Photo/IllutrationH.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump, responds to an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. (Kenji Minemura)

STANFORD, California--Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was considered a hard-liner on North Korea in the year he served in the Trump administration.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, the 56-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant general explained that maintaining a military option against Pyongyang was always necessary, considering North Korea's history of military provocations.

McMaster said deterrence was not the reason North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, but that the "treasured sword" was designed to "break apart the U.S.-South Korea alliance" and unify the Korean Peninsula by force.

Until being replaced as national security adviser in April 2018, McMaster led the call for maintaining maximum pressure on North Korea, including the possible use of military action, to convince Pyongyang to give up development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

He also said that he initially was skeptical about Trump meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un because he felt more time was needed for Pyongyang to feel the full effects of the maximum pressure being applied against his country.

McMaster is set to be appointed to head the Japan section of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Excerpts of the interview follow:


Question: Why did you think the military option would have been an effective way to prevent the North Korean nuclear threat?

McMaster: What's important is that we and our allies, the United States and Japan, and the United States and South Korea, are prepared for the worst. The development of military options is to prepare for the worst case, and by being prepared, then to prevent it from happening.

The other aspect of the development of military options is to try to understand better what Kim Jong Un's intentions are. People assume that Kim Jong Un wants a nuclear weapon for deterrence purposes. I think that is a flawed interpretation of what's motivating him because every act of aggression on the Korean Peninsula since June 1950 has been initiated from the North.

We have to at least be open to the possibility that Kim Jong Un wants to keep his nuclear weapons and to use them as a treasured sword to break apart the U.S.-South Korean alliance as the first step in unifying the peninsula by force.

If that's the case, then it would be irresponsible for the United States and its allies to not prepare for a military option.

It's not possible, I don't believe, to get to a diplomatic solution unless you integrate your diplomatic efforts with your military capabilities and preparations.

Secretary of State George Shultz once said, "Negotiation is a euphemism for capitulation unless the shadow of power is cast over the negotiating table."

I think the preparation of military options is vitally important, not because you expect the president to choose those, but they have to be a viable option in case the worst happens.

Q: Why were you against the first summit between Trump and Kim in June 2018?

A: I wasn't really opposed to the summit. I had concerns that I raised with colleagues and with the president. My concern was that the campaign of maximum pressure may not have proceeded long enough to really convince Kim Jong Un that his regime is less safe with nuclear weapons than he is without them.

Q: How much of a possibility of military conflict was there in 2017 when U.S. bombers joined a military exercise over the Korean Peninsula?

A: I do think that we were on a path that, if we were unable to alter it, that it was on a path to conflict.

Some people have argued "Well, we should accept North Korea's nuclear power and then deter North Korea."

The problem with that is the effect that a nuclear North Korea will have on the nonproliferation regime. I think that there would be a debate in Japan about if Japan required a nuclear deterrent capability. There would be a debate in South Korea about that.

I think we should remember that North Korea was already helping this brutal regime in Syria develop a nuclear capability.

It was very important for us to emphasize preparation for what could have been a preventive military action.

Q: What triggered your realization that China was trying to alter the global order as a strategic competitor?

A: The shift of China policy was based on the recognition that the assumptions on which previous policies were based were fundamentally flawed.

Foremost among those was the belief that China, having been welcomed into the international community and into international trade and commerce protocols, would play by the rules and would liberalize its economy and move away from the state capitalist model or the authoritarian capitalist model toward a free market economy. The corollary to that assumption was another assumption that China, once it began to prosper, would also liberalize its form of governance.

By 2017, it was demonstrably clear that those assumptions were false and it was also clear that China was engaged in a form of economic aggression.

Related to this form of economic aggression was a very aggressive foreign policy and military policy I think typified by the reclamation efforts in the South China Sea and the weaponization of those islands.

Whereas in the past we thought China will work within the international system, actually China is trying to pull the international system apart and replace it with a new system with China at the center of that system.

It was quite clear to us that the policy needed to change and it needed to center around the recognition that China is a strategic rival.


Kenji Minemura was a visiting scholar at Fairbank Center for Chinese studies at Harvard University and then worked as the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent in Washington, D.C.