Sure, President Trump might really like the “military option,” maybe a “pre-emptive strike” on selected targets. Or maybe not. That’s why whatever he thinks or fantasizes is ambiguous, strategically speaking.
This term, “strategic ambiguity,” has been around for a while. President Moon Jae-in nearly a year ago defended his acceptance of the deployment of a counter-missile battery for Terminal Hugh Altitude Area Defense, saying it was “necessary to maintain strategic ambiguity.” He was roundly criticized for what seemed like a waffling response, but one might justify this policy, strategically, as another way of saying, “Keep ’em guessing.”
I was reminded of the term in an article by Anthony Paul, an Australian journalist who once roamed Asia for the Reader’s Digest and Fortune. “What’s to be done?” Paul asked. In anything-can-happen mode, he noted you can’t rule out a coup in Pyongyang “instigated by China” or “a strike by some still-secret non-nuclear U.S. weapon.” Realistically, though, he had to acknowledge “no recourse other than continuing diplomatic talks.”
These words are timelier than ever in view of Kim Jong-un’s call for North-South dialogue and hopes for North Korean participation in the Pyongcheong Winter Olympics. The United States now faces a policy dilemma. What if Kim insists on cancellation of annual U.S. and South Korean war games? And how about those sanctions as toughened last month by the U.N. Security Council?
No way would the United States want to get on the wrong side of President Moon, who has appeared quite cooperative with his American interlocutors since winning the special election as the liberal hero in the wake of the Candlelight Revolution that led to the demise of the arch-conservative Park Geun-hye.
It’s that uncertainty that prompts Anthony Paul to conjure U.S. policy “drifting into a period of what may be dubbed ‘strategic ambiguity,’” meaning “strategic patience at risk of becoming impatience and a consequent enhanced threat of military action.”
The fact is the Americans don’t know what to do. They’re debating among themselves how to appear broad-minded, cooperative, yet strong-willed and non-compromising.
OK, it will be easy for Washington not to get too excited over Kim Jong-un’s rhetorical flourish about that “nuclear button” on his desk. He’s not going to order a nuclear strike against the United States. It’s too obvious what would happen as a result, that is, the destruction of his regime, the end of the Kim dynasty and a lot of other holy hell that no one can predict.
At the same time, Kim is not about to abandon his nuclear program. He’s made that so clear, so often, in so many ways, that only a fool would think he’d abandon the whole show if given proper incentive. Granted, quite a few fools do dream of a deal whereby, yes, if only we’d stop those war games, those shows of naval and air superiority in the seas and skies so close to North Korea, then he’d surely say, fine, no more nukes and no more talk about missiles hurtling warheads toward the White House.
In the real world, though, all anyone can imagine is “freeze for freeze,” a cessation of missile and nuclear testing in response to the United States and South Korea canceling the annual war games that are supposed to begin while the Olympics are in full sway, but that’s not a good idea either. Having won this concession, Kim would not stop there. He would also be demanding an end to sanctions while refusing, as always, to negotiate an end to his nuclear program.
In the Olympic spirit, however, relief from tensions is still possible. President Moon is so eager to bring about reconciliation and dialogue that he may be amenable to a deal that at least ensures the Olympics will be free from missile testing, let alone terrorism. The Americans, anxious to preserve the alliance, may have to go along, to appear cooperative and supportive.
If “strategic ambiguity” is not the final answer or solution, it’s still preferable to the suffering and hardship that all sides need to avoid.