Reckless Rhetoric Won’t Start World War III. Here’s What Might…
Trump: North Korea “Will Be Met With Fire And Fury The Likes Of Which This World Has Never Seen Before” (Does The President Think He Has Dragons?)
Trump’s rash comments came after a report in the Washington Post that U.S. intelligence confirmed North Korea has successfully produced a nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, and might soon have to be considered a full-fledged nuclear power.
The President also possibly responding to North Korea saying it will wreak “1,000-fold” revenge on the U.S. for pushing through new, potentially severe UN sanctions.
You can catch the clip of the President here:
Early this morning, North Korea responded: the state-run KCNA news agency saying leaders are “examining” a plan to launch a missile at the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, home to Navy and Air Force installations. North Korea described Guam as the “beachhead” for a potential U.S. invasion. Also, not to be outdone on rhetoric, the North promised to “create an enveloping fire” around the island.
As we’ve said before, we claim no special insight into these events, except we spent several years working in the region and we’ve been to North Korea. So a few thoughts:
• Trump’s comments come across almost as a challenge to fire a missile, so we won’t be surprised at all if North Korea does just that.
• In some sense tough talk is all Trump can deliver right now or risk losing the support of his newfound friends who gave him his much Tweeted-about “15–0” win at the UN. (Even his “tough guy lingo”: “North Korea had best not make any threats…” was interesting to us because that’s almost sure to be lost in translation. So as usual, Trump isn’t forgetting to play to his base.)
• These are perilous, but also heady times for North Korean leadership: new sanctions haven’t kicked in yet, and at no time since the Korean War has North Korea found itself in such a prominent position on the world stage.
• Extreme rhetoric is not what’s making headlines in South Korea today. Instead, “urgent” action by that country’s President to completely overhaul his country’s military. That would require major changes to a Korea-US missile agreement, which limits the payload and range of South Korean missiles. They now want “bunker busters.”
• And Vox reminds us the situation is made more perilous by the fact that Trump has not yet appointed a US Ambassador to South Korea. Nor an Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the State Department. Nor an Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Security at the Defense Department. This is not because of “obstruction” by Senators delaying confirmation of Trump’s nominees. It’s because Trump hasn’t nominated anybody.
So What Could Start A War?
• North Korea could launch a missile at something. Up until now, it’s launched missiles up into the air, for show, and then landed them in the sea. It could go after a military target, like an air base in Guam, (which still might not be enough to trigger a war,) or civilian population centers in South Korea or Japan (much more likely,) or a target on the U.S. mainland (that would almost definitely do it.)
• Trump could launch some kind of preemptive strike aimed at “taking out” North Korea’s nuclear facilities or its leader, Kim Jong-un, or both. Even if precise and successful, this would almost certainly lead to instant retaliatory attacks by the North on nearby South Korea and possibly Japan, resulting in huge civilian casualties. But if you listen to Senator Lindsey Graham, Trump doesn’t really care about that, as long as he heads off an attack on the US mainland. He says Trump told him — to his face — that “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here.” (The White House does not confirm or deny Trump said that.) South Korea, Japan, China, most of the rest of the civilized world would not likely share that same inclination.
Is There Anything Positive Happening?
• At a meeting of regional foreign ministers in the Philippines earlier this week, the North Korean representative was unusually talky. He sat down with his counterparts from China, and Russia, and also even had a brief chat with South Korea’s Foreign Minister. Although he and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conspicuously avoided each other, neither boycotted the meeting in protest of the other’s presence.
• The US may have softened conditions under which it will enter talks with the North. Tillerson now saying they only need to stop firing missiles constantly all over the place. Tillerson also made a point of saying the U.S. does not seek regime change in North Korea.
• The significance of the UN Resolution should not be underestimated. If it holds: that is, if China holds firm, it could eventually create a siege-like atmosphere and put more pressure on North Korean leadership than they’ve felt in decades.
Are There Any Possible Peaceful Solutions?
Yes again. Although it might be a hard sell for Trump, and frankly others who won’t see a nuclear North Korea as an acceptable outcome.
• That’s because it might end up looking a lot like the deal the Obama Administration did with Iran. (The one Trump calls “the worst deal ever.”) Economic support in exchange for verifiable promises to significantly slow down their nuclear program.
• As we’ve mentioned before, North Korea will not give up its nukes. No way, no how. It’s all they’ve got. And it’s not just their only bargaining chip: it’s a source of national pride that helps hold the regime together. Without nuclear weapons, nobody cares about them, their anemic economy just rots, and their people suffer in oblivion. (Which might be enough to spur regime change).
• Kim Jong-un is very much like Trump in that the most important thing for him is to come away with a “win”. Anything that requires him to give up his nuclear program makes him look like a loser. But allowing him to keep a scaled-back version, under close monitoring, while still not ideal, would give him the ability to tell his base that Western powers “gave in”. (Of course he’d put it in grander terms.)
What Ever Happened To “Walk Softly But Carry A Big Stick”?
That’s the question asked by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain. And we find ourselves agreeing with him more and more these days (especially when he agrees with Teddy Roosevelt).
McCain told an Arizona radio interviewer: “If we meet with fire and fury, they still can launch those rockets from across the DMZ and strike Seoul, and I’m telling you that the catastrophe of that would be incalculable.”
Seoul, the capital of South Korea is just 35 miles from the North Korean border, about the same distance as San Francisco to Palo Alto, or New York to Oyster Bay.
(This story originally appeared in “The Chaos Report” Newsletter. Please subscribe at https://thechaosreport.com/subscribe/?scr=Medium)