Top White House official Steve Bannon said Wednesday that there is “no military solution” to North Korea.
“Forget it,” he told American Prospect magazine in an August 16 interview. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten 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 is correct. Seoul is likely to be North Korea’s first target should war break out with the US, and because Kim Jong Un has around 21,500 pieces of artillery lined up on the border between the North and South ready to fire, military analysts estimate that 100,000 people in Seoul would die in the first few days of conflict.
It’s somewhat reassuring to know that Bannon is aware of just how catastrophic a US-North Korea war would be. But it’s also completely at odds with everything his boss has been saying for the past two weeks.
After saying North Korea would see “fire and fury” from the US if it attacked first, Trump stated that his comments could’ve been tougher. He even tweeted on August 11 that the US was “locked and loaded” for a military response.
And according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Trump told him that if any conflict between the US and North Korea were to break out over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the president would ensure it happened on the Korean Peninsula. “If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there,” Graham said. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.”
To be sure, Bannon’s skepticism of a military option for North Korea fits his anti-interventionist stance. His reticence to send more US troops to Afghanistan is part of the reason the administration has struggled to agree on a strategy for that war. But it doesn’t seem so America First-y for Bannon to take thousands of South Korean lives into consideration during a US-North Korea standoff, especially when North Korea can threaten the US with a missile of its own.
Other administration officials don’t seem to agree with Bannon. At an August 17 press conference alongside Japanese leaders, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis responded to a reporter’s question about Bannon’s remarks. “There are strong military consequences if North Korea initiates hostilities," Mattis said.
Bannon’s contradictory statements come at a time when some in the president’s circle are calling for him to be fired. When asked about Bannon’s White House future on August 15, Trump simply said “we’ll see.”
So it remains to be seen if the strategist will be able to push his anti-interventionist stance in the administration for much longer.