defense Department official called an unacceptably high number of casualties. Mr. Cha, writing in The Washington Post, said the premise of such a strike — that it would jolt Mr. Kim into recognizing that the United States was serious, and draw him back to the bargaining table — was flawed.
“If we believe that Kim is undeterrable without such a strike, how can we also believe that a strike will deter him from responding in kind?” Mr. Cha wrote. “And if Kim is unpredictable, impulsive and bordering on irrational, how can we control the escalation ladder, which is premised on an adversary’s rational understanding of signals and deterrence?”
Friends said Mr. Cha pressed that case in meetings at the Pentagon, the United States Pacific Command, the State Department and the National Security Council. He passed along articles critical of preventive military action by two colleagues: John J. Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Michael J. Green, a senior fellow at the center who worked in the George W. Bush administration, as did Mr. Cha.
Mr. Green warned against a preventive strike in testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said there appeared to be little support for it, even among normally hawkish Republicans like Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
Even the White House has struggled to send a consistent message. In the week after Mr. Trump issued his threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, Stephen K. Bannon, then his chief strategist, told a progressive journalist, “There’s no military solution. Forget it.”
“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,” he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mr. Bannon’s bluntness angered other White House officials and hastened his exit from the White House. But there is evidence that General McMaster shares those concerns. Asked by a reporter in August whether there was any military option that would not put Seoul in North Korea’s cross hairs, he paused briefly, then said, “No.”
With as many as 8,000 artillery pieces and rocket launchers positioned along its border with the South, North Korea could rain up to 300,000 rounds on the South in the first hour of a counterattack.
While that arsenal is of limited range and could be destroyed in days, North Korea would still have time to cause widespread destruction. In a rare appearance last year on the CBS News program “Face the Nation,” Mr. Mattis warned that war with North Korea would be “catastrophic” — “probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes.”
That does not mean the military has not begun preparing for that possibility. At multiple Army bases across the country this month, more than 1000 reserve officers are practicing how to set up so-called mobilization centers, which move reservists overseas in a hurry.
But as the military gears up, Mr. Tillerson continues to look for a diplomatic channel to North Korea. State Department officials say the United States has far from exhausted its nonmilitary options for pressuring Pyongyang. It could, for example, push to expel North Korea from the United Nations or interdict ships that it suspects are violating sanctions against the government.
Neither Mr. Tillerson nor Mr. Mattis has broken with the White House on the issue of a preventive strike. That is because for now, they still view it as a useful tool in deterring North Korea, according to people briefed by the administration. More important, they continue to be confident that, despite their anxieties, cooler heads with eventually prevail.
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