Did Mattis's Threat to Annihilate the Korean People Go Too Far?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis issued a deftly worded statement on Wednesday in the wake of President Trump's promise of "fire and fury" in response to future North Korean "threats."

The president's statement was not troubling so much for its tough talk — though echoing Kim Jong Un's language is, in my view, below the dignity of the office — but for its lack of clarity.

How does Trump define "threats"? We don't know, our allies don't know, the North Koreans don't know, and the Chinese don't know.

In theory, the president could have been promising the use of overwhelming American military force in response to a wide variety of North Korean actions, including colorful language and non-lethal military provocations.

Secretary Mattis echoed the president's tough talk, but distinctly narrowed the circumstances in which the United States would bring military power to bear.

The last sentence is the kicker here: "The DPRK regime's actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates " (emphasis added).

Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon, April 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty

First, the reference to an "arms race" suggests — and only suggests — that in response to continuing North Korean weapons development, the American response will be to enhance its own defenses and ensure Pyongyang's strategic arms become wasting assets.

Second, Mattis asserts that the United States will not be first to resort to force.

If this parsing of Mattis's words is accurate, it marks a significant walk-back of the president's Tuesday comments, which should be reassuring to the Twitterati claiming that Trump had just walked himself into a 21st century Cuban Missile Crisis (he most certainly did not).

One aspect of the defense secretary's statement, however, was deeply troubling: "The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people."

The overriding evidence suggests that Kim Jong Un cares not a whit for his people — threatening their destruction will not serve to deter him and is, more importantly, detrimental to US aims.

Over the longer term, the United States has an interest in the peaceful unification of the peninsula under Seoul's democratic leadership. Threatening the North Korean people with destruction is to make enemies of potential friends; it is, more troublingly, a promise to extend and deepen, rather than end, the suffering that the Kims have long inflicted on their people.

Secretary Mattis is well-known for his pithy and often memorable remarks. This may be one to forget.

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).