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Trump On Course Toward War With North Korea

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Trump On Course Toward War With North Korea

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A combination photo shows a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) handout of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un released on May 10, 2016, and Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump posing for a photo after an interview with Reuters in his office in Trump Tower, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., May 17, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA handout via Reuters/File Photo & REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

Reprinted with permission from Alternet.

“It won’t happen,” President-elect Trump tweeted January 2 about North Korea’s plans to develop a nuclear weapon capable of striking the continental United States.

Six months later, “it” just came a lot closer to happening.

On July 4, North Korea successfully test launched a ballistic missile theoretically capable of hitting Alaska and Hawaii. The country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said the missile test was intended to “slap the American bastards in their face.”

The combination of Trump’s ignorance and belligerence has worried U.S. and international nuclear experts from the start of his presidency.

Now North Korea’s response to Trump—fast improving ballistic technology and Kim Jong-un’s own brand of belligerence—has the world growing alarmed.

South Korea felt obliged to respond with its own show of force, firing a barrage of ballistic missiles into the sea.

Russia joined with China to call on Trump to embrace a Chinese de-escalation plan designed to defuse tensions around Pyongyang’s missile program, according to a Reuters report.

But Trump himself responded with a tweet suggesting that he was finished with working with China.

The top U.S. general in South Korea says only “self-restraint” is preventing war.

“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” said General Vincent Brooks, referring to the 1953 cease-fire that halted though never officially ended the Korean War. “As this alliance missile live-fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.”

Needless to say, self-restraint has never been a strong suit of the American president.

Hype

The good news is that the danger posed by North Korea, while real, has been hyped by all sides.

North Korea encourages the notion that Kim Jong-un is a madman to increase its negotiating leverage over the outside world.

The United States encourages the notion that Kim is crazy to hold together an international coalition that has imposed sanctions on the North Korean government.

The advocates of missile defense system for the United States cite Kim’s alleged irrationality as justification for building an expensive weapons system that failsas often as it succeeds.

In fact, says Tom Collina, director of policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security group in Washington, there is good reason to believe North Korea will be deterred from using its nuclear weapons out of fear of an overwhelming U.S. response.

“People freak out because American cities could be under threat, but we’re under that threat every day from Russia and China,” Collina said in an interview. “We don’t fear them because they are deterred. Well, North Korea is deterred too.”

“They’re really good at preserving their family regime and power,” Collina said of Kim and his clan. “They’re not going to throw it all away for an attack that would invite all-out attack and destroy them.”

Is This How War Starts?

The danger is that Trump will feel boxed in by his ultimatum and believe he can eliminate the North Korean threat by destroying its nuclear facilities. Sen. Lindsey Graham has called for a preemptive military strike to prevent the deployment of a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

The problem with Graham’s proposal is obvious to military planners: North Korea could and would respond with a conventional missile barrage to devastate Seoul, the capital of South Korea, which is home to some 10 million people. Even if the North Korean artillery is overrated as some have argued, the “best-case” scenarios are still horrific in terms of civilian casualties.

That possibility deterred past presidents. It deters Secretary James Mattis, who said in May that a preemptive U.S. attack on North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” But Mattis is not the president and Trump can order an attack without his consent.

The alternative is negotiations, as urged by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and five other former U.S. officials in an open letter to Trump.

“Pyongyang has shown it can make progress on missile and nuclear technology despite its isolation. Without a diplomatic effort to stop its progress, there is little doubt that it will develop a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the United States,” the officials said.

The United States should explore what North Korea wants, says Collina, starting with a freeze on North Korea’s missile program and South Korea’s planned missile defense system.

“Today there is a window of opportunity to stop these programs [to build missiles and nuclear weapons], and it may be the last chance before North Korea acquires long-range capability,” the former officials wrote in their letter, which was released before the July 4 missile test.

“Time is not on our side,” the letter continued prophetically. “We urge you to put diplomacy at the top of the options on the table.”

What Happens Next?

Trump is uninterested in diplomacy. He has yet to appoint an ambassador to South Korea, and the State Department, with many top jobs still unfilled by the Trump administration, is ill-prepared for substantive talks.

Trump is losing patience with the Chinese, who think American belligerence drives North Korea’s provocative behavior.

And Trump has committed himself to preventing North Korea from gaining the ability to strike the United States, which it is poised to do sooner rather than later.

As the window of diplomacy closes, the window of war is opening.

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Press, October 2017).

This article was made possible by the readers and supporters of AlterNet.

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11 Comments

  1. I of John July 6, 2017

    We played NKs game for decades. Placating them again is not going end this. As I see it, 2 options remain. 1st is to press the Chinese hard, only they can bring North Korea to heel. The 2nd is a hard and heavy preemptive strike which brings us into a war footing.

    Reply
    1. TZToronto July 6, 2017

      Your Option #2 will entrap the United States in another war in East Asia. The last one didn’t turn out well. The current ones in the western part of Asia have not been especially productive. As an added “bonus,” war with North Korea will probably destroy most of South Korea and lead to literally millions of Korean refugees trying to gain entry into the United States, something Trump and his apologists and dupes will oppose almost as much as they oppose refugees from Syria and other non-sponsors of domestic terrorism. And then there’s the issue of China and Russia. Getting too close to China will almost inevitably poke the Chinese hornet’s nest and scare Russia into acting, probably in reluctant defense of their ally, North Korea. Of course, Trump could attempt to short circuit the whole mess by dropping a nuke on Pyongyang. (I hope Mattis has issued orders to consult with him if Trump tries to use his nuclear arsenal.) Oh, that’ll work well. Once Pandora’s Nuclear Box is opened, that’s it. Anyone who has one will try to use it. Better to go after the NK head than the NK body. (Does anyone in the know in North Korea really like Kim Jong-Un?)

      Reply
      1. FireBaron July 7, 2017

        Actually, the last two didn’t turn out well. Remember, we are still technically “At War” with the DPRK. 1953 was just the start of a tenuous long-term armistice.
        Interestingly enough, the Secretary of Defense does NOT believe North Korea’s actions and words are sufficient to return to a state of active warfare. His generals and admirals know this would be a no-win situation for us, South Korea and the rest of the region, including China. Now, all he has to do is convince his boss (who knows more than the Generals – just ask him) that our current status quo is better than a resumption of active hostilities.
        However, if Bannon, Kushner and Priebus want to go to war, they obviously know more than all of the professionals.

        Reply
        1. Dapper Dan July 7, 2017

          I’m nervous as hell as to how this scenario will play out. Even if Clinton were president right now NK would still be a major threat. The difference is how Trump is going to respond to his first real major crisis. This won’t end well if this quick tempered POTUS does the unthinkable and initiates a first strike with nukes. Diplomacy is not in his vocabulary and there is nothing he can offer Kim Jong Un to have him to take a step back from this Madness. We unfortunately have 2 crazy leaders ready to see who’ll blink first

          Reply
      2. David Brauer July 7, 2017

        “It didn’t turn out well” position, implying that option should never be on the table may work for Toronto but first level of defense nations must face difficult choices or the West will just fade away. That part of the world respects only one thing – strength.

        Reply
        1. TZToronto July 7, 2017

          One must also consider the consequences of one’s actions. It can be reasonably assumed that South Korea would become a battleground if conflict with North Korea were to resume. Think of the hundreds of thousands or millions of people who would be killed in both the north and south. Think of the U.S. military personnel who would die in such a conflict–and that’s if only the U.S., North Korea, and South Korea were involved. Then think of what might happen if China were to get involved militarily. Of course, much of the bloodshed in the South and many of the potential U.S. casualties could be avoided if the U.S. dropped a few well-placed nukes on North Korea. Then think of the worldwide horror would have been started by the U.S. Countries with nuclear weapons might see first-strike nuclear attacks as a way to solve age-old problems with hostile neighbors (think Pakistan and India, think Israel and the countries in the region who have promised to drive Israelis into the sea). The U.S. used two atomic bombs to end the war with Japan (not to start it), to avoid millions of deaths in exchange for, sadly, several hundreds of thousand of Japanese lives in the country that began the hostilities at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere in the Pacific. Pre-emptive strikes against North Korea (probably illegal under international law) could be seen as a quick and very dirty way to achieve regime change in North Korea, what’s left of it, and to remove the relatively insignificant threat posed by Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean nuclear and ICBM programs. (They must realize that any attack on the United States, Japan, or South Korea will result in the utter destruction of North Korea.) There is a huge downside, though, to any pre-emptive military action taken against North Korea. Is destroying North Korea a good trade-off for nuclear war in other parts of the world? I hope that at some point saner minds will prevail in North Korea–as well as in the United States and other countries.

          Reply
        2. dpaano July 7, 2017

          Unfortunately, our illustrious pseudo president does not exude strength…..he only exudes lies!

          Reply
          1. cthetruth July 7, 2017

            You are correct. His instability, is weakening us. He is easily played and Putin is a master at manipulation. We also do not know how indebted to Putin,Trump is. I do know that Trump’s tactics, which includes, delegitimizing the press, destroying the credibility of our intelligence people,( this one Putin would never do) , trying to destroy our confidence in our voting system, is out of Putin’s playbook. He also continuously fails to defend America on foreign soil.Trump is a traitor in my book.
            I also believe our illigitimate President is clueless as to how dangerous this confrontation with NK is and how final a nuclear war could be.Trump’s public antagonistic stance with this madman does not help.

            Reply
      3. I of John July 7, 2017

        It isn’t a choice I would make either. It is, however, Trumps. Sadly.

        Reply
  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth July 6, 2017

    As the possibility of a conflict in Asia grows with each day Trump wakes up, his loyal supporters are oblivious too the potential for war. They’re too busy thinking about getting fossil-fuel jobs, while Congress is too absorbed with its maniacal determination to strip Americans of affordable healthcare.
    In the meantime, the threat of Trump doing something really fool-hardy and dangerous grows as the days pass.

    Reply
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