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White House officials: We were closer to war with North Korea than realized

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The United States was closer to war with North Korea last summer than is widely known, sources close to the White House tell us. And now that same dangerous uncertainty is back.

The big picture: The White House is now sufficiently suspicious of the intentions of Kim Jong-un — "Little Rocket Man" to Trump only eight months ago — that Pyongyang would likely have to grovel to get the president to personally re-engage.

  • H.R. McMaster, who was President Trump's national security adviser at the time, thought there was a real chance the Pentagon would have to confront Kim Jong-un militarily.
  • The U.S. was preparing for military contingencies with enough specificity that spooked the South Koreans, who were worried enough that they brokered the conversations with the North that led to the summit offer.

Jeff Prescott, a National Security Council senior director under President Obama, said Trump "has been acting like a politician seeking a political 'win' rather than a statesman acting in our national interest."

  • Why it matters, per Prescott: "[W]e ... find ourselves with heightened risk of war, dimmer opportunities for engagement with North Korea, isolated from our partners, and blamed for today’s outcome."
  • "[T]he risks of war are again unacceptably high."

Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, said the announcement is "a big embarrassment for the president, no matter how he tries to spin it."

  • "[T]he language in the letter is harsh, and reopens talk of military preemption," Bremmer said. "[T]his is a direct slap in the face to [K]im."
  • Bremmer said Trump killed the summit because the risk of a blowup was rising: North Korea wasn't about to accept unilateral denuclearization, and wasn't likely to show up and give Trump personal credit for the breakthrough.

The White House view: Trump believes he got something — U.S. hostages returned from North Korea— for nothing. And he’s followed through on enough threats (strikes on Syria, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, moving the embassy in Israel) that Kim Jong-un can't assume he's bluffing.

Be smart: The world now enters a second dangerous summer.  

P.S. N.Y. Times Quote of the Day ... Robert S. Litwak, senior vice president of the Wilson Center for International Scholars, who wrote a detailed study of how to deal with defanging the North Korean threat:

  • “Zero warheads was never going to be on the table.”
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