With the media narrative once again focused squarely on Trump and the "Russian connection", something which will unlikely change over the next week absent "fireworks" elsewhere, the story of potential military intervention in South Korea has understandably dropped from the front pages. Although with a second US aircraft carrier now en route to the Korean Peninsula, and with Trump desperate for another "big bang" distraction, is it shortsighted to underestimate the potential of another geopolitical hotspot emerging in the next few days.
While the answer is unknown, on Friday afternoon Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reminded the American public just how high tht potential stakes are when he said that any military solution to the North Korea crisis would be "tragic on an unbelievable scale" and that Washington was working internationally to find a diplomatic solution.
Quoted by Reuters, Mattis told a Pentagon news conference that "we are going to continue to work the issue," and added that "if this goes to a military solution, it's going to be tragic on an unbelievable scale. So our effort is to work with the U.N., work with China, work with Japan, work with South Korea to try to find a way out of this situation."
Gen. James Mattis on North Korea: Military solution would be tragic. pic.twitter.com/PoJykJqHiZ
— FOX Business (@FoxBusiness) May 19, 2017
Pundits took the remarks as one of the clearest indicators yet that President Trump's administration will seek to exhaust alternatives before turning to military action to force Pyongyang's hand, although it would not explain US willingness to potentially provoke the Kim regime with a second aircraft carrier in close proximity to Pyongyang. The US which has 28,500 troops in South Korea to guard against the North Korean threat, has called on China to do more to rein in its neighbor. Mattis appeared to defend China's most recent efforts, even as he acknowledged Pyongyang's march forward.
"They (North Korea) clearly aren't listening but there appears to be some impact by the Chinese working here. It's not obviously perfect when they launch a missile," Mattis said, when asked about Sunday's launch. Alternatively, if and when a "military solution" tragic as it may be, becomes reality, the US will simply be able to scapegoat China for not having done enough to rein North Korea in.
Separately, discussing last Sunday's North Korean rocket launch of its most advanced ballistic missile to date, Mattis said that Pyongyang had likely learned a great deal from the latest test of what U.S. officials say was a KN-17 missile, which today Mattis said was believed to have survived re-entry to some degree.
"They went to a very high apogee and when it came down obviously from that altitude they probably learned a lot from it. But I'm not willing to characterize it beyond that right now," Mattis said.
David Wright, co-director and senior scientist at the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the big question was whether North Korea could build a re-entry vehicle for a long-range missile that wouldn't burn up during re-entry and could keep a warhead from becoming too hot in the process.
"This test in principle gave them a lot of information about this, assuming they had sensors that could send information back during reentry so they could monitor the heat, or they could recover the reentry vehicle and examine it," he said.
In retrospect, it is unlikely that the US will engage in military action with North Korea while Trump is traveling over the next 8 days, although even that schedule may be truncated if the media scandals that have plagued Trump every single day this week escalate further, and the president is desperate for a grand distraction, similar to the Syrian missile attack, which managed to shift the public attention away from the Russian narrative, if only for a few weeks.
For now, keep watch on the locations of US carriers around the globe: with two already next to North Korea, and rumors that a third one is en route, this may be the clearest indicator of if and when a new military operation is coming.